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A tale of three countries: Turkey, China and Iran
I was in Tehran right after President Rouhani was first elected. The hotel rooms were fully booked, with businesspeople and journalists from across the world. The story was that Iran was deciding to return to our world from the parallel universe the country has exiled itself to around 40 years ago. There is now discontent on Iranian streets. I see this as frustration with the pace of the reform process.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in July 2015, starting a process to lift American sanctions on Iran. Between 2013 to 2015, the American sanctions could still be taken as the major culprit behind the slow pace of reform, or more succinctly, the inaction regarding economic reforms. But nothing big happened in the two years since, certainly nothing to change ordinary people’s lives. Populations are not very patient about these things.
A short while ago, just before the New Year, Iran has decided to loosen up 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’s as if sensing the discontent maybe. Too late, too little? Beats me. But it happened just a few days before the demonstrations 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 dollars. Turkey’s GDP per capita was around 65 percent of that and China’s only 7 percent of the Iranian per capita GDP in 1980. 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, they don’t have that because their mollahs prayed for it. China and Turkey have become industrial countries, exporting manufacturing industry products. Iranians pull stuff out of the ground to sell us. Turkey and China make things.
That’s a shame, because Iranians are better scientists than Turks, if you look at the number of indexed articles that are coming out of the country. Yet they are poorer than Turks. In an interconnected world, our 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 mobile phone per 100 citizens has reached 96.4 percent. In Turkey, there are 72 million mobile phones, the aforementioned ratio being 93 percent. Iran? There are 96 million mobile phones, with mobile phone per 100 citizens at 130 percent.
What does this mean? Iranians are watching how people live outside Iran, as are Turks and Chinese. Is this bad news for illiberals in all three? Depends on what the newly connected to the world want to do. If they decide to pack up and leave, it might also be very good news for the illiberals in the West. More migration means more xenophobia, which means more Trumps. It’ll be bad news for the rest of us.
That’s why the world needs strategies to engage with emerging illiberal democracies. That’s why it needs the transformative power of Europe. President Macron has recently met with President Erdoğan, and seems to understand this fact. He’ll be a leader to watch in 2018.