Tensions between Turkey and its historic regional frenemy Iran are rising over Azerbaijan, the arrests of several Turkish citizens accused of links to an Iranian drug baron and the kidnapping of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul.
Sparks began to fly when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited a poem composed by Azeri poet Bahtiyar Vahabzade during an official visit to Baku on Dec. 10Â to celebrate Azerbaijanâ€™s victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A verse that alluded to Iranâ€™s large ethnic Azeri minority was the trigger. â€œThey separated the Aras River and filled it with sand. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us by force,â€ Erdogan, intoned. The river that rises in Turkey serves as a natural boundary between Azerbaijan and Iranâ€™s Azerbaijan region. The area is home to Turkic-speaking Azeris, who constitute the Islamic Republicâ€™s largest non-Persian minority and are seen as potential separatists prone to exploitation by external enemies.
A day after Erdoganâ€™s recital, Iran summoned Turkeyâ€™s Ambassador to TehranÂ Derya Ors to convey its displeasure. His words were â€œunacceptable and meddlesome,â€ the Foreign Ministry said, demandingÂ an explanation. Iranâ€™s Foreign Minister MohammadÂ Javad Zarif went further, asserting via Twitter that the poem â€œrefers to the forcible separation of areas north [of the]Â Aras from [the] Iranian motherland. Didnâ€™t he realize he was undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan?”
Omer Celik, top spokesman for Erdoganâ€™s ruling Justice and Development Party, in turn lashed out at Iran on Dec. 12. â€œWe condemn the ugly language used by some Iranian politicians against our president,â€ he said. â€œThey have lost their way to the point of confusing our president, who has always regarded Iran as a friend and brotherly neighbor, with Iranâ€™s enemies.â€
There followed a telephone call between Zarif and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, after which the Iranian Foreign Ministry declared that the â€œmisunderstandingâ€ had been overcome. Then on Monday, Iranâ€™s PresidentÂ Hassan RouhaniÂ announced, â€œBased on my experience with Mr. Erdogan, itâ€™s impossible that Turkey would target our territorial integrity. In my view, following the conversation and statement between the foreign ministers of the two countries, we can consider the matter closed.â€
But is it? Is Turkey as interested in putting the lid on the burgeoning spat as Iran appears to be?
On Dec. 14, Turkeyâ€™s state-run news channel TRT World reported that Turkeyâ€™s national intelligence outfit, the MIT, had arrested 11 people linked to a Turkish drug cartel. The detainees are being accused of abducting Iranian dissidentÂ Habib Chaab, who was lured to Istanbul from exile in Sweden with promises of financial help. He was then spirited across the border to Iran, where he was attacked and forced to confess to bogus charges of involvement in a military parade two years ago. Notorious Iranian drug baron Naji Sharifi Zindashti, who was acting in concert with Iranian officials, allegedly engineered the sting.
The very public airing of the story first leaked by a Turkish official to The Washington Post suggests Turkey is keen to telegraph that it’s taking robust action against Iran as it seeks to build bridges to the incoming Joe Biden administration.Â More unusually, Turkeyâ€™s MIT, whose boss Hakan Fidan has been accused by Israel of ratting out its local assets in Iran to the clerical regime, is presented as having taken the lead. This, in turn, fits with Turkeyâ€™s recent efforts to reach out to IsraelÂ â€”Â which have been greeted with a big shrug and a yawn.
In a further blow, the Donald Trump Administration on Dec. 14 announcedÂ long deferred sanctions targetingÂ Turkey’sÂ defense procurement agency over Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles.Â
Timur Soykan, author of â€œBattle of the Barons,â€ a recent book about Turkeyâ€™s drug mafia, agrees that Turkish authorities seem keen to publicize the arrests. â€œA foreign country carrying out operations on oneâ€™s own soil is a very big problem for any country,â€ he told Al-Monitor. â€œWhat is of particular note is that Turkey had in the past remained silentâ€ when Iranian agents carried out similar rogue operations on Turkish soil, Soykan said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.
Turkey and IranÂ have a tradition of managing their rivalry pitting the regionâ€™s most powerful majority Sunni state against the Shiitesâ€™ clerical regime. Firdevs Robinson, a London-based analyst and former editor of the BBCâ€™s Central Asia desk, said, â€œDespite their historic rivalry, Turkey and Iran, with their strong traditions of statehood and multiethnic societies, have always maintained a delicate balance in their bilateral relations. On Kurdish separatism, they chose to cooperate. In return, Turkey has refrained from any comment or action that could be perceived as supporting separatist tendencies among Iranâ€™s large Azeri minority.â€
So what has changed? Chalking up brownie points with Washington and Israel may be one explanation. But Robinson reckons that Erdoganâ€™s poetic license, as it were, was no accident but rather a sop to his informal nationalist coalition partner, Devlet Bahceli, whose ultra-Nationalist Action PartyÂ has in the past sent Gray WolfÂ volunteers to fight in Azerbaijanâ€™s 19-year-long conflict with Armenia. â€œWhen I heard Mr. Bahceliâ€™s inflammatory comments, I came to the inevitable conclusion that his speech was not an accident,â€ Robinson observed. â€œWhat is driving it is the same nationalist pressure that is replacing [Erdoganâ€™s] Islamist ideology and reshaping Turkeyâ€™s foreign policy in recent years.â€
Robinson was referring to Bahceliâ€™s angry reaction to Iranâ€™s rebukes. He repeated the same radioactive verses on his Twitter feed Monday, followed by a lengthy diatribe about Turkic unity and Iranian insolence.
Turkeyâ€™s military backing for Azerbaijan, which proved decisive in helping it wrest back territories occupied by Armenian forces for decades, has strong support among Turks of all ideological stripes. Alin Ozinian, a Yerevan-based political analyst, detects â€œa resurgent wave of chauvinismâ€ in Turkey that has been energized by the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. â€œSocial media is where this wave is manifested in its purest and most authentic form,â€ she told Al-Monitor, as people can â€œpour out their hatred without revealing their true identities.â€ Ozinian, an ethnic Armenian from IstanbulÂ who has been at the receiving end of such abuse, believes Azerbaijanâ€™s victory has been very â€œusefulâ€ domestically for Erdogan. â€œHe was in the starring role of a Turkish victory that was secured in the teeth of Russian opposition,â€ or so itâ€™s being cast,â€ she noted.
Erdoganâ€™s fan base extends to Azerbaijan as well, where Turkeyâ€™s patronizing attitude had ruffled national pride for years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani journalist who is fiercely critical of her countryâ€™s autocratic leadership and, like Ozinian, a target of nationalist trolls, said, â€œErdogan’s popularity in Azerbaijan was already visible from day one of the fighting that started on Sept.Â 27. Praise for Erdogan’s support to [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev in this war is an ongoing conversation. This gratitude was also visible across Azerbaijan where the national flag of Turkey hung next to the flag of Azerbaijanâ€ during Erdoganâ€™s state visit, she told Al-Monitor.
â€œAnyone who has been against this war is treated and described as a traitor and as someone who hates their country and its people. There has been so much hate circulating online against critics of the war and pacifists, and some of it truly reached disgusting levels. From deliberate targeting to calls for public punishment and arrests. I remember seeing one commentator saying that we should all be shot,â€ Geybullayeva said.
None of this has sat well with Iran, which is widely alleged to have supported Armenia in past years as a means of counterbalancing Azerbaijan. But Iranâ€™s Azeris have been pushing back.
Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said, â€œSince the beginning of the war, Iranian political elite and the public were polarized on how Tehran should react to the development. On the one hand, there was a group of people arguing that because of religious and cultural considerations, Iran should take sides with Azerbaijan.â€
Azizi continued, â€œThe pressure posed by Iranâ€™s ethnic Azeris in the form of public gatherings in support for Baku was also a strong factor pushing the Iranian government further inÂ that direction. The second group argued that Baku retaking Karabakh would deal a serious blow to Iran in geopolitical terms, and it would also mean an increasing Turkish and Israeli presence in the South Caucasus, which is considered as Iran’s ‘cultural and historical strategic depth.’Â Turkeyâ€™s move in deploying Syrian mercenaries into Karabakh was another major concern for Iran.â€
Azizi was referring to Israelâ€™s arms sales to Azerbaijan, which increased markedly during the course of the latest round of hostilities. â€œAware of all these perils, the Iranian government opted for publicly supporting AzerbaijanÂ â€”Â apparentlyÂ as ideological factors and Azeri pressures were more effective. At the same time, there was a strong belief in Iran that the recent war in Karabakh was in fact Erdoganâ€™s initiative, not Aliyevâ€™s.
As such, a small reference by Erdogan to Iranâ€™s Azerbaijan â€”Â which to me, doesnâ€™t seem to be a deliberate provocation â€”Â was enough for the Iranian government to firstÂ see itself facing an upcoming wave of public outrage from those who were against Iranâ€™s support for Baku, and second to believe that the worst-case scenario regarding what they see as Erdoganâ€™s expansionist ambitions is about to happen.â€
Turkeyâ€™s recent stabs at improving ties with the United States and IsraelÂ suggest that its energies are shifting from overseas military adventures to restorative diplomacy, but not if Bahceli continues to have his way.