Tehran, Iran – A few words of a poem recited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Azerbaijan has created a political firestorm with Iran and united Iranians behind a message of national unity and territorial integrity.
But what did he say and why did it anger the Iranian people and politicians so much?
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The Turkish leader was in the Azeri capital Baku on Thursday to participate in a military parade marking Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in a 44-day war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that left thousands dead.
Ending the war was a priority for Iran – the only country that has direct borders with both Azerbaijan and Armenia – especially since millions of Azeris and hundreds of thousands with Armenian origins live across the country.
The poem recited by Erdogan laments how the Aras River has separated Azeri-speaking people in Azerbaijan and Iran and is a symbol of the pan-Turkism doctrine that seeks the unification of all Turks, including those living in Iran.
“They separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” said the poem.
To better understand why the message infuriated Iranians so much, one must look at a treaty signed almost 200 years ago that concluded the Russo-Persian War and continues to be regarded as a source of shame brought on Iran by the Qajar dynasty that ruled until 1925.
The Treaty of Turkmenchay ceded control of vast swathes of land in the South Caucasus to Russia and set the Aras River as the boundary between the two countries. Those lands now constitute large parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and even parts of Turkey.
Millions of Azeri-descent Iranians still feel a close kinship and have relations with Azeris on the other side of the border.
Political back and forth
So it came as no surprise that in his rebuke of Erdogan, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan”.
“Didn’t he realise that he was undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan?” he tweeted on Friday.
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
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 11, 2020
Iran’s foreign ministry also summoned the Turkish envoy to Tehran and demanded Turkey explain Erdogan’s remarks.
“The Turkish ambassador was told that basing foreign policy on illusions is not wise,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted, advising Turkish officials to read history.
In response, Turkey also summoned Iran’s envoy to protest against Iranian remarks.
This came days after Zarif hosted his Azeri counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov in Tehran to discuss furthering bilateral ties after the war.
On Saturday, Zarif had a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu who said Erdogan was unaware of the sensitivities around the poem and thought it was about Lachin and Karabakh.
Turkey also rebuked Iran for “offensive language” aimed at Erdogan.
Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun said: “We condemn the use of offensive language toward our president and our country over the recitation of a poem, whose meaning has been deliberately taken out of context.”
Altun said the poem “passionately reflects the emotional experience of an aggrieved people due to Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani lands”.
“It does not include any references to Iran. Nor is that country implied in any way, shape or form,” he said.
Cavusoglu said “baseless and heavy statements made by Iran and aimed at our president are unacceptable”, a Turkish foreign ministry source said. He also gave an assurance that Erdogan fully respects Iran’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Many Iranian lawmakers, however, demanded that Turkey apologise following Erdogan’s remarks.
“Mr Erdogan, you have either not read history or wish to distort it,” tweeted Ali Nikzad, the deputy speaker of parliament.
“Erdogan has overstepped his boundaries and has apparently forgotten where he had turned to on the night of the 2016 coup!” tweeted Mohammad Reza Mirtajodini, the Tabriz representative in parliament.
On Sunday, 225 of the parliament’s 290 members signed a statement read out loud during a televised session that “strongly condemned” the Turkish leader’s remarks, which Iranian parliamentarians found “surprising and unacceptable”.
“Azerbaijan will not be separated from Ayatollah Khamenei, the revolution, and Iran,” they asserted in reference to the Iranian supreme leader, and called for unity among all Muslim nations.
‘We will eat soil but not give away soil’
After a video of Erdogan’s speech in Baku circulated online, Farsi-language social media was awash with angry posts that demanded Iran give a resolute response.
They were united in saying Erdogan must refer to Iran’s history, which spans thousands of years, before supporting separation.
Many posted pictures of a dishevelled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he was found in a hole in 2003 and ultimately executed.
Hussein was presented by users on social media as the latest representation of a leader who sought to break up Iran, but failed in spite of having multilateral support.
The strongman led an invasion of Iran in 1980, one year after Iran’s current ruling establishment came to power following a revolution, that led to an eight-year deadly war that saw more than half a million deaths on both sides.
Dozens on Sunday protested in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, one of the four largest Azeri-majority provinces in Iran, and defended Iran’s territorial integrity.
But perhaps the most powerful message sent from Iranians to Turkey on social media was one originally uttered more than a century ago during the Constitutional Revolution of Iran that took place between 1905 and 1911 and led to the establishment of the parliament.
Many Iranians on social media cited a famous quote by Sattar Khan, a pivotal figure in the revolution and a man of Azeri origin who is still regarded as a national hero for always prioritising Iran’s territorial integrity above all else.
In his diaries, the commander writes about when he and his people were under siege for nine months with little food and clothing. He describes how he saw a mother and her young daughter and the girl resorted to eating the dirt under some bushes out of hunger.
“I thought the mother of the child would curse me and say damn Sattar Khan for bringing us to this day,” he wrote.
“But she said ‘we will eat soil but not give away soil’ and that was when I wept.”