President Erdogan’s recitation of a 19th-century Azeri nationalist poem during his attendance at Baku’s Victory Parade as his Azerbaijani counterpart’s guest of honor last week provoked harsh criticism from Iranian officials who regarded it as implying territorial claims on their country’s three northwestern provinces that form part of the historic Azerbaijan region (which also naturally includes the Republic of Azerbaijan), though the entire scandal is just a gigantic misunderstanding since it’s doubtful that the Turkish leader meant to convey any such intentions and simply wasn’t aware at the time of how negatively those words would be interpreted by the Iranian government.
The Aras River Poem
The Iranian-Turkish Strategic Partnership was rocked by a sudden scandal after Tehran strongly protested President Erdogan’s recitation of a 19th-century national Azeri nationalist poem during his attendance at Baku’s Victory Day parade as his Azerbaijani counterpart’s guest of honor last week. The controversial words that the Turkish leader uttered are as follows: “They separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly.” This poem has previously been used by some to imply territorial claims on Iran’s three northwestern provinces that form part of the historic Azerbaijan region, which was separated by the Aras River from what is nowadays the Republic of Azerbaijan (which forms the other half of that transnational region) as a result of Russian imperial conquests at the time.
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif swiftly responded on Twitter by writing that “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.” The Turkish Ambassador to Iran was then summoned to that country’s Foreign Ministry over President Erdogan’s comments, after which the Iranian Ambassador to Turkey was symmetrically summoned to that country’s Foreign Ministry to deny the allegations made against their leader and complain about Tehran tweeting about this misunderstanding instead of utilizing diplomatic channels to resolve it. The resultant scandal has predictably emboldened opponents of their strategic partnership to become more vocal.
The Iranian-Turkish Strategic Partnership
Objectively speaking, however, the entire issue seems to be a gigantic misunderstanding. It’s extremely unlikely that President Erdogan was aware of the negative historical connotation associated with that nationalist Azeri poem, exactly as Foreign Minister Zarif suggested, but at the same time, Tehran felt obligated to publicly oppose anything that can even remotely be misportrayed by those will ill intent as encouraging Azeri separatism in northwestern Iran. Iran and Turkey are closer nowadays than at any time in recent memory as a result of their geostrategic convergence on several issues of common interest across the so-called “Greater Middle East” such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and even Libya. It’s therefore unthinkable that President Erdogan would knowingly jeopardize this historic moment just to earn more applause during a parade in Baku.
Azerbaijan’s Regional Integration Proposal
It can’t be known for sure, but President Erdogan might have had his Azerbaijani counterpart’s visionary proposal for a regional integration platform in mind — which he likely would have been briefed about before his trip — when he made the decision to recite that poem during the parade. President Aliyev told reporters after his talks with President Erdogan shortly before the parade started that a new multilateral platform should be created in the region for all the relevant countries to join. The day after, President Erdogan told a Turkish TV channel that “Mr. Putin has a positive view on this idea”, which the Turkish leader also said could include Armenia, Georgia, and Iran as well. If this ambitious platform is successfully created, then the Aras River — among other borders — would naturally transform from a regional barrier into a bridge for regional integration.
There’s a pretty good chance that most — if not all — of the relevant countries will decide to join, with the only possible uncertainties between Armenia and Georgia, the first of which might still be sour about its nearly three-decade-long occupation force finally being kicked out of Nagorno-Karabakh while the latter might refuse to join any platform alongside Russia due to their dispute over the status of Abkahzia and South Ossetia (which Tbilisi claims as its own while Moscow recognizes both of them as independent). In any case, Iran has everything to gain by strengthening multilateral strategic relations with Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey, especially those with a security dimension such as thwarting any separatist plots of ultra-nationalist radicals in its northwestern provinces who might be influenced by hostile third parties like the US and “Israel”.
President Erdogan’s Optimistic Mindset
Having established the background context of President Erdogan’s controversial remarks, it therefore can’t be discounted that was simply assuming the future successful implementation of the regional integration proposal that President Aliyev had just publicly unveiled immediately prior to the military parade at which his guest of honor was invited to speak. In the Turkish leader’s mind, the nationalist aspirations embodied by that poem could finally be fulfilled through peaceful means as a result of creating a transnational community of peace and prosperity through closer regional integration between Azerbaijan and Iran alongside the other members such as Turkey, Russia, and possibly even Armenia and Georgia that could also join this initiative. Had he known how negatively Iran would have reacted to his words, however, then he might not have said them in hindsight.
Clarifying The Turkish Leader’s Comments
All that President Erdogan seemingly intended to convey was that the era of regional divisions has ended as a new era of regional integration emerges in its wake following Azerbaijan’s glorious military victory over Armenia. He certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Azerbaijan would set its sights on the historic Iranian region of the same name next, but just that the Aras River which has separated the transnational Azeri people for over one and a half centuries might soon transform from a regional barrier to a gateway for regional integration in the event that President Aliyev’s visionary proposal is successful. Having presumably been briefed about it ahead of time, he probably thought that his recitation of that nationalist Azeri poem would speak to the heartfelt aspirations of this divided people without realizing how negatively the Iranian state would react to it.
Hindsight Is 20/20
It’s for this reason that observers can remain optimistic about the prospects of the Iranian-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the larger regional integration goals that their leaders share since both governments will probably realize just how gigantic of a misunderstanding this entire scandal really is after finally speaking to one another about it behind closed doors. President Erdogan likely only had positive intentions in mind, yet Tehran wanted to make sure that no one with ill intent exploited his words, hence its very harsh public reaction to them. In hindsight, perhaps President Erdogan shouldn’t have recited that nationalist poem, the same as Foreign Minister Zarif should have resorted to traditional diplomatic channels to resolve the misunderstanding instead of going public with it, yet neither state representative meant any harm by what they did.
A Sad Misunderstanding
It’s all simply a sad misunderstanding where one well-intended action unwittingly led to another. After President Erdogan recited the nationalist Azeri poem, the Iranian government felt compelled to publicly respond in order to make its displeasure known and preemptively thwart any potentially forthcoming Balkanization attempts by hostile third parties such as the US and “Israel”. It’s regrettable how everything turned out considering the original intent since this scandal has overshadowed President Aliyev’s visionary regional integration proposal. Moreover, the opponents of the Iranian-Turkish Strategic Partnership in both countries and abroad have become more vocal over the past few days, which could set into motion a self-sustaining cycle of distrust among their friendly people if such views aren’t moderated as soon as possible.
Looking forward, it’s predicted that this scandal will soon pass and that the Iranian-Turkish Strategic Partnership will emerge even stronger as a result, especially if both countries join Azerbaijan’s proposed regional integration platform alongside Russia and perhaps even Armenia and Georgia as well in the best-case scenario. As it stands, all sides should accept that this scandal is just a gigantic misunderstanding and realize in hindsight what they should have done better. Under no circumstances must they submit to the sudden pressure upon them to weaken their newfound strategic partnership since that would only ultimately end up playing into their geopolitical enemies’ hands. The larger region needs closer integration at this historic moment, not a return to the era of distrust and Balkanization plots, which both leaderships seem to understand very well.