Peter Kenyon

Two years ago in Istanbul, I dragged Selcuk Altun, a Turkish author and lover of all things Byzantine, to the Hagia Sophia, a sixth century church that's now a museum. But we couldn't even get close. Altun took one look at the mass of sweating humanity blocking the entrance and decided to do the interview outside. But this year, the change is astonishing.

In recent years, Turkey has been criticized for doing too little to stop jihadi fighters from moving between the Mideast and Europe. Its more than 500-mile border with Syria has come in for particular scrutiny throughout the five-year Syrian conflict.

But Turkey says it has deported thousands of suspected foreign fighters or Islamic State supporters since 2011 — nearly 3,300 of them, according to a recent estimate. Many came originally from Europe.

Not long ago, Turkey was held up as a regional model: a Muslim-majority state with a thriving democracy and a market economy. These days, though, it's more often seen as a country where a ruling party with no serious opposition is drifting toward authoritarian rule.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish acronym) to power in 2002, in a breakthrough victory for politicians gathered together from earlier, failed Islamist parties. The AKP has won every election since.

The fifth year of the Syrian conflict was the worst yet for civilians — and Russia, the U.S., France and Britain are partly to blame. That's according to a new report from 30 aid and human rights groups, including Oxfam and Care International.

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In Iran, voters are still waiting for clarity from the Feb. 26 parliamentary elections, but they're optimistic that a more cooperative legislature will help the government boost the economy. Hopes for broader social and political reforms, however, remain faint.

On a recent afternoon, a covered bazaar in north Tehran has its share of visitors, but there seems to be a lot more window-shopping than buying going on. Carpet shop owner Ali Mirnezami confirms that impression. He says this shop has been operating for 90 years, but at the moment things aren't looking good.

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Iranians vote on Friday for Parliament. The results could signal whether they are ready to engage more robustly with the West, following a deal with world powers aimed at preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons.

Hardliners have effectively controlled the country's political system since Iran's revolution. But Hassan Rouhani, the current president, is considered a moderate and has worked to improve relations with the West. The election will be a crucial test of his agenda.

Iran's capital, Tehran, is in political overdrive this week. Candidates for parliament are battling the Tehran traffic, vying for support in Friday's elections.

This is Iran's first ballot since a nuclear agreement last July that brought the lifting of international sanctions in January. Long before the nuclear deal was signed, Iranians were told by their leaders that the removal of sanctions would bring more opportunity and better living standards.

But for the most part, ordinary Iranians aren't seeing improvements so far.

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Turkey seems to be surrounded by conflicts these days — in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and tensions are running high with Russia. The fight getting the least attention is the one taking place on Turkey's own soil.

At a time when regional tensions are running hot, Iran has taken the unusual step of displaying its missiles that are stored in a vast underground complex.

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