The little China on Turkey’s doorstep

The little China on Turkey’s doorstep

I was recently in Tehran on a day trip. There was a fresh feeling in the air, a kind of happiness that bubbles over and makes you anxious. It was as if Iran is about to get married to globalization. It is the night before and the country has a collective bellyache.

All hotels were fully booked. I had trouble finding a room due to last-minute changes in my schedule. The hotel that I ended up staying in was still under construction. It is as if the whole country is preparing itself for a new journey.

Romanians were having bilateral meetings on one side, Austrians were on the other. The Italians had just finished theirs and were packing up. Mind you, it has to be said that Turks are everywhere. 

The Iranians, being in the spotlight, did look rather happy and proud. That is understandable after all these years of isolation. They are coming back from self-imposed exile. 

Just look at the facts regarding this pragmatic transformation in Iran. It all started with President Hassan Rouhani’s election on a moderate ticket in 2013. His administration set to work on the nuclear deal immediately and recently sealed it. The international sanctions are now at least partially removed. Last week, Iran held parliamentary elections that affirmed support for Rouhani’s engagement policies.

I call this a pragmatic transformation. Rouhani strikes me as the kind of person who would agree with former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” In the past, officials could only see imperialist plots and conspiracies surrounding them. That seems to have changed now. Pragmatic transformation is about facing facts, not fighting them. The Iranians are at a crossroads and they know it. 

Turkey and Iran took different routes 35 years ago. Turkey started an economic transformation process and decided to open up. Iran started a political transformation process and closed up. Iran’s per capita GDP was higher than Turkey’s at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. That has since changed. Turkey is now more prosperous than Iran. 

Why are Iran and Turkey again at a crossroads now? Simple: The urbanization rates of both countries have reached that of Germany, which is around 75 percent. That means an easy growth recipe no longer exists. 

Growth now requires reforms, both in Iran and Turkey. I am hopeful about the future of both countries. The economic transformation of Iran is just about to start. Turkey now has a pragmatic transformation process, a little China, taking place on its eastern doorstep. We should think long and hard about how to best utilize this process for the welfare of our region.