Erdogan Must Avoid the Iran Trap

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council.

Ankara should look long and hard at the costs paid by the defiant rulers of Tehran.

“The world is bigger than five.” This phrase, referring to the permanent members of the UN Security Council, is among Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's favorite platitudes. But when he uttered them again at the General Assembly this September, his diatribe struck a different chord.

Turkey stands at a critical juncture: since this summer’s coup attempt, the president has consolidated unprecedented power—in no small part due to his rants against the West. With xenophobia and nationalism running rampant in Ankara, Erdogan is better positioned than ever to challenge the Western-led liberal world order. But before taking another step, the president would do well to heed the cautionary tale of his Persian neighbor.

For most of the twentieth century, Turkey and Iran experienced comparable trajectories under modernizing and Western-allied statesmen. Those paths diverged in 1979 with a single key decision: to embrace or defy the West. Turkey has prospered because it has chosen to work within the international system. Since its Islamic revolution, Iran has worked against it. The results for the Middle East’s largest non-Arab powers could not have been more disparate: today, one benefits from NATO’s security umbrella, the other is an international pariah.

The July 15 putsch has upset that dynamic. Erdogan, resentful of his Western counterparts for failing to promptly condemn the coup attempt, is cozying up to his fellow strongmen in Tehran and Moscow. To be sure, Turkey has practical reasons for such outreach—primarily over Syria—but it could also reveal a broader strategic shift. At home, a traumatized electorate has bolstered Erdogan’s “sultanism,” unleashing his latent contempt for the West. As one Turkey expert warned in the coup’s aftermath, Turkey is at its “1979 moment.”

An iconic slogan of Iran’s 1979 revolution was “Na sharghi, na gharbi—jomhuri Islami” or “neither East nor West, [but an] Islamic Republic.” Since then, Tehran has adamantly rejected the world’s prevailing ideologies, offering its own model. This ideological persistence came at the cost of a shrinking circle of allies abroad as well as economic and conventional military stagnation at home.

Tehran’s bitter experience offers Ankara two key lessons.

The first, which should be obvious, is that countries seeking to overturn the liberal world order are unlikely to reap its dividends. Iran has some of the world’s largest proven oil and gas reserves, but its revolutionary ideology has hampered its financial potential, leading to decades of brain drain and economic isolation. Crucially, in the words of one Iran watcher, Tehran “missed the real revolution”—that of emerging markets. Before last summer’s nuclear deal, Iranian officials blamed their country’s faltering economy on Western sanctions. Post-deal, however, Iran remains a minefield for Western business and investors, and those same officials are now blaming the West for failing to deliver sanctions relief. Ultimately, the real culprit has always been at home: an outdated banking sector and the domination of entities linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Turkey, meanwhile, has been able to continuously attract foreign direct investment—despite military coups, financial crises and corruption scandals galore. Unlike Iran, not only did Western-oriented Turkey catch the emerging markets revolution, it rode its way to the top. Despite having scarce energy resources of its own, Turkey’s GDP far outranks that of resource-abundant Iran—almost twofold (2015).