Foreign Policy Blogs

Empires Revisited: Iran and Turkey Adrift in Search of Direction

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan


The following piece was originally published in Iran Times International’s annual Special Nowruz Edition.

On March 20 Iranians the world over will start Nowruz celebrations, the first day of spring, marking the start of the Persian new year. Since the time of Achaemenids Empire the centuries-old Nowruz tradition, which literally means ‘new day’ has been practiced by all Indo-Iranian tribes, including Kurds. Satraps (governors) under the control of Persian Empire, including those in today’s Turkey, would send congratulatory messages to the king for the arrival of Nowruz. The congratulatory remarks were also a gesture of allegiance to the Persian emperor.

The Ottomans for their part presided over a Muslim empire that geographically stretched from much of today’s Middle East to the gates of Vienna, whose impact is still felt in today’s Eastern Europe. The Ottomans ruled much of today’s Arab lands and were viewed as the guardians of Muslim values and Islamic traditions.

But today Iranians, under the Islamic Republic and the Turks under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an observant Muslim with roots in political Islam, live in vastly different worlds. From the height of their imperial power, the two countries have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves with memories of a glorious past occasionally evoked in their national psyches. So, in the early moments of the twenty first century’s second decade, Iran and Turkey remain plunged in series of socio-political and identity crises. So it is worth taking a brief look at where these two former empires stand and what sort of countries they aspire to be?

It is a tale of two transforming societies with two leadership styles with ideological similarities. This has managed to unnerve so many in their respective domestic politics as well as many internationally. Since the self-mockery of its presidential elections last June, Iran has turned into a military dictatorship run by a closed circle of Revolutionary Guards. Taking a step backward, the Iranian leadership has shed its skin of republicanism, or whatever had remained of it, and has put its focus on becoming a regional superpower. Its superpower aspirations, however, are met with formidable domestic challenges from its young population and internationally becoming isolated including within its own neighborhood.

As to Turkey, the country is moving out of its decades-old geopolitical reticence, undergoing a process of self re-discovery aimed at overcoming its chronic identity crisis. This process has been embodied in Prime Minister Erdogan’s pro-Islamic ideology and style of governance. In a sense, Turkish and Iranian leaderships have managed to cause deep anxiety among millions in their respective populations; the former by dethroning the military as the vanguard of Turkish secularism and the latter by coronating its revolutionary guards at the helm of the country, intent on projecting a newly found imperial power.

In this emerging political climate, Turkey and Iran follow geopolitical agendas inspired by their past imperial polities. The current Turkish leadership regards itself worthy of a much greater role in influencing geopolitical and geo-energy developments in the Middle East and Central Asia. It sees itself an underutilized power shackled by Western interests and an American-designed polity. Turkish diplomatic efforts and expressions of interest in becoming involved in highly crucial issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear drama, and the development and transport of Central Asia’s untapped energy resources all attest to Ankara’s grand aspirations known as neo-Ottoman doctrine.

On Turkey’s eastern borders Iran lies mired in domestic crises and a worsening economy, thanks to President Ahmadinejad’s leadership skills that have turned the Iranian economy into an epitome of mismanagement; a case study worthy of research at top business schools. But the Iranian leadership seems unfazed by its domestic and economic crises and continues to follow a geopolitical agenda characterized by a belief in a newly found Persian imperial polity and a world with diminishing U.S. power. The seeds of this polity based on imperial impulses were sown during Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2005. Himself a former member of Revolutionary Guards, the coming to power of Ahmadinejad marked the creeping hands of the Guards into every aspect of Iranian politics and economy.

As a result, today Iran’s nearly basket case economy can be seen as a large corporation run by a small circle of top executives who happen to be defenders of the revolution and the country’s territorial integrity. In addition to the abandonment of republican values of the system, the emergence of the Revolutionary Guards has also entailed diminishing power of the clergy, leaving many Iranians wonder as to what political direction their country is poised to take. That direction is open to debate but one thing is clear about the current political climate in Iran. Under the current leadership, Iran is determined to project its newly found imperial power from Afghanistan, Pakistan, to Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and more recently South America. It is important to know that this behavior is emblematic of the Iranian political psyche that is based on a centuries-old perceived sense of uniqueness and superiority that dates back to Iran’s pre-Islamic era.

There is nothing new about this perceived sense of uniqueness as it was also shared by imperial kings over two millennia. The question that seriously needs to be answered is that despite its lofty ambitions, is the Iranian leadership capable of executing on such an imperial agenda? As talk is always cheap, the reality on the ground points to a very different Iran; a country that has continuously drifted on the path to poverty and drowned in a national crisis of moral values, whose hallmarks include one of the world’s highest rates of brain drain, divorce, rampant prostitution, and drug addiction.

Moreover, the Iranian leadership is facing a crisis of legitimacy exacerbated by strengthening trends in secularism that is based on Iranians’ bitter experience with their religious system of government. While the Iranian street worries about Iran taking firmer steps toward becoming a Shiite military dictatorship, many segments of Turkish society are worried about their government’s adopting more Sunni Islamic values and drifting farther away from the country’s secularist ideals that were long guarded by Turkish military since the founding of the republic in 1923.

So at the start of a new day (Nowruz) Iran and Turkey deserve much attention and analysis as their respective populations stand restive to see what the future holds for them. In Iran, an increasingly secular-minded society continues its non-violent struggle against a cult-like leadership that is known for having no qualms about using brute violence. And in Turkey, a society stands divided between those calling for greater emphasis on the country’s Islamic identity and those interested in greater integration with Europe. The grand ambitions of these two former empires are yet to be realized with their impacts unknown.



Reza Akhlaghi

Great Decisions Discussion group