January 11, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1546

Anti-Turkey Statements In Iran – Part III: Erdoğan Is Undermining Iran's Territorial Integrity

January 11, 2021 | By A. Savyon and M. Manzour*
Iran, Turkey, South Caucasus | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1546


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sparked rage in Iran recently by quoting a popular Azeri poem; his recitation was perceived in Iran as an insult and a provocation against Iran's sovereignty and territorial integrity. On December 10, during his participation in the Azerbaijan victory celebrations over the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, he recited, in Turkish, a line from the Azeri poem "Aras": "They tore the Aras [River] and filled it with rocks and sticks / I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly," he said. The poem laments the division of the Azeri provinces between the Persian Qajar Empire and Czarist Russia in the early 19th century. Areas of the Caucasus that are today part of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia belonged to the Qajar Persian Empire, and following its defeats in wars with Czarist Russia, the areas north of the Aras River were transferred, under the humiliating 1813 Treaty of Gulistan and 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchay, to Russian control; later on, an independent Azerbaijan was established in them. The areas south of the river remained under Iranian control, but the territory lost by the Persian Empire because of its defeats is still perceived by many Iranians as irrevocably linked to Iran.

Persian territory lost in the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmanchay. Source: U.S. State Department)

Despite his denials, Erdoğan had aimed his recitation at rousing Azeri-Turkish national sentiment, apparently in an attempt to boost a sense of separatist nationalism among Azeris in both Azerbaijan and Iran. A third of the world's Azeris live in independent Azerbaijan, and although they are largely Shi'ite, most are secular, and their culture and language are closer to those of the Turkic ethnic groups. The other two-thirds of the Azeri population is concentrated in northern Iran, constituting a quarter of Iran's entire population; Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself is of Azeri origin. It should be noted that, in October 2020, Iranian Azeris held protests in support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, in which protesters clashed with Iran's security forces. The Azeri minority's support for Azerbaijan compelled the Iranian regime, which has traditionally supported the Christian Armenia, to shift its support to the Shi'ite Azerbaijan.

To view the MEMRI TV clip of Erdoğan's statements in Azerbaijan, click here or below:

Iranian officials' reactions to Erdoğan's provocations focused on his insult to them, and they expressed rage at this show of ownership by Turkey – Iran's political rival – of territory lost by the Persian Empire due to its weakness. These reactions also reflected fear of a Turkey-backed Azeri move that could threaten Iran's territorial integrity and current borders, and fuel irredentism. A move to join independent Azerbaijan by the significant Azeri minority in northern Iran would likely set a precedent for other ethnic minorities in Iran – the Kurds in the north, the Arabs in the south, and the Balochis in the southeast – to split off, causing the loss of additional areas of the Iranian state.  

Erdoğan's blatant insult to Iranians' historic nationalist sentiment and sense of honor – by reminding them of their political and military inferiority and how pieces of the Persian Empire were torn from them – combined with the fear that his recitation would arouse separatist demands from ethnic minorities within its borders, prompted Iranian officials to come out with strong statements against him, alongside the harsh responses from the public on social media. If at one time it seemed that Iranian social media criticism of Erdoğan – Iran's political pro-Islamist rival in Syria and the Caucasus – had been directed from above, so that it would be controlled and limited, he was now depicted full-out as a megalomaniac sultan attempting to revive the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the expense of Islamic Iran.[1] His fate was predicted to be the same as that of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, who was removed after a year in office and sent to prison by the Egyptian military, and of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, sentenced to death and executed by his own people.

Nevertheless, the Iranian foreign ministry chose to merely give Erdoğan a stern warning (see below).[2]

The Iranian daily Kayhan, the regime mouthpiece, published a warning to Erdoğan to abandon this anti-Iran direction; in contrast, pragmatists and reformists called for leveraging his statements to strengthen the Iranian identity of the country's ethnic minorities by reviving the Persian Empire, or by cooperating with other countries in the region to create a socio-economic common market framework. 

This report, the third in a series on the recent Iran-Turkey tensions, will review reactions in Iran to Turkish President Erdoğan's provocation.

Iranian Officials' Reactions To Erdoğan's Provocation

In general, the sense of rage and insult, along with the fear of ramifications that could damage Iran's sovereignty, have been reflected in the reactions of Iranian Foreign Ministry and other officials belonging to Iran's ideological camp.  

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif: "No One Can Speak About Our Beloved Azerbaijan"

In a December 11, 2020 tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed Iran's sense of ownership of its lost territories, and revealed Iran's apprehensions about the possible annexation of further Iranian territory to Azerbaijan, but disguised this as fear for Azerbaijani sovereignty: 

"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.", December 11, 2020

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman: "Iran Allows No one To Harm Its Territorial Integrity"

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated on December 11, 2020: "We have clarified to the Turkish ambassador that the era of territorial claims and expansion of empires has ended... Iran allows no one to harm its territorial integrity, and as its glorious history shows, Iran will not give up one bit of its national security."[3]

Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Rezai: "If Erdogan Was Referring To Greater Iran In His Reading Of The Poem About Aras - It Is True"  

Iranian Expediency Council chairman Mohsen Rezai also tweeted about Iran's ownership of the lost territories, and about the fear that ferment among Iran's ethnic minorities could lead to internal war in the country: "If Erdogan was referring to Greater Iran in his reading of the poem about Aras - it is true. This is because Azerbaijan is situated in the heart of the Iranian nation and alongside its other brothers – the Lurs, the Kurds, the Balochis, and the Arabs. If he is thinking about repeating ISIS's failed efforts in Syria, [he is making] a mistake."[4]

Majlis Member Bighash: "The Southern Caucasus is Iranian Territory"

Majlis member Mahmoud-Ahmadi Bighash asserted, on December 13, that the southern Caucasus was Iranian territory, and added that Erdogan's "amateurism" in the region was allowing Israel to use this region to threaten Iran's security.

To view this clip on MEMRI, click here or below:

Reactions In Iran's Ideological And Pragmatic Media

Iran's ideological and pragmatic daily newspapers responded to Erdogan's pan-Turkic threat in two ways. Ideologically motivated publications warned him not to continue to go down this path, and pragmatic/reform ones proposed a return to the model of an Iranian state as an umbrella framework that serves Iran's many ethnic minorities.

Regime Mouthpiece Kayhan: "'Turkistan' Is the Key Word Erdogan Is Trying To Bring Into The Lexicon Of The Muslim People In Turkey And Of The Turkish-Speaking Peoples East And West Of The Caspian Sea"

Kayhan's December 11, 2020 editorial, titled "Erdogan's Betrayal of Turkey's Muslims," published under the byline of Sa'adollah Zarei, offered an unprecedented critique of Erdogan's conduct in the region, and openly accused him of trying to impose Turkish hegemony and to implement his vision of Turkestan on the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Caucasus. Such a move, the editorial stated, would be incompatible with revolutionary Iran's Islamist vision of its sphere of influence, implemented by means of the Shi'ite resistance axis. Harshly criticizing Erdogan's conduct in Syria and Iraq – countries Iran views as part of its sphere of influence – and for his efforts to advance his own interests to Iran's detriment, the editorial expressed opposition to Erdogan's expansionism, saying that he had betrayed the Islamist message and values that got him elected, and is favoring the Turkic ethnic aspect over the Islamic one. The following are the main points of the editorial:

"Turkey's foreign policy during Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nearly two decades [as Turkey's leader] can be described as 'unstable' and 'fluctuating'... in its efforts to reduce its differences with its neighbors and prevent regional conflicts from being resolved... Today, Turkey's relations with most of its neighbors are in the yellow or red zone. Its relationship with Iran was once almost 'extraordinary,' with the two states seeking to maintain a stable and friendly connection. [But] Recep Tayyip Erdogan's statements two days ago during a parade by Azeri military forces, about the territories surrounding [the] Aras [River], have angered its only friendly neighbor [Iran]. It is as if his vocabulary has no room for [terms such as] moderate and friendly neighborly relations!

"Turkey is geographically situated among countries most of which have strained or unstable relations with Ankara: Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran... The Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran used to maintain friendly relations with Turkey, influenced primarily by Iran's interest in a government supported by an Islamic leader in that country...

"The AKP party, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rose to power [in 2002] with the energy of the Islamic [movements]. It was and remains a major force in Turkey and the region, and was elected by the Turkish people on the basis of that [Islamic] claim. But over this period of nearly 20 years, the Ankara government has instead placed [its] emphasis on extremist pan-Turkic nationalism. In fact, Erdogan has adopted a sort of anti-Muslim and anti-regional ideology, while betraying the Muslim people of Turkey and the ideals of Islam...

"Over the past two decades, and especially during the decade when the region was embroiled in a complex security crisis with bloody conflicts erupting in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, Erdogan has adopted an attitude that supports chaos... It can therefore be said that despite the significant roles played in Syria's security crisis by the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and others, Turkey's role was unique in every way. Today, Turkey is the main cause for the perpetuation of the crisis in Syria. The Turkish army is the main obstacle to the Syrian army's liberating the rest of the Idlib region from Jabhat Al-Nusra and at the same time is empowering the separatists by conquering parts of northern Syria.

"Turkey's relations with Iraq are also based on the development of tension. Turkish soldiers are present across wide swaths of western Iraq... on the pretext of [fighting] the influence of the PKK in these areas, and in spite of the recurring protests [against them] on the part of Iraq's government and military. Turkey's behavior in western Iraq is so disturbing to the Iraqis that some Iraqi leaders have claimed that the forces of the Turkish military intervention in Iraq are greater in number than the U.S. occupation forces – and this is intolerable.

"In light of this, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has long since lost even the 'flavor' of 'Islamism,' becoming instead a regime with aspirations of expansion, aggression, and chauvinism. 'Turkestan' is the key word that Erdogan is trying to bring into the lexicon of the Muslim nation in Turkey and of the Turkic-speaking peoples east and west of the Caspian sea. Instead of constituting a call for coming together based on nationalism, this lexicon tells of Turkey's attempt to rule the Turkic-speaking peoples. The fundamental question is[:] Will these countries and this region accept 'Erdogan's hegemony'?

"During this recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Erdogan tried to take a step toward establishing Turkestan… Erdogan] wanted to tip the local balance of power in Turkey's favor, which meant abandoning the roles played in the region by Russia and Iran. Despite the price paid by Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this policy did not work, and the war failed to advance Turkey's reach to the Caspian Sea. The tripartite agreement among Moscow, Baku [Azerbaijan], and Yerevan [Armenia], signed November 20, did not serve Turkey and made no changes to Armenia's southern border with Iran – leaving Erdogan outside the gate, with no stake in the corridor mentioned in this agreement.

"Erdogan's statements two days ago, during an Azeri military parade in Baku celebrating the recent victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, indicate that Turkey blames Iran for its failure. [It is doing so] even though not only Iran but also every other country in the region, even the Turkic nations in northern Iran, are unwilling to tolerate the establishment of a separatist and interfering empire, and Erdogan's dream will not come true..."[5]

Kayhan: "Morsi's Rise And Fall Is A Lesson For Erdogan"

In a December 31, 2020 article, the Iranian regime mouthpiece Kayhan warned Erdogan not to turn his back on Iran and not to deviate from the Islamic-revolutionary path out of a desire to realize his personal ambitions of regional expansion and thereby become a tool  of the Western enemies who seek to divide the region between different national groups. Kayhan reminded Erdogan of the fate of his fellow Muslim Brotherhood member,  Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi. According to the paper, Morsi trusted the West and cooperated with it, only to be overthrown in a coup that the West itself instigated. Kayhan stated that, had it not been for the support and guidance of Iran, Turkey's true ally, Erdogan would have already suffered the same fate. The following are the article's main points:

"What is Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan doing in the region? Is he active or passive? Is he serving the peoples, or their enemies? Has he not learned his lesson? Does he understand who his friends and who is enemies are? Is he thinking rationally, or is he falling for illusions and behaving recklessly? These questions have taken on more weight since his distorted statements in Baku.

"If we believe that the Middle East has been under attack by 'Christian Zionism' since World War I and II, we must understand how Erdogan's positions in the recent years are linked to the plan of 'Christian Zionism' (Britain, the U.S. and Israel)… Erdogan's ambitions, claims and actions do not match. He expressed his delusional desire to revive the Ottoman Empire, and then expressed solidarity with the countries of the region! This delusion was also [apparent] when he dressed his honor guard in various ethnic costumes,[6] evidently considering himself a sultan. Does anyone believe that he [really] cares about the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbeijan, for example, when he himself occupies parts of Iraq and Syria and violates the territorial integrity of those neighboring countries?...

Erdogan's honor guard dressed in uniforms from Turkish history (Source:, January 12, 2015)

"[The fate of] Muhammad Morsi, Erdogan's Egyptian friend who was jailed and [later] died in the middle of his trial, is a lesson [for Erdogan]. Morsi was not as lucky as Erdogan, who survived the coup [against him]. Morsi counted on America and Saudi Arabia and joined their game against the nations of the region, and was then overthrown in a coup that they [America and Saudi Arabia instigated]. Morsi's first state visit after assuming office [as Egypt's president] was to Saudi Arabia…

"The rise and fall of Morsi is a lesson for Erdogan. He himself has had some similar experiences. Although he [practically] killed himself in the service of the Obama administration, he was stabbed [in the back] by that administration… He knows better than anyone that he would have probably been overthrown in the [2016 attempted] coup, led by foreign [countries], had it not been for the timely and scrupulous support and advice extended by Iran. That dangerous night, it was Iran that ensured Turkey's stability and security, and [kept] Erdogan safe from harm…

"Sowing division among nations is a British policy that is used by both the Zionists and the Americans. In the past century, they tried promoting pan-Turkism and pan-Iranism in Iran and Turkey… This ruinous policy has been promoted in the region among Shi'ites, Sunnis, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Kurds, since unity, cooperation and synergy among the peoples pose a threat to the Western empire…

"Our enemies (America, Israel and Britain) are not going anywhere, but if someone serves them, we will not spare him our vengeance. The alert nations of the region have foiled their enemies' [plans] and humiliated them…  Are these lessons not sufficient to awaken Erdogan [to reality]?"[7]    

Kuchani, Editor Of The Sazandegi Daily, Identified With The Pragmatic Camp: The Only Answer To Neo-Ottomanism Is 'Neo-Safivism'

Alongside the outrage and anger sparked by Erdogan's move, Mohammad Kuchani, editor-in-chief of the pragmatic daily Sazandegi, called on his Instagram page to revive the political alliance of all the ethnic tribes in Iran who feel connected to the Persian-Iranian heritage, and to strengthen their Iranian identity. He wrote: "In the absence of [Iranian] politicians and intellectuals who champion Iranian nationalism, our neighbors, the new Turkish 'dogs,' have assumed a new guise.  Faced with the secularism and militarism of the Turkish Kemalists,[8] I always learned from the politics of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As an Iranian, I believe that the only answer to neo-Ottomanism is 'neo-Safivism.'[9] [I am not advocating] reviving the Safavi rule (which made many mistakes), but [reviving] a reformed [version of it] and reviving its heritage in the modern age, just as Erdogan shifted from Ottomanism to 'new' Ottomanism. The revival of [this] heritage, which united Iran after 1,000 years of disintegration following the Turkish invasion, brought together the Persians, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Georgians, Gilyaks [an ethnic group in northern Iran], Lurs, and Arabs under Iranshahr [capital of the Safavid empire], and revived the state of Cyrus and Darius [the Great, rulers of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, (550–331 BC)]. 

"The death the national ideal in Iran, among both politicians and thinkers around the world, led Erdogan not only to dare continue distorting the history of Iran and Azerbaijan, which is the soul of Iran, but  also to harbor delusions about Aras.

"I know that the pan-Turkics  - not the Azeris and Turks of Iran, who were the pillars of this state from the Safavid era until the [Persian] Constitutional Revolution [of 1905-6] - will attack this [Instagram post]… Instead, shouldn't we Iranians, especially the Azeris and Turks in Iran, launch a hashtag and remind the Turkish president that the [northern?] bank of the Aras [River] was never severed from the Iranian culture and civilization, even  though it is now an independent state [Azerbaijan] thanks to Russian intervention[?] As Hakim Nizami Ganjavi [a 12-century poet who lived in the Caucasus and wrote in Persian]…, wrote: 'The world is a body and Iran is the heart…

"Mr. Erdogan! The Ottomans spoke Persian even in their courts…"[10]

Reformist Saeed Hajjarian: Let's Adopt Erdogan's Proposal To Establish A Local Version Of The European Union

Saeed Hajjarian, a journalist and theorist of Iran's Reformist movement who was the target of an assassination attempt in 2000, apparently due to his activism, wrote an article on the website titled "Let's Take Erdogan's Proposal Seriously." In it, he called to adopt, with certain amendments, Erdogan's proposal to form a regional coalition. Reviewing two trends that currently exist in the world - globalism and separatism - he argued that Iran should not follow either one of them, but should form an economic union of various regional countries, including Turkey, that would maximize its members' national interests.

He wrote: "On the occasion of the Azerbaijani army's victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, Erdogan visited Baku, viewed a military parade, and quoted [the poem "Aras"]. This poem sparked an uproar in Iran, and analyses of the real intentions [behind Erdogan's quoting of it] were published… In any case, amid the uproar over the poem, the Turkish president's proposal to form a regional coalition was forgotten. [But] this proposal, with certain amendments, should be considered as a suggestion made in good faith…

"On the one hand, Iran cannot aspire to separatism, firstly because its economy is based on oil exports, and secondly because, from a technological perspective, it must cooperate with various foreign countries in domains such as the oil and gas [industries] and in the development of other industries, and in procuring raw materials to ease its technological disadvantages. On the other hand, it cannot embrace globalism, firstly because the international legal order and the international conventions are not accepted in our country, and secondly because the local industry and economy will face a crisis due to the impact of the globalist model on issues such as the abolition of custom tariffs, so that even skilled workers will leave the country. Moreover, according to the logic of globalization, there are demands for security cooperation that are not necessarily acceptable to our country. 

"In this situation, Iran should first of all enter into regional agreements with countries on its own level which are most similar to it. An economic bloc grows gradually from a union of such countries and eventually joins the world and is assimilated in the globalist pattern. If we pay close attention, we will notice that in unions, treaties and organizations like ASEAN, the European Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, NAFTA and others like them, there was a desire to form a common market. In these common markets, countries' profits and losses are deconstructed and develop gradually (as opposed to the logic of globalism, which prefers strong and developed countries). Joining such blocs obviously does not preclude independent cooperation with countries that are not part of them.  Iran, for example, can join a regional economic alliance and at the same time act [independently] in selling oil to China, India and South Korea.   

"The bloc can encompass the Iranian civilization and bring together countries like Iraq, Turkey, Armenia,  Afghanistan, Pakistan and Azerbaijan. These countries can form a common market, pave the way towards stability and economic development by adjusting custom tariffs and other economic parameters, and each of them can contribute to issues such as healthcare, oil and gas, to the best of its ability, using the elites, manpower and technology [at its disposal].

"What is said in this article does not necessarily refer to security and to creating a security alliance, but the bloc - based on neighboring countries or countries that share a border - seeks to promote joint peace, stability and security and alleviate regional threats. In fact, according to the proposal of Mr. Erdogan, we can benefit from the model of the European Union and adopt it locally, and by easing regional tensions and cooperating economically, we can gradually distance ourselves from polarization and [merely] bilateral agreements."[12]

Javan Daily: Erdogan Is A "Delusional Sultan"

In its December 12, 2020 editorial, titled "The Delusional Sultan," the Javan daily, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), stated that Erdogan's "numerous military adventures," ranging from the Horn of Africa to the Caucasus, are aimed at creating an "imaginary state." It accused him of trying to include the region north of the Aras in a "new Ottoman" empire and of trying to undermine Iran's territorial integrity.  See MEMRI report: IRGC-Affiliated Javan Daily: Erdoğan 'Is In Pursuit Of Creating His Delusional State,' His 'Imaginary New Ottoman Empire'.

Analyst Sadeq Maleki: Erdogan Seeks To Divide Iran And Annex Azerbaijan To Turkey

Political analyst Sadeq Maleki, who is close to the IRGC, told the reformist daily Shargh on December 15 that Erdogan wishes to divide Iran and annex Azerbaijan to Turkey in order to form "Greater Turkistan," adding that Erdogan's "new Ottomanism" has its sights on the Caucasus. See MEMRI report: Iranian Expert Sadeq Maleki: 'The Old Ottomanism Was Looking To Expand To The Gates Of Vienna And To The West, [Erdoğan's] Neo-Ottomanism Has Its View Toward The East'.

Twitter Users Comment Under "Erdogan Was Wrong" Hashtag

Many Iranian Twitter users posted their opinions with the hashtag "Erdogan was wrong." One of them, online activist Jallal Milani, who frequently retweets statements by spokesmen of the ideological camp, posted an image of Erdogan as Hitler and of Saddam Hussein's body after his hanging, and stated that "the survival of every king and president in the Middle East depends on his cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran."[13]  

* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; M. Manzour is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[2] Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Iranian counterpart M0hammad Javad Zarif and clarified that Erdogan has every respect for Iran's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that he had not been aware of the poem's sensitive nature. Zarif stressed the importance of maintaining the friendly and respectful relations between the two countries, as well as the amicable relationship between the Turkish and Iranian officials, and expressed hope that the bilateral relations would expand in an atmosphere of mutual trust. ISNA (Iran), December 12, 2020.

[3], December 11, 2020.

[4], December 11, 2020.

[5] Kayhan (Iran), December 11, 2020.

[6] In 2015, Erdogan dressed his ceremonial honor guard in uniforms from Turkish history.

[7] Kayhan (Iran), December 13, 2020.

[8] Kemalism, also known as Atatürkism, is the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey.

[9] The Safivid dynasty, of Turkmen-Kurdish origin, ruled most of the territory of modern Iran between 1501 and 1722.

[10], December 10, 2020.

[11], December 20, 2020.

[12], December 11, 2020.

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