On December 15, 2020, the Iranian reformist newspaper Shargh published an interview, titled "In Turkey's Strategy, Iran Is The Most Important Rival," with Sadeq Maleki, an Iranian expert on Turkish affairs.
In the interview, Maleki stated that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wishes to divide Iran and to annex Azerbaijan to Turkey in order to form the Greater Turkistan. Maleki also stated that Erdoğan is trying to "establish Neo-Ottomanism," which differentiates itself from Ottomanism in its geopolitical perception. According to Maleki, the old Ottomanism was looking to expand to the gates of Vienna and to the West, whereas Erdoğan's Neo-Ottomanism has its view toward the East. Maleki further explained that Iran is opposing Turkey's expansionism eastward and this is why Iran is Turkey's main rival.
According to Maleki, Turkey cannot revive the Ottoman Empire, "but it has the power to create havoc." "Perhaps Turkey cannot establish Neo-Ottomanism in the mold of the Ottoman Empire, but it can have a very disruptive role in the Middle East and we have seen [Erdoğan] play this role. Some people do not believe that Turkey can achieve these goals, but we are witnesses to the fact that he has ascertained some of his aims in the area," Maleki wrote.
It is worth noting that, on
Lately, tension in Iran's relations with Turkey was given public expression in the Iranian media. The Iranian regime is alarmed by the expansionist ambitions of Erdoğan's Sunni Islamist government, which come at the expense of Shi'ite Islamist Iran and its resistance axis.
A 19th century painting depicting the Battle of Chaldiran. The battle took place on 23 August 1514 and ended with a decisive victory for the Ottoman Empire over the Safavid Empire.
Following is the interview with Sadeq Maleki:
The AKP's "Unofficial Policy" Is "To Divide Iran And Annex Azerbaijan To Turkey In Order To Form The Greater Turkistan"
Zeynab Esmaeli Seiveri (ZES): "This week, Iran's anxiety reached new heights, as reflected in social and Iranian media, due to the separatist behavior [of Erdoğan]. The cause [of this heightened anxiety] was the recitation in Baku by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, about the forever Iranian river Aras. This matter is similar to opening a [pandora's] box that contains the various ethnic and racial tensions [of the region]. While there are many great challenges in the conflict-ridden area of the Middle East, there continues to be an international conflict with the United States. All these issues can increase anxiety. In an interview with Sadeq Maleki, a senior political analyst who has devoted many years analyzing Turkish issues, we started with Erdoğan's motivation and proceeded to the many anxiety-producing challenges for Iran. You can read the interview below.
"Due to the recitation by Erdoğan in Baku, there were many different reactions in Iran. Despite this latest anxiety-producing statement, we should spend some time analyzing what path [Erdoğan] took to arrive at this juncture in his relationship with Iran where his recitation of one poem worries Iran about its territorial integrity, even though experts in the last few years were more concerned with the softer vulnerability of Iran in its relations with Turkey."
Sadeq Maleki (SM): "The policy toward the East and strengthening of Pan-Turkism, has never been the sole policy of Erdoğan or his Justice and Development Party (AKP). All Turkish political parties, except for the Kurdish parties, are founded on Turkish nationalism and have some relations to Pan-Turkism and are somewhat supportive of this policy. These political parties include current and defunct parties, such as Republican People's Party, Nationalist Movement Party, even the late [former Turkish prime minister Bülent] Ecevit's People's Democratic Party and the late [former Turkish prime minister Necmettin] Erbakan's Welfare Party.
"The current Pan-Turkism view, with the exception of the approach to the Kurds, has shown the unofficial coalition of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party. In the past, these parties had, and today's AKP has, maybe not in their official but in their unofficial policy, wish to divide Iran and to annex Azerbaijan to Turkey in order to form the Greater Turkistan. At the start of the Twentieth Century, the Young Turks had also moved in this direction; but were mightily defeated.
"So why are Erdoğan's inner wishes more evident today? The reason is that today's Erdoğan is very different from yesterday's Erdoğan. Yesterday's Erdoğan was weak and had no control over the armed forces or the judiciary and he had a relatively weak economy. Today, with the changes in the parliamentary system relating to the power of the president, Erdoğan has practically gained absolute power over Turkey. Even though today Turkey is in an economic crisis and the Turkish Lira has lost its value, the economy is stronger and larger than what it was in the beginning of 2000s. The economic, military, and political powers have allowed Erdoğan to undertake these initiatives and to pursue Turkey's interests not just on one front but on many fronts.
"At this time, Erdoğan is active in a wide geographic region stretching from Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and Iraq and even in a dispute with Greece. At times he challenges Europe and the United States. This Erdoğan follows a policy of creating a Neo-Ottomanism. But this Neo-Ottomanism is different from the former Ottomanism. The old Ottomanism was looking to expand to the gates of Vienna and to the West. This Neo-Ottomanism has its view toward the East. What country in the East can stand up to or oppose Turkey? That country is Iran; therefore in any Turkish strategy, Iran has always been Turkey's main rival. Sometimes, this rivalry resulted in positive interaction bringing positive results; other times, the interaction was negative resulting in animosity. We can say that the proxy war in Syria was the cause for changing rivalry to enmity.
"The poem that Erdoğan recited about the Aras River shows his true motivation. Even in official meetings, the Turks raise the point that after Istanbul, Tehran has the highest Turkish population, even though the Iranian Turks are the foundation of modern Iran. Their view is based on the physical similarities and identical language. Erdoğan and like-minded people have not understood, or pretend not to know, that Iranian Turks identify themselves as Iranians. This concept has created a false illusion in the minds of Erdoğan and other like-minded people. This illusory Pan-Turkism approach, which stems from the unspoken policy, becomes evident in events such as the victory parade in Baku. The events that we witnessed in Baku shows the backward thinking of Erdoğan who seeks to divide Iran. Though Erdoğan never utters this idea, but the poem that he recited is the road map, in the near or far future that he will pursue to achieve his goals."
"It Is True That Turkey Cannot Revive The Ottoman Empire, But It Has The Power To Create Havoc"
ZES: "There are many who believe and share this analysis and anxiety that Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are intent on reviving the Ottoman Empire. If we were to examine this analysis and anxiety under the current conditions, in view of the regional and trans-regional powers that are in existence and the devaluation of the [Turkish] Lira that you mentioned, with the Turkish identity in Iran, then how serious should we take this sense of anxiety?"
SM: "This is a question of strategy that is unrelated to the Turkish issues. The Middle East has three power centers; Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. None of these countries have dominant power. It is not like the Atlantic region where a country by the name of America is dominant and plays a major role in regional disputes. The Middle East is not like the Far East that has a country named China that plays a dominant role in regional disputes. It is not Eurasia that has a power like Russia that carries the final word in the area.
"The Middle East has three countries: Iran, Turkey, and Egypt and if they achieve power parity, then there will be peace in the Middle East. It should be noted that even the United States, China, and Russia have no interest in changing the power parity in the Middle East. Thus, the Neo-Ottomanism is a dream. However, when a statesman comes to power and changes history to fit his own narrative, he will have the same illusionary view as Erdoğan. It is because of these illusions that find Syria and Iraq in this situation, and in the relationship with Iran, [Erdoğan] manifests the same strategy. But let me emphasize another point: that Turkey now has a strong economy. Our economy, by contrast, is weakening due to our entanglements.
"In my writings over the last 10 to 15 years, I have said that Turkey is awaiting our entanglement with the United States and if we enter into a crisis with the U.S., then Turkey will certainly enter into our Northern region, under the guise of Pan-Turkism to protect their blood brothers. It is the same excuse that was used to enter Mosul, the same excuse that was used to intervene militarily in Syria. It is true that Turkey cannot revive the Ottoman Empire, but it has the power to create havoc. It has the power to create challenges [for its neighbors] in the same way that Iraq or Syria has been turned to rubble. In some of these instances we, too, had a role; but in the main part, such as the dispatch of ISIS, the support of ISIS, and the establishment of ISIS as an entity, Turkey was the main and prominent actor.
"Perhaps Turkey cannot establish Neo-Ottomanism in the mold of the Ottoman Empire, but it can have a very disruptive role in the Middle East and we have seen [Erdoğan] play this role. Some people do not believe that Turkey can achieve these goals, but we are witnesses to the fact that he has ascertained some of his aims in the area.
"In the last few years, one of the geopolitical rivalries between Iran and Turkey relates to the energy transport system. We [Iran] were looking to transport our fuel through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean region. A look at the current situation in the region makes this route unachievable. The connection of Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan has not only sidelined our strategic advantage, but has replaced it, not just for now but maybe even in the future, as regards to our ground fuel transportation, where Turkey (read: Caucasus and Asia Minor) will have no need for our fuel. In some cases, while it has eliminated our strategic advantages, with many of its neighbors, both far and near, Turkey has claimed that it has ethnic bonds. With those countries, it has developed economic, political and sometimes even military bonds, where these bonds will greatly enhance Turkey's ability to achieve its goals.
"Even more importantly, with its non-ideological policies, Turkey, by being a player in the region, is able to play in the big leagues in the international arena and interact with both Russia and America. It has good relations with Israel and enjoys relative support in the international arena. Therefore, when you look at the regional conditions, you will notice that Turkey has had the upper-hand in the changes and dealings in the region. We also witnessed this upper-hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the Karabakh conflict, where Azerbaijan was the victor, Turkey played a major role. When we assess these changes, we must review all regional issues and to reassess our approach toward them. When we undertake this reassessment, we will see that some of the Turkey's actions as a rival are only natural. In other cases we will have to correct and self-assess our actions. We, as Iran, have to change our behavior so that we can protect our interests in the region."
Azerbaijan's Roots Are Iranian; When Iran Neglects Azerbaijan, Turkey Takes Over
ZES: "You have pointed to the regional activities of Iran and Turkey. This raises a question of how the self-assessment about the actions of Iran that results in increasing Turkey's success as a rival and weakening Iran's position. How can one categorize this situation?"
SM: "We have to change our policies and actions. As long as our approach does not change, we will be losers. To change our behavior, we must change our mindset and our world-view. We do not have a good assessment of international relations. We have not grasped the full impact of international militarism; or if we have, then closed our eyes to the realities on the ground and are living in a dream-world in the sky. The world reality is that America is the super power which imposes its wishes over other powers such as Russia and China. Over the last 40 years we have used our energy on disputes that has resulted in JCPOA.
"In reality, even the JCPOA has been imposed on us. We have to change our mindset. As long as our mindset does not change, our actions will not change. If we change our behavior and mindset, then we can understand international relations and behave according to international norm. Then we protect our national interests. We have undertaken tasks that are beyond our capabilities. When in foreign affairs one undertakes obligations that are beyond one's capabilities, one gets into situations that we are in at this time. At this time, for us, the Emirates, Bahrain, and other minor countries in the region have become emboldened. When we go to search for our interests in other regions, we lose sight of the Shi'ite Azerbaijan that is next to us, a country that shares our history and our ethnicity.
"It is irrelevant that now they are re-writing history and their identity; but in fact their roots are Iranian and their history is the history of Iran. When we neglect them [Azerbaijan], Turkey goes in and undertakes trade, political, and cultural activities permitting its military to participate in the victory parade and its president to become illusionary and recite a poem that indirectly unmasks his wishes.
"In my opinion it is not too late and we should not delay it any further. We do not have enough time. Now Israel is our neighbor from the North and South, and this is a disaster. We are in confrontation with Israel because of the Arab/Islamic issues, while the Arabs and Israel have together become against us. It is not necessary to be a political analyst; if you have an elementary school education and can read the newspaper, you can understand all of this. You can hear these remarks in the streets and the bazaars. Therefore, we must change our behavior. Does Turkey not have its independence today? Independence is relative. No one has 100% independence. America's most important problem with Iran stems from Iran's independent actions. This country [Iran] that is sitting on vast natural resources, strong human resources, has everything. We have the capacity to be the Germany of the Middle East. Turkey has no resources; the Turks are always envious of Iran's natural gas and oil resources.
"Turkey now has a bigger economy and has surpassed us economically and has become the regional power and we have not woken up. Therefore, in my opinion, those who set our policy have to rethink our policies. In this rethinking process, they must change their views and thoughts globally, in international relations and regional affairs and to take steps and undertake policies that are within their capacity. If these changes occur, then over a ten-year process, we can repair the damage and, in light of our human and natural resources, we can make up this deficiency. I do not see that we are in the positive condition to accomplish this result. The reality is that Iran is made up of many different ethnicities. When our economy is weak and the military has lost the support of the people, then all countries will covet us. We should not allow ourselves to reach the point where the people are disgruntled. We should not let the country reach this stage."
"It Is Natural That In The Karabakh Conflict, Iran And The Iranian Azerbaijan Should Stand Shoulder To Shoulder With The Republic Of Azerbaijan"
ZES: "Another issue that I need to bring up, in the conflict in Azerbaijan it is said that we took the side of Azerbaijan, for some good reasons, but in this stance, we lost Armenia. This tension was finally resolved with the strong support of Turkey for Azerbaijan. On the other hand, the friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan must also be considered, and the shared border with Turkey, increases the risks of the separatist stance from the north by the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey, which can happen with the help of the security discussion with Israel. Do you take this concern seriously or do you think that it has been exaggerated?"
SM: "You should note that this is a concern, but more than being an issue in our foreign relations, it is a concern in our domestic affairs. You just mentioned a point that we supported Azerbaijan and we lost Armenia. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are our neighbors, but their domestic makeup carry two different weights. Which analyst paid attention to this difference? When we state that Azerbaijan [region] is the head of Iran and when we say Azerbaijan is the foundation of a new Iran, it is not only our Azerbaijan, but also that other Azerbaijan.
"If we are to accept Aliyev's statement that the two Azerbaijans are to be united, then as a nationalist movement, they should unite with Iran. It is because of this social identity where we feel the bond in the Caucasus that we supported Azerbaijan. We have had Literature of Regret [referring to literature written over the last 200 years lamenting the loss of the Caucasus to Russia] in both Iran and Azerbaijan. Were Iranians not pained by the loss of the Caucasus? It is natural that in the Karabakh conflict, Iran and the Iranian Azerbaijan should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Azerbaijan.
"The Iranian policy toward Karabakh was, in my opinion, an intelligent one where even the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] had condemned the occupation of Karabakh in his comments, while confirming the territorial integrity of all of Azerbaijan as a necessity to maintain the current geopolitical status.
"The second point, it is true that Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan and this is not desirable for us, but to question it is our duty. Israel is our enemy, and Azerbaijan in some aspects is our rival or in some cases is under the influence of Pan-Turkist currents in their greed and illusions about Iran. However, Azerbaijan does not have the capability to stand against Iran in view of our long history and our military, political, and economic powers."
"The Signs That We See In Bahrain, The Emirates, Azerbaijan, And In Erdoğan's Statements Point To Iran Becoming A Weaker Player"
ZES: "What you are saying is that Azerbaijan is not that powerful, and that is my point as well. Azerbaijan is a country that is in need of investments because this same annexed region must be revived and made part of their country. But at this time it has gained the upper hand in the land route for gas and oil with Turkey. The point is that it has a friend like Turkey and other friends like Israel and Russia are always close by. Do you think that if we were to look ten years down the road, there will be some instigation against Iran by Azerbaijan?"
SM: "That is true. As I mentioned, Azerbaijan has oil resources and natural gas. What made Azerbaijan the victor in the Karabakh war? Its economy and oil. Even though I have stated that at this time Azerbaijan is not capable to act against Iran, there is no guarantee that in three or ten years from now, Azerbaijan will not be able to confront us unless we change our behavior. Just like at this time Bahrain, the Emirates and the other minor countries in the Persian Gulf are emboldened, Azerbaijan can follow suit.
"In the regional transformation, if we do change our behavior and act within our capabilities and develop better policies, then the conditions will become favorable to us. This statement will be criticized, but even if your problem is not solved completely, it will be substantially diminished. Resolving our problems with America does not mean that we will not have other issues, but it means that we have better options to resolve our other issues. Does Turkey not currently have issues with America? It has issues in relations with the Kurds, the Alawis, human rights, the imprisoning of journalists, and in consolidating its power. But since it somewhat respects the rules and norms in the international arena, it garners some leeway since Turkey plays in a professional manner.
"We have oil, fuel, and human resources and if we were to play in a professional manner in the international arena, then we would be a regional superpower. The signs that we see in Bahrain, the Emirates, Azerbaijan, and in Erdoğan's statements point to Iran becoming a weaker player, and they can create new challenges for Iran. This is dangerous for Iran since we will be entangled in many different fronts."
"America Does Not Wish To So Weaken Iran That Turkey Will Be The Superior Power"
ZES: "And under these conditions when we are made of multiple ethnicity and ethnic composition, could this become the Achilles' heel?"
SM: "Of course they will take advantage of this situation. The 'Greater Khorasan' is claimed by the Afghanis, the same with Khuzistan and the Baluchis. In any case, we also have the reality at hand. I have had the opinion, and still believe that America is not after dividing Iran. America does not wish to so weaken Iran that Turkey will be the superior power to Iran. America is after a Middle East where there is a balance of power.
"In our relationship with America, we must act in a win-win posture and within our capabilities. If we can create this interaction, in my opinion, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Riyadh, and all the countries in the region will accordingly change their behavior. If you look at a map, you will see the vastness of Iran. This map is the envy of all. A country [Iran] with four seasons and with natural resources, with a rich culture and history, there are few countries in the Middle East with such unique traits. I do not want to boast and God forbid I am not trying to debase others to inflate our value. But we can truly be one of the three main powers in the Middle East. At the same time we will become superior to others in terms of our economy and comfort, if we can better manage the situation. With changes in our behavior and our strategic and constructive policies, we can revive Iran's power and glory."
"We, Too, With A Change In Behavior, Can Compensate For Our Deficiencies And Take Our Nation And Our People To Its Appropriate Standing In The Middle East"
ZES: "If I were to summarize our interview and your opinions, to solve our main global problems and improve our relations with the world superpowers, the basic solution is for us [Iran] to act in accordance with acceptable norms and principles."
SM: "Yes. Our main challenge is with America. If we can solve this challenge with patience and positive outlook in a win-win posture within our capacity, then many of our problems will be solved. You may recall that at the start of the term of Mr. Rouhani and his policy relating to JCPOA, what anxieties were created in the region? Those anxieties were created because Iran was returning to its status and within its capacities. If this were to happen, the initial reaction in the region would be a shock. But if your message is of peace and friendship and you behave within the international norms and act in an acceptable manner, surely your other problems will also be resolved.
"In one of my articles I indicated that surely Germans, Vietnamese, and Japanese have greater rancor toward America than we do since the calamity that America inflicted on them did not happen to us. But they chose a different path. How is it that we use the collective experiences and inventions of others but fail to follow their politics. Did Germany forget? Did the Japanese forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did the Vietnamese forget? In their new approach, Germany was able to become a dominant power in Europe, not just in Europe, but become the third power in the world, through peace when it had failed such dominance in two wars. Therefore, we, too, with a change in behavior, can compensate for our deficiencies and take our nation and our people to its appropriate standing in the Middle East."
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9105, IRGC-Affiliated Javan Daily: Erdoğan 'Is In Pursuit Of Creating His Delusional State,' His 'Imaginary New Ottoman Empire,' December 23, 2020; MEMRI TV clip No. 8530, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan In A Parade In Baku, Azerbaijan: We Are Two States, But One Nation; We Must Hold Accountable Those Who Violated The Honor Of Humanity In The Nagorno-Karabakh War, December 10, 2020.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9065, Anti-Turkish Statements In Iran – Part I: Iranian Daily: Erdogan Is Pursuing A Policy Of Religious, Ideological War, Hiding His Hostile Regional Policy Behind An Islamic Mask, December 2, 2020; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9078, Anti-Turkish Statements In Iran – Part II: Iranian Daily On 'Sultan Recep [Tayyip Erdogan],' Who 'Fantasizes That He Is The Equal Of The Ottoman Sultans And Can Tell The World What To Do,' December 9, 2020; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9099, Russian Expert Mirzayan: Erdogan Is Trying To Exploit Azerbaijani Nationalism To Undermine Iran, December 21, 2020.
 Sharghdaily.com, December 15, 2020.