A tale of three countries: Turkey, China and Iran
I was in Tehran right after President Hassan Rouhani was first elected in 2013. The hotel rooms were fully booked with businesspeople and journalists from around the world. The story was that Iran was deciding to return to our world from the parallel universe to which it exiled itself around 40 years ago. But there is now discontent on Iranian streets, which I see as frustration with the pace of the reform process.
The process to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran was started with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. Between 2013 and 2015, U.S. sanctions could still be fingered as the major culprit behind the slow pace of reform, (or more succinctly the inaction regarding economic reforms). But then nothing significant happened in the subsequent two years - certainly nothing to change the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, populations do not tend to be very patient about these things.
A short while ago, just before the New Year, Iran decided to relax punishments on women who were “improperly dressed,” meaning women who were violating the Islamic dress code as defined by the all-male Iranian clerical establishment. It is as if it somehow sensed rising discontent. Was it too little, too late? I don’t know. But it happened just a few days before the protests started.
Turkey, Iran and China took different paths less than 50 years ago. Turkey and China decided to open up. Iran clammed up. Turkey and China decided to become part of the globalized world order, while Iran decided to take refuge in a parallel universe.
Let me make some comparisons. In 1980, just one year after the Islamic Revolution, per capita GDP in Iran was around $2,440. Turkey’s GDP per capita was around 65 percent of that and China’s only 7 percent of Iranian per capita GDP in 1980. But as of 2016, Turkey’s per capita GDP is twice that of Iran and China’s is 1.5 times as much.
I should also point out that around 80 percent of what Iran sells to the world is oil and natural gas (and no, it does not have that because Iranian mullahs prayed for it). China and Turkey, meanwhile, became industrial countries, exporting manufacturing industry products. Iranians pull stuff out of the ground to sell to people. Turkey and China make things.
That’s a shame, because if you look at the number of indexed articles coming out of the country, Iranians are clearly better scientists than Turks. Yet they are still poorer than the Turks. And in our interconnected world, populations know how others are living and compare it to their own lifestyles. As of 2016, there are 1.3 billion mobile phones in China, which means that the number of mobile phones per 100 citizens has reached 96.4 percent. In Turkey, there are 72 million mobile phones and the ratio is 93 percent. In Iran there are 96 million mobile phones, which makes the ration 130 percent.
What does this mean? It means that Iranians are watching how people live outside Iran, just like the Turks and the Chinese. Is this bad news for illiberals in all three countries? That depends on what people newly connected to the world want to do. If they decide to pack up and leave their country it might also be very good news for the illiberals in the West. More migration means more xenophobia, which means more Trumps. But that is bad news for the rest of us.
That is why the world needs careful strategies to engage with emerging illiberal democracies. That is also why it still needs the transformative power of Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Jan. 5, seems to understand this fact. He will be a leader to watch in 2018.