What is behind the most recent hostility between Iran and Turkey?

Turkey and Iran are experiencing a new level of tension following remarks by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Tehran accuses of undermining its territorial integrity. 

Erdoğan travelled to Azerbaijan last week for a military parade celebrating the recapture of large chunks of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. There he delivered a speech that included recitation of a poem that lamented the separation of the Azeri people. 

“They separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” read the line from the poem. To many Iranian leaders, Erdoğan’s reading of this line triggered outrage for stoking separatism in their country. 

“President Erdoğan was not informed that what he ill-recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from the Iranian motherland,” tweeted Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday. Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said that the Turkish ambassador was summoned and reminded that it was “unwise to base foreign policy on fantasies.” 

The most vitriolic comments came from members of the Iranian parliament. After the speech in Baku, Iranian parliamentarians drafted a resolution condemning Erdoğan. One MP went so far as to compare Erdoğan to Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator who invaded Iran in 1980, by suggesting he “learn from Saddam’s fate.” 

Turkish officials hit back at the attacks on Erdoğan. In a phone call with Zarif, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called the Iranian responses “unacceptable”. Ömer Çelik, the spokesman for Turkey’s ruling party, demanded that Iranian politicians be more respectful to Erdoğan.

“We condemn the ugly language some Iranian politicians use about our president,” Celik wrote Saturday on Twitter. “Those who attack our president, a friend of Iran in difficult times, delight the enemies of their own countries.” 

Turkey and Iran for years have worked together on multiple regional fronts sometimes in Syria or Qatar, but acrimony has been high in recent weeks. 

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported a detailed plot by Iranian intelligence working through organised crime elements to kidnap an Arab-Iranian separatist named Habib Chaab in October. The story was based on anonymous sources from inside Turkish intelligence, a rare leak given the past impunity Iranian agents enjoyed operating inside Turkey. 

For weeks there have also been reports of backchannel contacts being established between Turkey and Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy. It was reported that Turkish officials had secret talks with Israeli counterparts recently to try and repair the frayed relationship. Israel, like Turkey, also supported Azerbaijan through military exports despite some backlash. 

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh, especially Turkey’s ironclad support of Azerbaijan, however is the largest source of uncertainty. The recent fighting stirred fears in Tehran of separatist sentiment taking root among the very large Azeri minority in its northeast along the border with Azerbaijan proper.

Officially, Iran made clear its neutrality in the conflict and quickly embraced the deal brokered by Russia to call a truce on November 10. However, Azerbaijan’s campaign inspired an outpouring of support among ethnic Azeris through protests in several Iranian cities with demonstrators shouting “Karabakh is ours”. Four imams in Azeri-majority provinces went so far as to issue a joint statement on October 1 to show support for Baku’s military campaign. 

Iranian leaders including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as occupied territory, but Baku’s victory with Turkish support heightened fears about the spread of pan-Turkism, an ideology that calls for the unification of the world’s Turkic peoples. 

The Azeri minority outnumbers the entire population of Azerbaijan itself and previous leaders, most notably the country’s second president Abdulfaz Elchibey, have flirted with irredentist ambitions to conquer Azeri-majority parts of Iran in early 1990s. Turkey too has always been a historic rival in the region and President Erdoğan’s ruling coalition relies in part on a form of virulent Turkic nationalism. 

His coalition partner, head of the National Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli may have contributed to stoking concern when he lashed out at Iran’s reaction to Erdoğan’s speech. Retweeting the entire poem in question on his Twitter account, Bahceli went a step further by lambasting Iran for historically separating the Turkic peoples. 

“Does accepting the coercive status quo that has existed since the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay find a response in the conscience of Turkishness? Didn’t they separate Aras?” tweeted Bahceli, referring to the 1828 treaty between Qajar Persia and the Russian Empire that resulted in the separation of Iran’s Azeri regions from Azerbaijan along the Aras River. 

“A Turk is not a Sunni or a Shia is a Turk is a Turk,” he continued before finished by saying “Turkishness cannot be damned.”

To be sure, any threat from a pan-Turkic ideology is dulled by separate Iranian nationalist sentiments and the amiable relations with Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev made it a point to reassure Iran during the conflict with Armenia and termed it a “brotherly nation”. On the president’s website, there is no mention of the poem recited by Erdoğan. 

Turkish media during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict made it a point to highlight Azeri-Iranians’ support for Baku, but the community was not particularly receptive to Erdoğan’s remarks. In the city of Tabriz, local protestors converged on Turkish consulate where they angrily demanded the Turkish president be mindful of his words.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran,” read a statement by the demonstrators to state-run Fars News Agency. 

“If Iran had not helped you at the night of the coup, you would have had a fate similar to that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.”