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A Turkish Role Model For Iran?

Presidents Abdullah Gul (left) of Turkey and Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran in Tehran in March 2009
"It's so pleasant here in Turkey," says Kaveh, a 40-year-old Iranian from Tehran who's visiting Istanbul, just as he has many times over the last 20 years. "You feel free leaving Iran for a week or two."

I asked Kaveh if he'd noticed any changes over the last eight years since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took control of the state. "I see more women in Islamic dress and more alcohol-free restaurants," he says. "But it doesn't bother me at all, as long as they don't force you to think and live they way they think you should."

And his wife, Shabnam, adds: "I think things are better now in Turkey. After all, we are Muslims, not Westerners."

For the 75 years since the 1923 founding of the Turkish Republic, Turkey has steadfastly sought closer ties to the Western world while insisting on its "purely Turkish" identity. Part of that strategy involved disconnecting from the centuries-old Ottoman Empire, which was based on oriental and Muslim traditions, although it was fairly tolerant of other ethnic groups in the empire. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and has been struggling for years to enter the European Union. At the same time, relations with the country's immediate neighbors -- Iran, Syria, Iraq -- were on the back burner at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Major Player

The AKP -- a moderate, reformist party with Islamic roots -- "rediscovered" Turkey's traditional and inclusive Ottoman heritage when it came to power in 2002. Ankara began improving relations with all its neighbors, while simultaneously striving to maintain its good ties with the West. Nonetheless, some in the West interpreted the change as a sign that Turkey is shifting its alliances toward the Islamic world.

Described by "The Economist" as "the most successful Turkish government in decades," the AKP cabinet implemented political and economic reforms to adopt EU standards, although Western governments occasionally criticized these moves as "insufficient." Moves such as an attempt to lift the head-scarf ban at universities were sharply criticized by the country's secular opposition as part of a hidden agenda to gradually establish an Islamic state.

"Many Turks don't understand what it means to live under an extremist, theocratic regime," says Ahmad, an Iranian journalist who recently fled to Turkey to apply for political asylum in the West. "My fear is that the AK Party might be introducing changes that could ultimately lead to a Turkish version of the Iranian regime."

Another acquaintance, a doctor named Fariborz from the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz who studies in Ankara, disagrees. "The AK people are Muslims, not Islamist extremists," he says. "Yes, they are very partisan in staffing government agencies and other institutions, but nobody has any evidence they are trying to change the whole political system in Turkey."

Keeping Up With The Neighbors

Rather than seeing Iran as a model for Turkey, Fariborz says the opposite may be true. "Iranians take pride in Turkey's big economic jump over the last two decades and in its democratic parliamentary system and media freedom. The West may still criticize Turkey for various shortcomings, but for Iranians, this country is just one step short of the West."

As Ankara has worked to improve relations with Iran, person-to-person bilateral contacts have blossomed in recent years. More than 1 million Iranians now visit Turkey each year, as Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that does not require visas for Iranians. Gonul Bilban, who owns a Turkish travel agency, says: "While the number of tourists from Germany and Russia is relatively declining, Turkish hotels are throwing the red carpet in front of Iranian tourists. For Iranians, a vacation in Turkey is like medicine."

In addition, tens of thousands of Iranians study at Turkish universities or do business in Turkey.

"Good relations with Turkey are, first and foremost, good for Iranian citizens," Kaveh told me. "They come and see the beauties of Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast. And they also see the political parties, the elections, the media. Being Muslim doesn't mean you don't need freedom."

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL