Baku, Azerbaijan – President Erdogan criticized for what Iran says was a clear call for breaking up Iran. This may be a case like “if the sound comes from where you throw the stone, you have thrown it in the right place”.

A few words of a poem recited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Azerbaijan has created a political firestorm with Iran, and ignited Iran behind a message of national unity and territorial integrity.

But what did he say and why did it anger Iran so much?

President Erdogan was in the Azeri capital Baku on 10 December 2020 to participate in a military parade marking Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in a 44-day war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that left thousands dead.

Indeed, Iran has been supporting Armenia for decades, even that support has happened during Karabakh war. Iran is the only country that has direct borders with both Azerbaijan and Armenia – especially since over 30 millions of Azeri Turks and hundreds of thousands with Armenian origins live across the country.

The poem recited by Erdogan laments how the Aras River has separated Azeri Turkish speaking people in Azerbaijan and Iran and is a symbol of the pan-Turkism (Turanism) doctrine that seeks the unification of all Turks, including those living in Iran.

“They separated the Aras River and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly,” said the poem.

Historical significance: Treaty of Turkmenchay

The Treaty of Turkmenchay was an agreement between Qajar Iran and the Russian Empire, which concluded the Russo-Persian War (1826–28). It was signed on 10 February 1828 in Torkamanchay, Iran. The treaty made Persia cede to Russia the control of several areas in the South Caucasus: the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate and the remainder of the Talysh Khanate. The boundary between Russian and Persia was set at the Aras River. The territories are now Armenia, the south of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan and Igdir Province (now part of Turkey).

The treaty was signed for Persia by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza and Allah-Yar Khan Asaf al-Daula, chancellor to Shah Fath Ali (of the Qajar Dynasty), and for Russia by General Ivan Paskievich. Like the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, the treaty was imposed by Russia, after a military victory over Persia. Paskievich threatened to occupy Tehran in five days unless the treaty was signed.

By this final treaty of 1828 and the 1813 treaty, Russia had finished conquering all the Caucasus territories from Qajar Iran what is now Dagestan, eastern Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, all of which had formed part of its very concept for centuries. The area north of the Aras River, such as the territory of the contemporary nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the North Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, were Iranian until they were occupied by Russia during the 19th century.

As a further result and consequence of the two treaties, the formerly-Iranian territories became part of Russia for around the next 192 years except Dagestan, which has remained a Russian possession ever since. Out of most of the territory, three separate nations would be formed through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

To better understand why the message infuriated Iran so much, one must look at a treaty signed almost 192 years ago that concluded the Russo-Persian War and continues to be regarded as a source of shame brought on Iran by the Qajar dynasty that ruled until 1925.

The Treaty of Turkmenchay ceded control of vast swathes of land in the South Caucasus to Russia and set the Aras River as the boundary between the two countries. Those lands now constitute large parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and even parts of Turkey.

Millions of Azeri-Turkish Iranians still feel a close kinship and have relations with Azeri Turks on the other side of the border, Azerbaijan.

Offensive language’

Turkey also rebuked Iran for “offensive language” aimed at President Erdogan. Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun said: “We condemn the use of offensive language toward our president and our country over the recitation of a poem, whose meaning has been deliberately taken out of context.”

Altun said the poem “passionately reflects the emotional experience of an aggrieved people due to Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani lands”.

“It does not include any references to Iran. Nor is that country implied in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “baseless and heavy statements made by Iran and aimed at our president are unacceptable”, a Turkish foreign ministry source said. He also gave an assurance that President Erdogan fully respects Iran’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.