How a poem could spark a new Iran-Turkey conflict
History appears to be repeating itself in the Caucasus. The recent fight between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia has revived the historical rivalry between Iran and Turkey and could threaten to evolve into a wider conflict if not kept in check by cooler heads. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stoked Iran’s fears last week, when he recited a poem about Azeri nationalism — something Iran fears and tries very hard to suppress.
For hundreds of years, the Persian-Turkish rivalry has been among the most notable features of West Asia, with major spillover effects in the Middle East too. They fought at least 10 ruthless wars from the 16th to the 19th centuries. At the time, both were emerging empires seeking to enlarge their domains.
Historians believe that Iran’s conversion to Shiite Islam was partly a result of that rivalry. Until the 16th century, Iran was a majority Sunni country and a major center for Sunni learning, attracting scholars from near and far, including Turkey. But Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, converted his empire to the Shiite sect and launched a cruel campaign of forced conversion in the areas under his control, with unspeakable atrocities committed against those who refused. At the time, the Ottomans were expanding their influence in the region, and having the mantle of “the Muslim Caliphate” was an important factor in their success. As a caliph, the Ottoman sultan garnered loyalty from Sunni Muslims everywhere, including Iran. By converting Iran to the Shiite sect, the shah sought to sever that tie. The speed and force with which he imposed this conversion underlined the urgency he felt to create a solid internal front against the Ottomans.
The Ottomans and Safavids fought each other for control of the Caucasus. While the Ottomans were victors in most of these wars, the Persians were able to extend their dominion over most of historical Azerbaijan, in the northwestern part of today’s Iran. The Azeris are ethnically Turkish and speak a Turkic language, which meant they had a natural affinity with Turkey. The shah, therefore, imposed the Shiite sect in Azerbaijan to weaken that affinity.
In today’s world, religious wars are no longer in fashion, but Iran is still hoping that it can play the sectarian card to its advantage in the areas of historical Azerbaijan it still controls, where Shiite Islam is the dominant faith. On the other hand, modern Turkey is all about Turkish nationalism and is now reasserting its ethnic ties with the Azeris.
According to some accounts, Azeris constitute about 25 percent of Iran’s population, making them the largest minority in the country. At about 20 million, the Iranian Azeri population is double that of the country of Azerbaijan. Both populations speak the same Turkic language (written in two different scripts) and both are majority Shiite.
This combustible mix of ethnic and religious factors is now threatening to ignite. In the recent conflict in the Caucasus, Turkey sided with Azerbaijan while Iran sided with Armenia. And, while addressing a parade in Baku, Erdogan last week read parts of an Azeri poem lamenting the presence of an artificial border “tearing apart ancient Azeri lands by force.” Coming on the heels of an Azeri victory, Tehran took this move as an expression of support for calls for the secession of the ethnic Azeri parts of Iran. It summoned the Turkish ambassador to Tehran and launched a disparaging blitz against Erdogan in official and semi-official media outlets. One publication dedicated a full-page under the headline, “Delusions of Ottoman caliph,” with a large drawing of Erdogan riding a wooden horse and resembling Don Quixote. Other publications elaborated on the theme of the sultan’s “delusions.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lambasted Erdogan and reasserted Iran’s sovereignty over its Azeri regions. There then erupted a media war pitting Iranian and Turkish social media against each other. It is not clear how much of this media war was officially directed, but it exposed several underlying issues.
The two countries still harbor deep-seated suspicions that can boil over at the slightest provocation.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
First, despite the Iranian-Turkish detente over Syria, for example, the two countries still harbor deep-seated suspicions that can boil over at the slightest provocation, such as reciting an old poem.
Second, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh whetted Turkey’s appetite for more conquests in that region, as Ankara perceives that it “won” that war.
Third, the speed with which Iran erupted in protest at the perceived reference to disputed Azeri lands revealed how worried it is about its hold over ethnic minorities, including the Azeris. There have been numerous attempts by Azeris in Iran to assert their cultural independence and political autonomy, in addition to calls to unify the two parts of historical Azerbaijan, which Erdogan was reviving by reciting that poem in Baku last week.
The conflict could spiral out of control. Poor economic conditions in both Turkey and Iran have provoked popular protests, which have challenged the sanctity of each country’s leadership and legitimate hold on power. Foreign adventures have served as useful diversions and cover for repression at home. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh may have encouraged Turkey to push forth, while stoking Iran’s fears about the future.
The UN should take note to contain this potentially dangerous conflict. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has previously mediated in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and could also help the UN’s efforts.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1