Commentary Magazine

The Iran-Turkey Switcheroo

Presidency Press Service via AP, Pool

Bernard Lewis issued a startling prediction in 2010: Iran—the land of scowling ayatollahs and flag burnings—would abandon Islamism by the end of the decade, while Turkey—Washington’s stalwart Cold War ally—would turn away from the West and burrow deeper into its Muslim identity. Lewis is no longer with us, and there are still a few years left in his wager, but events in both countries are proving him remarkably prescient.

On Turkey, Lewis has already been vindicated. Witness the ballot-box triumph of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In the presidential contest over the weekend, Erdogan thumped his opponent, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party, 53% to 31%. A smattering of pro-Kurdish and secular candidates divided the remaining ballots. Erdogan’s AKP and its allies also locked a majority of seats in Parliament.

The elections were not exactly fair. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observed, the state of emergency imposed following a 2016 coup attempt constricted “freedom of expression and assembly” for the opposition. Erdogan has used the emergency laws to dismiss more than 100,000 soldiers, teachers, police officers, and journalists. And some 50,000 people have been jailed and are awaiting trial, according to rights groups.

With numerous opposition reporters languishing in prison, it came as no surprise that the ruling party dominated the media landscape, which led European Union officials to conclude that “conditions for campaigning were not equal.”

All this is par for the course with Erdogan, who first launched his power-grab in 2008. The opposition is right to complain of Erdogan’s efforts to hollow out Turkey’s independent institutions and remove checks on the AKP. Yet the fact remains that a substantial majority of Turks continue to elect Erdogan and the AKP in one plebiscite after another.

In Erdogan these voters see, not a corrupt would-be dictator, but a visionary who has delivered jobs and growth and reasserted Turkey’s long-suppressed Islamic identity. A majority of Turks prefer a pious Turkey anchored in its Muslim neighborhood rather than in Europe. It is high time to recognize that, for now, Turkey is lost to the West.

That doesn’t mean the West should instantly sever all diplomatic, economic, and military ties to Turkey. But the old arrangements lack the sentimental and ideological glue that once held them together. Everything is fragile and tentative and subject to revision by the majoritarian strongman in Ankara—and the voters who form his durable base.

So far, the Bernard Lewis scenario has been borne out by events in Turkey. But what about Iran?

There, too, events are tending in the direction foreseen by the great historian. As I write in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY, the Islamic Republic faces a profound legitimacy crisis at home, with not a day going by without some explosion of popular discontent. The ideological currents tossing the mullahs this way and that, I argue, are strongly nationalist. The slogans that daily ring out from the streets point to a growing revulsion with the regime’s Shiite-expansionist project, which has starved the national fisc, not to mention the population, and left the country sanctioned and isolated.

The latest slogan: “Death to Palestine!”

You read that right. In a country that has become synonymous with Holocaust-denial cartoon contests and threats to wipe Israel off the map, people are chanting “Death to Palestine.” Iranians don’t have a beef with Palestinians, of course. But they have had it with their regime’s decades-long underwriting of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Palestinian terror groups. Why is our national wealth going to Gaza, they ask, rather than to Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz? The regime has no good answer to such questions. It has to resort to the truncheon, and that may work for a time, perhaps for many more years. But not forever.

Bernard Lewis is surely smiling somewhere.

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