In Azerbaijan, Turkish leader has eyes on Iran


[Turkey’s president appears to be positioning himself as a protector
of all Turks, including Azerbaijani Turks in Iran.]

By Eldar Mamedov
Dec 14, 2020

As Azerbaijan celebrates victory over Armenia, its sponsor in the
recent war has hinted he is seeking a broader regional shake-up.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a military parade in
Baku on December 10, recited a poem that Iran heard as a claim on its

The poem, by the 20th century Soviet-Azerbaijani poet Bakhtiyar
Vahabzadeh, references the Aras River that marks the border between
the modern Republic of Azerbaijan and ethnic-Azerbaijani provinces of
northwest Iran. The passage Erdogan recited suggests the border is
artificial and that Azerbaijani Turks will one day be united: “They
separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not
be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to scold the
Turkish leader, calling modern Azerbaijan a territory “forcibly
separated from the Iranian motherland” and accusing Erdogan of
undermining Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. “No one can talk about our
beloved Azerbaijan,” Zarif added. Iran’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile,
summoned the Turkish ambassador over Erdogan’s “interventionist and
unacceptable” remarks. Iran’s parliament on December 13 adopted a
motion condemning the Turkish president. Residents of Tabriz, the
biggest of Iran’s Azerbaijani-speaking cities, reportedly demonstrated
against him.

Erdogan has united Iranians of all ideological stripes.

The dispute dates back to two wars that Qajar Iran fought against the
Russian empire in the early 19th century and which forced Iran to cede
all its Caucasus territories.

A prevailing view in Baku is that the two empires conspired to divide
their nation. This revisionism was first propagated by Soviet
historiographers serving Moscow’s aim to “liberate” foreign lands.
This is how the historically baseless concept of “South Azerbaijan”
was born; there was no political entity known as “Azerbaijan” in the
19th century. Joseph Stalin even used the idea to occupy parts of
northern Iran following the second world war.

After the Soviet collapse, independent Azerbaijan adopted the Soviet
interpretation as a pillar of its national identity. President Abulfaz
Elcibey in the early 1990s famously promised to march on Tabriz. While
the Aliyev dynasty that assumed power in 1993 toned down the rhetoric,
the notions of “South Azerbaijan” and a divided “Great Azerbaijan” are
firmly entrenched in the nation’s political culture and psyche.

It is in this context that Erdogan’s remarks, delivered at a highly
symbolic occasion, sparked outrage in Iran. Tehran was already
uncomfortable with Turkey’s military and diplomatic support for
Azerbaijan during the 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It feared
Turkish involvement would encourage ethnic separatism in the
Azerbaijani-majority regions in Iran. Even if Erdogan is simply
ignorant of Iranian sensitivities, his speech heightened Iranian fears
of a pan-Turkic threat.

Official websites in Baku neither reproduced the poem nor commented,
opting to stay out of the spat. While President Ilham Aliyev is
indebted to Erdogan for his military aid, he also carefully managed
relations with Tehran during the war. Others have not been so
reserved. Ilgar Mammadov, a former political prisoner who has avidly
supported the war, tweeted that Erdogan’s speech “hints that a
comprehensive solution to the regional security equation here may be
found soon by dismembering Iran.” Though not voiced by the government,
such views – a direct result of the foundational myth of “South
Azerbaijan” – are not uncommon.

Baku finds its shared heritage with Iran difficult to manage. The
government has proffered the notion in recent years that the Turkic
origin of several Iranian dynasties, like the Safavids and Qajars,
makes a large part of Iran historically “Azerbaijani.” Since Soviet
times, Baku has claimed the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi as
exclusively Azerbaijani. Though Nizami lived on the territory of
modern-day Azerbaijan, he wrote in Persian.

Tehran generally ignores these irritants, concentrating its energies
on challenges in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Erdogan’s provocative speech and growing power inside Azerbaijan may,
however, be a step too far for Iran. He appears to be positioning
himself as a protector of all Turks, including Azerbaijani Turks on
both sides of the border. This fits into his expansionist foreign
policy, which in recent years has provoked problems with most of
Turkey’s neighbors.

Hubris is no substitute for sound statecraft, however.

Among the many historical references Erdogan made in his speech was,
ironically, one dedicated to Enver Pasha, a late Ottoman adventurer,
and his “Army of Islam” that briefly invaded Baku in 1918. Erdogan did
not mention Enver Pasha’s inglorious end, however: on a military
campaign in Central Asia in pursuit of quixotic pan-Turkish dreams.


Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Progressive Alliance of
Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament. This article
reflects his personal views and not necessarily the opinions of the
S&D Group and the European Parliament.


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