Turkey and Iran. Similar histories, different outcomes

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By Shahvaiz Fawad


Writer is a UK based Pakistani student of Essex University UK.


Middle Eastern experts these days, when analysing the region discuss the role of the Arab countries in the area (both the Gulf States and non-gulf states). Or the influence of Israel in the region. Yet it is important to note that from the 16th century to the 19th century both the Turkish and Persian empires were the dominant players in the region. After analysing both counties I have found that both Turkey and Iran are similar in many aspects, (which cause them to collaborate) yet there are also profound differences between the two which causes them to become antagonistic towards each other. Long story short, both nations have a complicated love/hate relationship between them.

In terms of similarities b/w both nations, It can be observed that Turkey and Iran are non-Arab nations in the Middle East, both countries have a similar culture, language, cuisine and a very similar use of poetry, art and literature in their societies. Both countries have had glorious pasts in the form of their empires, the Ottoman Empire for Turkey (1300-1924) and the Safavid Empire for Iran(1501-1736). Both of these nations had some great leaders in these empires which stood out from the rest in terms of their performance i.e. Suleiman the Magnificent(1520-66) and Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629). If we move on towards the 20th century we will note that after World War I, Turkey and Iran had gone through a period of modernisation in the 1920s and 1930s in order to make their societies more like Europe. In the case of Turkey this was done under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-38) and Reza Shah (1925-1941) in the case of Iran. Another similarity which can be considered is that after World War II both nations chose to continue with autocratic rule despite the fact that there was an emergence of various political parties in both countries (right-wing and left wing).Yet Turkey was consistently ruled by military dictatorships (1960, 1971 and 1980), whereas Iran was under the rule of the Autocratic Shah, Reza Pahlavi II (1941-1979).

Moving on to some of the differences. The Ottoman Empire had represented Sunni Islam and did its best to propagate this branch of the religion. Yet it was not theocratic as the clerics in the society were under the state and it was the Sultan who had supreme authority in the Empire. Whereas the Safavid Empire was a theocratic monarchy, where the state religion was Twelver Shiism and the clerical elite were an autonomous body in Persian society that had a lot of influence. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire had fought many wars in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries over religion and territorial gains. In the Ottoman Empire the Janissaries (elite infantry units of the Sultan) were very influential in society. This was a sort of paramilitary that consisted of Young Christian boys that were converted to Islam and were known for their strict discipline. They were involved in many wars that the Ottoman Empire fought. This is one of the reasons why the Turkish military is so influential in society. The Ghulams in Safavid Iran i.e. Christian converts of Armenian and Georgian descent were similar to the Janissaries in terms of their paramilitary role. However they were not as influential in Persian society as the Ghulams were unable to reduce the power of the clerics and gain a stronghold in the Empire.  Turkey and Iran had different stances towards The Kurdish question in some aspects. Although both Turkey and Iran don’t want an independent Kurdish state, Iran has funded the PKK(Kurdistan workers Party) in destabilising Turkey until PJAK (free life of Kurdistan Party), an offshoot of the PKK carried out terrorist attacks against Iran, after which the Iranian state changed its stance over the Kurds. Iran has also supported Armenia against Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after Turkey sided with Azerbaijan in the conflict.

Overall I feel that although both Turkey and Iran tried to modernise according to western standards in the inter-war period, cultural relativism played a great role in both societies. After the Iranian Revolution (1979) Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into a theocratic Republic (Shia state) where the clerical elite was in charge of the matters of the state instead of being an autonomous body. Similarly in 2002 when the justice and development party (AKP) won elections in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan set out to form a moderate Islamist Republic, where neo-ottomanism is the official ideology. This has largely worked since the power of the military in Turkey has decreased drastically and the nation has become less secular than it was before. Both nations have now adopted models according to their pasts in order to achieve stability in a troubled region.

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