Turkey and Iran: Opposite regimes, similar problems

With the dispute of Iran’s election and new allegations of a plan by military officers in Turkey to discredit its own Islamic-rooted leadership, these regimes with seemingly opposite ideologies both demonstrate a trend of uneasy relationships with their more progressive populations.

By Ismet Feyzioglu for RUSI.org

Claims of vote rigging in Iran’s disputed presidential election, and fresh allegations of a covert plan by disgruntled military officers in Turkey to discredit the country’s Islamist-rooted government, point to parallel trends in the two seemingly-opposite regimes’ uneasy relationship with populations that are outgrowing their ideological skin.

In Iran, supporters of defeated reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in droves, defying the authorities, to protest a landslide victory claimed by hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 12 June. They assert, citing a number of electoral violations and inconsistencies, that the outcome of the poll was manipulated to the incumbent’s advantage by an ultra-conservative faction within the state. This faction, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad, and a group of hardliner clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders who support the president, view a reformist government as a threat to the Islamic character of the regime – and their pre-eminent position in it. Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election and the subsequent crushing of opposition demands to repeat the vote, reformists argue, is therefore tantamount to an internal coup.

For some Turks who think an Islamist usurpation of the secular regime is an imminent and existential threat, the fate of Iran remains a cautionary tale – one that should be avoided by any means possible. According to the liberal daily Taraf, which broke the story on 12 June, this was the aim of those officers who allegedly drafted the so-called ‘Action Plan Against Reactionaries’, clandestine measures and conspiracies aimed at discrediting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an influential religious brotherhood, led by Sufi cleric Fethullah Gulen, that supports it.

The authenticity of the document is being disputed and subject to separate investigations by military and civilian prosecutors. Verbal assurance by the army chief, General Ilker Basbug, who summarily dismissed the document as a ‘piece of paper’, that there was no place inside the Turkish Armed Forces for coup plotters, has not been enough to dispel doubts. This is in large part due to the military’s past record of intervention in politics: it staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and indirectly engineered the ouster of the AKP’s Islamist predecessor in 1997.

Competing visions of government

Tensions between the secular establishment and the AKP have also been rife. Last year, the ruling party barely escaped a ban by the country’s constitutional court for anti-secular activities. A highly politicised and vitally important criminal case is ongoing, known as ‘Ergenekon’, as part of which a number of former generals and politicians, among others, have been arrested in suspicion of plotting to overthrow the AKP government.

It is tempting to characterise Turkey and Iran, the two traditional power houses of the Middle East, as the standard bearers of two competing visions of governance for the Muslim world. Turkey’s staunchly secular, positivistic and Western-oriented regime indeed stands in sharp contrast to the post-revolutionary order in Iran, which is based on Shi’a Islam and identified through ideological opposition to ‘the West’. But this portrayal can be misleading; especially as it tends to overlook underlying similarities in the two regimes’ threat perception as they respond to changing social and global dynamics.

Turkey and Iran are republics, denoting that legitimacy of the state is derived from the will of the people. Yet in both countries, popular sovereignty has been constrained by institutions that regard themselves as ‘patent holders’ or ‘guardians’ of the Kemalist and Islamic regimes, with limited or no accountability to the people. In Iran, the concept of ‘velayat-e faqih’, or custodianship of the Islamic jurists, gives the clerical establishment the authority to govern through the unelected offices of the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. In Turkey, the military’s traditional role of guardianship of the secular and unitary nature of the Kemalist regime attained a similar character as a result of enhanced constitutional powers and freedom from civilian scrutiny that followed the 1980 coup.

What the recent developments in these countries reveal is that there is a growing rift within both societies – including the political elites themselves – as to what socio-political role the traditional power holders of the state should play as Turkey and Iran strive to find their place in the twenty-first century world order. On both sides, there are groups that see the increasing liberalisation of the state and society as a threat to the revolution; a mechanism through which foreign powers, through their local proxies, could wrest control of the country’s fate once again.

Despite their stark ideological differences, this is where the hardliners inside Turkey’s military-bureaucratic and Iran’s clerical establishments, unwittingly, meet. This defensive impulse helps explain the state censorship of the digital media in both countries, or the trials of journalists and writers whose views are deemed harmful to national pride or national security. Likewise, one can find parallels in the two regimes’ apparent suspicion of the West, which is accused, perhaps somewhat justifiably, of backing ‘subversive elements’ in both countries. It is indeed telling that Cumhuriyet, the mouthpiece of the Kemalist establishment, was among the two Turkish newspapers that were the quickest to endorse Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory. The second one, Vakit, is an ultra-conservative Islamist daily.

Visions of the future

There are, however, also those within both regimes who, while determined to preserve its basic tenets, think it should adapt to the changing needs and characteristics of their respective societies in order to survive and remain relevant in the new century. We should remember that the foremost reformist leaders in Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami, are themselves products of the Islamic revolution and have no desire to overthrow the regime. But they have a drastically different vision of its future than Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their followers, with whom the reformists remain at loggerheads.

The split within the Kemalist establishment may be less radical, but no less significant. There are indeed secularist Turks, including officers and bureaucrats, who have little or no sympathy for the AKP, but nonetheless believe the will of the people has to be respected, and that opposition should be carried out through democratic means. That at least two plans to topple the AKP government were disallowed by the senior staff of the Armed Forces in 2004 is evidence to this, as well as the fact that the military leadership is allowing, albeit begrudgingly, civilian prosecutors to investigate the ‘Ergenekon’ case.

The fundamental difference between Turkey and Iran today is that in the former the balance of power has been tipping from unelected ‘guardians’ of the regime towards elected civilians, whereas for the latter the opposite is the case. A series of EU-inspired security sector reforms since 2001 has achieved at least partial success in rolling back the overbearing political powers that the 1982 constitution bestowed upon the Turkish military. On 30 June, the parliament passed a landmark bill that prohibits civilians to be tried in military tribunals, while allowing military members to be tried in civilian courts.

Iran’s hard line tightens its grip

Conversely, in Iran the economic and political clout of the conservative clerics and particularly the Revolutionary Guards Corps has grown substantially under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Having brutally quelled last month’s massive anti-government protests and isolated the reformist leadership, the hardline faction of the regime appears to have successfully tightened its grip on the reigns of the state – at least for the time being.

Credit here should be given to Turkey’s six-decade experience of multiparty democracy, however troubled and patchy, and the (fading) allure of a democratising anchor like the EU, allowing or imposing on the state a degree of flexibility to absorb societal tensions. The urgent question for Turkey today is whether the AKP is willing and able to respond to the democratic and economic aspirations of all people in Turkey, and not just its core constituency. Either way, it looks increasingly likely that the answer will emerge from the ballot box.

Across the border in Iran, the regime’s obstinacy to curtail popular calls for reform has been building immense pressure between the state and a growing number of young, sophisticated and well-educated Iranians. Today these Iranians feel cheated out of their only and already limited chance to vent out their frustration through legitimate political channels. After eight years of watching the reform attempts of former President Khatami get effectively stifled by the Supreme Leader and the conservative establishment, the pressure appears too much to contain.


Ismet Feyzioglu is an analyst in Middle Eastern affairs at the London-based political consultancy AKE Group.



 The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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