TURKISH press: Despite challenges, Turkey-Iran ties manage to survive Nagorno-Karabakh poem crisis

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani hold a joint press conference in capital Ankara, Turkey, Dec.21, 2018. (AA)

The past couple of weeks have witnessed a series of dramatic ups and downs in Turkish-Iranian relations, to the point of both countries' reciprocal summoning of envoys. To the surprise of many, the unexpected diplomatic feud was set off by a poem over the recently liberated Nagorno-Karabakh. It seems like the squabble died out as suddenly as it initially emerged, however, as the tensions were overshadowed by America's announcement of sanctions on Turkey. According to experts, although the bilateral ties are certainly not rosy, the strain caused by the poem will have no lasting effect and apparently, Turkey-Iran relations will survive the Nagorno-Karabakh crises.

"Iran and Turkey are by no means allies, it would be too much to claim such a thing," said Arif Keskin, a Middle East expert and researcher. "Still, I don’t think that the bilateral ties will be affected dramatically by this poem dispute."

According to Keskin, the main reason is that Iran needs Turkey. "(Tehran) has troubles with its neighbors. It has troubles with the West. Thus, losing Turkey would be a great loss. I don’t think they can risk such a scenario," he said.

In Keskin's opinion, however, these feelings over a possible break in the relations are mutual. "Recently, Turkey has had troubled relations with Iran. So, naturally, it is better for Turkey to have better ties with its neighbors, especially in such critical times," Keskin expressed.

On Dec. 10, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended the victory parade at Azadliq Square in the capital Baku as the guest of honor to celebrate Azerbaijan's recent military success in liberating certain territories in the Nagorno-Karabakh region from nearly 30 years of Armenian occupation. The president recited a poem about the Aras River on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border in celebration of the occasion.

“They separated the Aras River and filled it with sand. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” reads part of the poem.

Although welcomed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, the poem triggered historical disputes over the Aras River and the region in general, causing Iran to react harshly. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed on Twitter that the poem “refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from Iranian motherland.”

Turkey's ambassador to Tehran, Derya Örs, was summoned by Iran's deputy foreign minister and informed of the nation's "harsh condemnation," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a written statement. Örs was also told that Iran urgently expects an explanation, the statement added.

Ankara condemned the series of "aggressive" comments made by Iranian officials, as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Tehran's baseless statements targeting Turkey and the Turkish president were unacceptable. Turkey's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun also said that it was an attempt to use the poem to create artificial tension as Iran's name was not even mentioned. He said the composition reflects the feelings of the victims of Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani lands.

"Rather than who is right or wrong, the poem feud showed us how symbols can be used effectively in diplomacy," said Hüseyin Bağcı, international relations professor at Middle East Techincal University (METU) and head of the Foreign Policy Institute based in Ankara.

"Poems reflect the sensitivities of a society. Sometimes reading a poem can lead to being imprisoned, and sometimes it can cause diplomatic tensions," Bağcı expressed, referring to Erdoğan's previous famous reading back when he was the mayor of Istanbul, which led to him being sentenced to prison.

The historical Hudaferin Bridge on the Aras River near the Iranian border in Jabrayil in the recently liberated Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan.

Poem has dual meaning

The poem Erdoğan recited is well-known and often read in that region, Bağcı highlighted. "However, the fact that it was the president that read it triggered Iran. It seems that the country interpreted this move as a threat against its territorial integrity. Sometimes the trigger is a poem, while sometimes it is a mosque or a church. Symbols can be very effective in diplomacy."

The Aras River defines a border in the region, separating Azerbaijan from an area in Iran where a large Azeri community lives. In fact, before their official separation during the 19th century's Russo-Persian War, Azerbaijan and Iran were considered a united territory under Iranian rule, despite the region being heavily populated by Azeri Turks, most of whom still feel a close kinship and have relations with Azerbaijanis on the other side of the border.

"Iran is definitely not right in exaggerating its reaction to the poem this much, even if it is truly disturbed by the fact that it was read," Keskin said while emphasizing that Tehran got the composition wrong.

In fact, in Keskin's opinion, this discussion revealed that Iran has no idea about Turkey's cultural dynamics.

"It is true that the Aras metaphor is usually used as a reference to the convergence of two Azerbaijans. If you check Azerbaijani literature, especially in the Baku-centered Azerbaijan, you can find many poems using this metaphor. When Erdoğan read this poem, Iran assumed that this is what he meant as well. However, in Turkey, the poem has an entirely different meaning. This poem became popular in Turkey during the 1990s when Azerbaijani territories were initially occupied by Armenia and it was known as a Lachin song. Thus, the poem has always symbolized the occupied Azerbaijani territories for the Turkish public," Keskin said in an explanation of the differing historical perspectives.

The recent clashes between Baku and Yerevan erupted on Sept. 27 and the Armenian Army launched attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces, violating previous cease-fire agreements. During the 44-day conflict, Azerbaijan liberated several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages from Armenian occupation. The two countries signed a Russia-brokered agreement on Nov. 10 to end the fighting and work toward a comprehensive resolution.

Iran, apart from Azerbaijan and Armenia, is the only regional power that borders the once illegally occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, making it a state remarkably influenced by the conflict. Still, throughout the fighting, Tehran took a “neutral” position, and even though it never condemned Armenia for its unlawful occupation of Azerbaijani territory, it also never pledged open support to Yerevan, unlike some pundits' expectations. Conversely, Turkey has openly supported Azerbaijan and condemned Armenia's aggression and occupation.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan and Iran have had somewhat troubled ties since Tehran sided with Yerevan instead of Baku in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The tensions lasted for two decades until 2013 when the Hassan Rouhani administration worked to recover the bilateral relations. In 2015, the Iranian envoy to Baku expressed that they do not recognize Armenia's so-called Artsakh Republic in Nagorno-Karabakh, a move welcomed by Azerbaijan.

An Azerbaijani soldier fixes a national flag on a lamp post in the town of Lachin, Azerbaijan, Dec. 1, 2020. (Photo by Karen MINASYAN via AFP)

Iran manipulates domestic politics

According to Keskin, there might be another reason for Iran to overreact to the poem despite its neutral stance in the recent conflict and mostly recovered ties with Azerbaijan: the necessity to shift the focus of political discussions within the country.

"Iran used this poem as a political tool in its domestic politics. When the poem was read during the victory celebrations in Baku, Iran was still discussing the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The main discussion revolved around suspicions over the strength of Iranian intelligence, the presence of foreign intelligence in Iran and the possible weakness of Iran against such attacks. Iran has manipulated the poem feud in order to change the discussion topic within the country, by presenting Turkey as the new target. The country has done this by taking the chance of harming ties with Turkey," Keskin said, underlining that this incident shows a lot to us about domestic politics in Tehran.

Even though the quarrel seems to have ended in the blink of an eye, Bağcı claims that the fact that the governments are ready to let the tension go does not mean their societies will follow.

"Iran, as a state, does not seem to want to not to push this feud any further. However, in my opinion, when it comes to Iranian society, we cannot say the same thing. The other day an Iranian deputy said that he finds the U.S. sanctions on Turkey rightful. I believe this poem feud infiltrated into the Turkish-Iranian ties like a virus," he said, adding that "as long as the virus is under control, there is nothing to worry about."

Sharing a 560-kilometer (347-mile) border that has not changed for nearly 400 years, Turkey and Iran have embassies and multiple consulates in each others' countries, showing their mutual respective interest. In fact, the Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed that relations with Iran are "evolving on the basis of the principles of non-interference in domestic affairs, mutual respect and good neighborliness."

Iranians 'admire' Turkey

Still, Bağcı said that although the two countries do not have any historical enmity, they have a rivalry with each other. Keskin, however, claims that regardless of the states' disputes, on the societal level there is substantial sympathy toward Turkey in Iran.

"Iran, after Turkey, is the country in the world with the largest Turkic population. The majority of this population loves Turkey and even admires it. So, Turkey has a very positive image in Iran. This can be seen from Turkish businessmen's investments in Iran, as well as Iranians’ preference of Turkey when it comes to buying houses, etc. They follow the Turkish media, TV series, politics, literature very closely and take an example out of it. It is even being said that when some Turkish series air on TV, some provinces in Iran become empty. Maybe disputes over topics like this poem may create small reactions in Iranian society toward Turkey but they are temporary," Keskin said, indicating that the Iranian regime is also "not very effective" in shaping people’s perspective over some subjects.

"The society does not trust the (Iranian) government. Although the Iranian government usually does its best to defame Turkey, it often fails," Keskin underscored.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leave the stage during a trilateral summit in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 7, 2018. (HANDOUT PHOTO FROM TURKISH PRESIDENCY PRESS OFFICE via AFP)

Sanctions enabled Iran to step back

The current relative ease in the ties, however, cannot be mentioned without referring to the U.S. tensions, which, according to experts, undoubtedly expedited the recovery period.

The U.S. imposed sanctions last week on Turkey's Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) and its chief Ismail Demir, the U.S. Treasury website confirmed. They were imposed to penalize Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), designed to deter countries from agreeing to military deals with Russia, also restricts U.S. loans and credits to the SSB, although that is not seen as having a significant impact. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, in its immediate response, condemned the decision while slamming Washington's unfair stance throughout the S-400 purchase process.

While Russia and Azerbaijan expressed support for Turkey, pointing out America's hypocritical stance, a surprising statement came from Iran the day following the announcement of the sanctions.

"U.S. addiction to sanctions and contempt for international law at the full display again. We strongly condemn recent U.S. sanctions against Turkey and stand with its people and government," Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter. He shared the tweet with the hashtag #Neighborsfirst, signaling that the dispute over the poem is already ancient history.

"When news of the sanctions came, Iran found itself at a limbo. They could not believe that Turkey could be in the same position as they are toward the U.S. They realized that they overreacted to the poem and were actually not as distanced from Turkey as they assumed. By principal, Iran is against all the embargos and sanctions that the U.S. has issued since they have been subjected to such practices since 1979. Before things got even tenser with Turkey, Iran, by excusing the sanctions, gave a green light to Ankara," Keskin said of his interpretation of the incident. "Iran assumed that the worse the U.S.-Turkey ties are, the better for Tehran. So, Iran saw an opportunity and used it."

For Bağcı, however, by backing Turkey on its S-400 purchase, Iran was actually favoring its biggest ally, Russia, the producer of the missiles.

"Iran uses Russia as a balancing power in the region. By showing support to Turkey over the S-400s, it actually gives a green light to Russia," he said.

Russia is the ally of both Turkey and Iran and the partnership among the three has proven to be effective in stabilizing the region, especially in war-torn Syria through a series of meetings in Astana.

The Astana initiative was initiated by Turkey, Iran and Russia to bring the warring sides in Syria together to find a permanent solution to the nine-year war. The agenda's main items were the constitutional system, political transition, security and resettlement. The first meeting was in Turkey in January 2017 to facilitate United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

Turkish, Iranian reputations differ

Nevertheless, such partnerships do not change the fact that Turkey and Iran share multiple disagreements over quite a number of regional problems.

"Iran and Turkey are at odds on almost every diplomatic crisis from the Caucasus to the Middle East. They are not allies, but there is compartmentalization in ties. Meaning that the cooperation fields and disputed fields are mutually exclusive in the bilateral relations. For instance, even though they cannot get along in their Syria politics, they are determined to preserve the economic ties," Keskin said.

In Keskin's opinion, not being an ally of Iran is actually beneficial to Turkey because of Tehran's infamous international reputation.

"Turkey’s global position and Iran’s global position are not the same. Turkey is a NATO country, it is discussing (European Union) membership. Iran, on the other hand, is a direct target of the West. Thus, putting both into the same category would harm Turkey," he said.

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