By A. Savyon and M. Manzour
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sparked rage in Iran recently by quoting a popular Azeri poem; his recitation was perceived in Iran as an insult and a provocation against Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On December 10, during his participation in the Azerbaijan victory celebrations over the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, he recited, in Turkish, a line from the Azeri poem “Aras”:
“They tore the Aras [River] and filled it with rocks and sticks / I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” he said. The poem laments the division of the Azeri provinces between the Persian Qajar Empire and Czarist Russia in the early 19th century. Areas of the Caucasus that are today part of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia belonged to the Qajar Persian Empire, and following its defeats in wars with Czarist Russia, the areas north of the Aras River were transferred, under the humiliating 1813 Treaty of Gulistan and 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchay, to Russian control; later on, an independent Azerbaijan was established in them. The areas south of the river remained under Iranian control, but the territory lost by the Persian Empire because of its defeats is still perceived by many Iranians as irrevocably linked to Iran.
Despite his denials, Erdoğan had aimed his recitation at rousing Azeri-Turkish national sentiment, apparently in an attempt to boost a sense of separatist nationalism among Azeris in both Azerbaijan and Iran. A third of the world’s Azeris live in independent Azerbaijan, and although they are largely Shi’ite, most are secular, and their culture and language are closer to those of the Turkic ethnic groups.
The other two-thirds of the Azeri population is concentrated in northern Iran, constituting a quarter of Iran’s entire population; Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself is of Azeri origin. It should be noted that, in October 2020, Iranian Azeris held protests in support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, in which protesters clashed with Iran’s security forces. The Azeri minority’s support for Azerbaijan compelled the Iranian regime, which has traditionally supported the Christian Armenia, to shift its support to the Shi’ite Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials’ reactions to Erdoğan’s provocations focused on his insult to them, and they expressed rage at this show of ownership by Turkey – Iran’s political rival – of territory lost by the Persian Empire due to its weakness. These reactions also reflected fear of a Turkey-backed Azeri move that could threaten Iran’s territorial integrity and current borders, and fuel irredentism. A move to join independent Azerbaijan by the significant Azeri minority in northern Iran would likely set a precedent for other ethnic minorities in Iran – the Kurds in the north, the Arabs in the south, and the Balochis in the southeast – to split off, causing the loss of additional areas of the Iranian state.
Erdoğan’s blatant insult to Iranians’ historic nationalist sentiment and sense of honor – by reminding them of their political and military inferiority and how pieces of the Persian Empire were torn from them – combined with the fear that his recitation would arouse separatist demands from ethnic minorities within its borders, prompted Iranian officials to come out with strong statements against him, alongside the harsh responses from the public on social media. If at one time it seemed that Iranian social media criticism of Erdoğan – Iran’s political pro-Islamist rival in Syria and the Caucasus – had been directed from above, so that it would be controlled and limited, he was now depicted full-out as a megalomaniac sultan attempting to revive the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the expense of Islamic Iran. His fate was predicted to be the same as that of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, who was removed after a year in office and sent to prison by the Egyptian military, and of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, sentenced to death and executed by his own people.
Nevertheless, the Iranian foreign ministry chose to merely give Erdoğan a stern warning (see below).
The Iranian daily Kayhan, the regime mouthpiece, published a warning to Erdoğan to abandon this anti-Iran direction; in contrast, pragmatists and reformists called for leveraging his statements to strengthen the Iranian identity of the country’s ethnic minorities by reviving the Persian Empire, or by cooperating with other countries in the region to create a socio-economic common market framework.
This report, the third in a series on the recent Iran-Turkey tensions, will review reactions in Iran to Turkish President Erdoğan’s provocation.
Iranian Officials’ Reactions To Erdoğan’s Provocation
In general, the sense of rage and insult, along with the fear of ramifications that could damage Iran’s sovereignty, have been reflected in the reactions of Iranian Foreign Ministry and other officials belonging to Iran’s ideological camp.
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif: “No One Can Speak About Our Beloved Azerbaijan”
In a December 11, 2020 tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed Iran’s sense of ownership of its lost territories, and revealed Iran’s apprehensions about the possible annexation of further Iranian territory to Azerbaijan, but disguised this as fear for Azerbaijani sovereignty:
“Pres. Erdogan was not informed that what he ill-recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from Iranian motherland Didn’t he realize that he was undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan? NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman: “Iran Allows No one To Harm Its Territorial Integrity”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated on December 11, 2020: “We have clarified to the Turkish ambassador that the era of territorial claims and expansion of empires has ended… Iran allows no one to harm its territorial integrity, and as its glorious history shows, Iran will not give up one bit of its national security.”
Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Rezai: “If Erdogan Was Referring To Greater Iran In His Reading Of The Poem About Aras – It Is True”
Iranian Expediency Council chairman Mohsen Rezai also tweeted about Iran’s ownership of the lost territories, and about the fear that ferment among Iran’s ethnic minorities could lead to internal war in the country: “If Erdogan was referring to Greater Iran in his reading of the poem about Aras – it is true. This is because Azerbaijan is situated in the heart of the Iranian nation and alongside its other brothers – the Lurs, the Kurds, the Balochis, and the Arabs. If he is thinking about repeating ISIS’s failed efforts in Syria, [he is making] a mistake.”
Majlis Member Bighash: “The Southern Caucasus is Iranian Territory”
Majlis member Mahmoud-Ahmadi Bighash asserted, on December 13, that the southern Caucasus was Iranian territory, and added that Erdogan’s “amateurism” in the region was allowing Israel to use this region to threaten Iran’s security.
Reactions In Iran’s Ideological And Pragmatic Media
Iran’s ideological and pragmatic daily newspapers responded to Erdogan’s pan-Turkic threat in two ways. Ideologically motivated publications warned him not to continue to go down this path, and pragmatic/reform ones proposed a return to the model of an Iranian state as an umbrella framework that serves Iran’s many ethnic minorities.
Regime Mouthpiece Kayhan: “‘Turkistan’ Is the Key Word Erdogan Is Trying To Bring Into The Lexicon Of The Muslim People In Turkey And Of The Turkish-Speaking Peoples East And West Of The Caspian Sea”
Kayhan’s December 11, 2020 editorial, titled “Erdogan’s Betrayal of Turkey’s Muslims,” published under the byline of Sa’adollah Zarei, offered an unprecedented critique of Erdogan’s conduct in the region, and openly accused him of trying to impose Turkish hegemony and to implement his vision of Turkestan on the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Caucasus. Such a move, the editorial stated, would be incompatible with revolutionary Iran’s Islamist vision of its sphere of influence, implemented by means of the Shi’ite resistance axis. Harshly criticizing Erdogan’s conduct in Syria and Iraq – countries Iran views as part of its sphere of influence – and for his efforts to advance his own interests to Iran’s detriment, the editorial expressed opposition to Erdogan’s expansionism, saying that he had betrayed the Islamist message and values that got him elected, and is favoring the Turkic ethnic aspect over the Islamic one. The following are the main points of the editorial:
“Turkey’s foreign policy during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nearly two decades [as Turkey’s leader] can be described as ‘unstable’ and ‘fluctuating’… in its efforts to reduce its differences with its neighbors and prevent regional conflicts from being resolved… Today, Turkey’s relations with most of its neighbors are in the yellow or red zone. Its relationship with Iran was once almost ‘extraordinary,’ with the two states seeking to maintain a stable and friendly connection. [But] Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements two days ago during a parade by Azeri military forces, about the territories surrounding [the] Aras [River], have angered its only friendly neighbor [Iran]. It is as if his vocabulary has no room for [terms such as] moderate and friendly neighborly relations!
“Turkey is geographically situated among countries most of which have strained or unstable relations with Ankara: Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran… The Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran used to maintain friendly relations with Turkey, influenced primarily by Iran’s interest in a government supported by an Islamic leader in that country…
“The AKP party, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rose to power [in 2002] with the energy of the Islamic [movements]. It was and remains a major force in Turkey and the region, and was elected by the Turkish people on the basis of that [Islamic] claim. But over this period of nearly 20 years, the Ankara government has instead placed [its] emphasis on extremist pan-Turkic nationalism. In fact, Erdogan has adopted a sort of anti-Muslim and anti-regional ideology, while betraying the Muslim people of Turkey and the ideals of Islam…
“Over the past two decades, and especially during the decade when the region was embroiled in a complex security crisis with bloody conflicts erupting in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, Erdogan has adopted an attitude that supports chaos… It can therefore be said that despite the significant roles played in Syria’s security crisis by the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and others, Turkey’s role was unique in every way. Today, Turkey is the main cause for the perpetuation of the crisis in Syria. The Turkish army is the main obstacle to the Syrian army’s liberating the rest of the Idlib region from Jabhat Al-Nusra and at the same time is empowering the separatists by conquering parts of northern Syria.
“Turkey’s relations with Iraq are also based on the development of tension. Turkish soldiers are present across wide swaths of western Iraq… on the pretext of [fighting] the influence of the PKK in these areas, and in spite of the recurring protests [against them] on the part of Iraq’s government and military. Turkey’s behavior in western Iraq is so disturbing to the Iraqis that some Iraqi leaders have claimed that the forces of the Turkish military intervention in Iraq are greater in number than the U.S. occupation forces – and this is intolerable.
“In light of this, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has long since lost even the ‘flavor’ of ‘Islamism,’ becoming instead a regime with aspirations of expansion, aggression, and chauvinism. ‘Turkestan’ is the key word that Erdogan is trying to bring into the lexicon of the Muslim nation in Turkey and of the Turkic-speaking peoples east and west of the Caspian sea. Instead of constituting a call for coming together based on nationalism, this lexicon tells of Turkey’s attempt to rule the Turkic-speaking peoples. The fundamental question is[:] Will these countries and this region accept ‘Erdogan’s hegemony’?
“During this recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Erdogan tried to take a step toward establishing Turkestan… Erdogan] wanted to tip the local balance of power in Turkey’s favor, which meant abandoning the roles played in the region by Russia and Iran. Despite the price paid by Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this policy did not work, and the war failed to advance Turkey’s reach to the Caspian Sea. The tripartite agreement among Moscow, Baku [Azerbaijan], and Yerevan [Armenia], signed November 20, did not serve Turkey and made no changes to Armenia’s southern border with Iran – leaving Erdogan outside the gate, with no stake in the corridor mentioned in this agreement.
“Erdogan’s statements two days ago, during an Azeri military parade in Baku celebrating the recent victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, indicate that Turkey blames Iran for its failure. [It is doing so] even though not only Iran but also every other country in the region, even the Turkic nations in northern Iran, are unwilling to tolerate the establishment of a separatist and interfering empire, and Erdogan’s dream will not come true…”