Iran-Turkey relations: Love thy neighour?

Assessing the Iranian revolution’s impact on neighbouring Turkey, 35 years on.

The Iranian revolution has not significantly affected Turkey either on a state or society level, writes Alpay [AFP]
The Iranian revolution has not significantly affected Turkey either on a state or society level, writes Alpay [AFP]

As Iran marks the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, it is important to look at what impact the past three decades have had on its neighbour and fellow regional dynamo, Turkey.

Undoubtedly, the secular nationalist “Kemalist” political establishment in Turkey was alarmed by – and viewed with suspicion – the consolidation of a theocratic rule in Iran. But it would be an overstatement to argue, as some do, that the 1980 military coup in Turkey, provoked by internal political and economic problems, was a response to the Islamic revolution next door.

In the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, there was heightened competition between Ankara and Tehran over influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. While they often cooperated against Kurdish separatist movements in both countries by sharing intelligence and coordinating military operations, Iran sometimes played the Kurdish card against Turkey.

Relations were strained in early 1997 in the prelude to the fourth military intervention in Turkey which ousted the coalition government and eventually led to the closure of the Islamist Welfare Party. But the coming to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with roots in the Islamist Welfare Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan engendered somewhat friendlier bilateral relations with Iran.

With the 2009 controversial reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Erdogan parted ways with Western powers and was among the first to congratulate him. Ankara opposed additional sanctions against Tehran during its temporary membership of the United Nations Security Council in 2010, and, together with Brazil, suggested a deal between the West and Iran on the nuclear issue. Albeit, the following year, it approved a plan for the installation of NATO’s early warning radar system in eastern Anatolia, which Tehran had vehemently opposed.

More recently, conflicting approaches to the crisis in Syria have sparked temporary tensions, which are as much a consequence of competition for regional influence as perhaps the sectarian identities of the two governments. While there has been no significant change in civil society exchanges between the two since the Iranian revolution, economic relations have continued to flourish due primarily to Turkey’s hydrocarbon imports from Iran.

Secularists alarmed

The effect of the Iranian revolution on the societal level in Turkey can be discussed in terms of secularist and Islamic subcultures on the one hand and Sunni and Alevi sects on the other. The secularist camp was highly alarmed by the Iranian revolution, fearing a spillover effect. The AKP’s advent to power in 2002 sparked fears among secularists over the prospect of Turkey becoming another Islamist dictatorship – like Iran.

It cannot, however, be said that a theo-democratic regime made Iran a model to be emulated either among the Sunni majority or the Alevi minority whose heterodox religious beliefs contain elements taken from Shia Islam. On the contrary, it can be argued that authoritarian rule by a theocratic elite has made Iran an even less appealing country for the majority in Turkey, including both Sunnis and Alevis.

In looking at the impact the Iranian revolution has had on the Islamist movement in Turkey, three factors must be considered. First, in Sunni-majority Ottoman Empire as well as Republican Turkey, unlike Iran, the religious establishment has always been subject to political authority and it has never been an independent political force. The assumption of a leading political role by the Shia men of religion in Iran – in accordance with the doctrine of the velayat-e faqih put forward by Imam Khomeini – has conflicted with the basic religious values of Turkey’s Sunnis, but also Alevis who have tended to support the Kemalist state as a bulwark against Sunni domination.

The assumption of a leading political role by the Shia clergy in Iran… has conflicted with the basic religious values of Turkey’s Sunnis, but also Alevis who have tended to support the Kemalist state as a bulwark against Sunni domination.

Secondly Turkey, unlike Iran, has since the 1950s had a basically democratic regime, be it under military – bureaucratic tutelage. Turkey’s mainstream Islamist movement has since the 19th century adopted an ideology that builds on a synthesis of liberal political principles and Islamic cultural values. Despite legal restrictions and repeated closure of its parties, the Islamist movement has been able to participate in politics since the early 1970s. These particularities of Turkey have resulted in an Islamist movement broadly committed to democratic methods.

The Islamist movement led by Necmettin Erbakan, which dubbed itself the National Vision Movement, has mostly displayed the character of a religious nationalist movement. It opposed Turkey’s Western orientation, promised to take Turkey out of the NATO alliance, severe ties with Europe, and work for Turkey assuming the leadership of Muslim nations.

For Turkey’s Islamist movement, the kind of Islamism led by the religious establishment was an alien idea. It has never advocated for the implementation of Sharia law, only flirted with the idea of legal pluralism in the field of private law for a brief period in the mid-1990s. If there has been a foreign source of inspiration for the National Vision Movement, it has been the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, although not the radical, revolutionary Islamism of Sayyed Qutb and his followers, but mainly in terms of using grassroots methods of catering to the needs of the urban poor to expand its following.

Flexible Islamists

Turkey’s Islamist movement has displayed remarkable flexibility and capacity to transform itself according to the demands of the electorate. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the movement was split between two factions dubbed the Traditionalists and the Renewalists. The latter faction led by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and Vice-President Bulent Arinc, who stood for party reform in both ideology and working style, eventually spearheaded the founding of the AKP in 2001. The AKP disclaimed Islamism, dubbed itself a Conservative Democratic Party, and adopted a clearly pro-democratisation and Europeanisation platform in politics and a pro – liberalisation and globalisation platform in the economy.

AKP in power implemented market-friendly policies nearly tripling the average income, succeeded in putting in practice the military under civilian control, and helped raise the international standing of Turkey. It was rewarded by the electorate with an increasing share of the national vote in the next two general elections. That the AKP government has since the last elections in 2011 grown increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian does not mean a return to the Islamist politics of the National Vision Movement, but its adoption of a majoritarian view of democracy and Islamic populism to bolster it.

In sum, the Iranian revolution has not significantly affected Turkey either on a state or society level; even its impact on the Islamist movement in Turkey has remained negligible.

Dr Sahin Alpay teaches Turkish Politics and Comparative Politics at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, Turkey. He writes regular columns for Istanbul dailies Zaman and Today’s Zaman.

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