Shifts in the Iranian-Turkish Balance of Soft Power

15Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS)

 Mohammad Soltaninejad

June 22, 2013


During the June 2013, Iran and Turkey have witnessed important internal developments that are going to affect their international standing. These effects, however, have been demonstrated in two different ways. While in Turkey there are ongoing anti-government and violent protests, in Iran, a much more constructive change took shape through a mass turnout in a free and fair elections.

 These developments have affected the state-society relations in both countries that will ultimately leave impacts on the two countries share of soft power in regional equations. In the Turkish case, a new divide between state and society has come to the surface and anti-government protests have endured for more than three weeks. Iran, however, has witnessed diminishing of social frictions. Through election of a centrist and moderate president, the once deepening gaps between the traditional right and left in the political spectrum is mended.

 During the Arab revolutions, many saw Turkey as the main winner of the regional developments. With providing support to the revolutionary forces in Tunisia, Egypt and, after some hesitation, Libya, Turkey tried to demonstrate itself as the hero of the democratization process in the Middle East. As a successful democracy, Turkey seemed to be able to play the role of a model-state for the new and fledgling democracies in the region.

 Although being among the winners of the Arab revolutions at large, Iran, in contrast, was struggling with changes in its neighborhood that placed its sphere of influence under immense pressure. Syria as Iran’s key ally in the region was challenged by a deepening crisis and its other non-state allies in Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, were squeezed to give concession to their political rivals. Above all, the West’s pressure on Iran was at its peak and the ever-increasing sanctions deprived the country from almost half of its revenues.

 However, in the course of only a couple of days the tables have been turned. Iran experienced mass turnout elections that resulted in the winning of a moderate political figure, Hassan Rouhani,  welcomed both internationally and from different walks of life in Iranian society including reformists and principalists. As a result, an administration of national unity is to be formed that can strengthen social cohesion and provide a massive domestic support for Iran’s foreign policy.

 In a different story, In Turkey, once all-out support winner administration of the Prime Minister Erdogan is losing some grounds. It turns out that a vocal opposition is in the rise in Turkey and amassed dissatisfaction with the government in some strata of society are demanding reforms in internal policies and challenging continuation of the current foreign policies in specific areas including Syria.

 Although it is most likely that the opposition, lacking the capacity to convince the government to revise its domestic and foreign policies will be marginalized. However, the protests will be consequential for the government in, at least, two ways. First and foremost, they will make the ruling administration more cautious in taking further foreign and domestic revolutionary steps and second, they will make the international public opinion rethink about how much Turkey is a democracy-broker in the Middle East.

 The shifts in internal-external balance will have its consequences on the role the two countries can play in regional dynamics. As far as Iran is concerned, a rebuilding and repair of relations with important regional and international actors will grant it a more free hand in dealing with foreign policy problems.

 The president-elect Hassan Rouhani has vowed confidence- building in regional and international domains and as a result, it is very likely that the Iran-Arab relations will improve. In a similar way, new grounds are paved for bridging the gaps with the world great powers and new rounds of negotiations, trust-building and détente is forthcoming. The new development will help Iran to put its foreign relations on a better track, attract more international support, and henceforth advance its regional policies more successfully.

 While new windows of opportunity await Iran, Turkey needs to take time for overcoming new constraints. Convincing Middle Eastern and western public opinion about the correctness of state’s behavior towards the protesters will not be an easy job and will leave some negative impacts on Turkish soft power. Moreover, since some grievances towards the government stem from Turkey’s Syrian policy, the government will face difficulties in sustaining support for pursuit of its regional ambitions.

 Although for the time being, the scales of regional soft power are tipped in favor of Iran, but it can be only a matter of time when Turkey mends its domestic political atmosphere and returns to its regional stance.

 Above that, we cannot conclude that the comparison drawn here between Turkish and Iranian soft power and their regional stance falls in the context of a zero-sum-game in which success of one side coincides with failure of the other. Soft power is, by nature, a matter of influence, acceptance and persuasion in which both Iran and Turkey can take the lion share. The future rests with either of the two countries that manage to understand necessities of the time, build trust and consensus and attract the support of both their own people and international interlocutors.

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