Poem crisis with Turkey: Iran needs self-criticism for foreign policy

In his masterpiece “Politics Among Nations,” political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau enumerates a number of factors that contribute to a country’s national power. Among these, “quality of diplomacy” and “national morale” are of particular importance.

According to him, national morale refers to the “degree of determination with which a nation supports the foreign policies of its government in times of peace or war,” and “quality of diplomacy” refers to “the art of bringing the different elements of national power to bear maximum effect upon those points in the international situation which concern the national interest most directly.”

Morgenthau emphasizes that “diplomacy is the brain of national power as national morale is its soul.”

The recent diplomatic spat between Turkey and Iran provides us with empirical evidence about how these two elements interplay in international relations.

The poem is not the issue

The dispute started when President , as the guest of honor, recited a piece of poetry at a victory parade in Azerbaijan to celebrate its recent military victory over Armenia.

In his speech, the poem is about the Aras River, which flows through the Iranian-Azerbaijani border, demarcated some 200 years ago.

Notably, the reaction in Iran was not confined to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s tweet. The so-called reformists and intellectuals, as well as oppositions based in Europe and North America, all used uncivilized language toward Turkey and its president.

Even some Iranian reformist newspapers published caricatures of Erdoğan. One of the articles in these newspapers labeled the Turkish foreign policy as neo-Ottomanism and suggested a neo-Safavism policy from the Iranian side to counter Turkey.

The article also cites Turkey’s activities in the region, including its prominent role during the recent Azerbaijan and Armenia war, and dubs it as a “geopolitical coup” attempt.

As a matter of fact, Erdoğan is an eloquent orator, who occasionally recite poems (including Persian ones) in his speeches. In fact, it is part of his political biography. He even went to jail for reciting a poem in his early political career decades ago.

It suggests that he did not have a hidden agenda behind the said poem. The very poem has also been sung by Turkish singers in Iran, with permission from concerned Iranian authorities.

Therefore, the reason behind the high temper of Iranian leaders may be located somewhere else, that is the mounting crisis in the Iranian national morale.

So much so, using a poem as a pretext to summon the Turkish envoy in Iran and using discourteous language against the president of a neighboring country shows that Iran lacks that essential quality of diplomacy, as suggested by Morgenthau.

Technically speaking, the common factor between Azerbaijan and Turkey is only their ethnic affinity, while from a religious point of view they stand at two far extremes given the Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict brewing in many parts of the Muslim world.

It is only Turkey’s high-quality diplomacy that has succeeded in establishing strong relations with Azerbaijan through an emphasis on commonalities and keeping differences at bay.

Meanwhile, there are several factors that Iran could utilize to get closer to Azerbaijan. First, there is a significant Turkic population in Iran. Secondly, there are two provinces in Iran named after Azerbaijan (East – West Azerbaijan).

Most importantly, there is a religious affinity between the two nations as both follow the Shiite school. These factors would have been more than enough grounds for warmer relations between Baku and Tehran, had there been high-quality diplomacy in place in Iran.

The Iranian intelligentsia has often attempted to establish its claim over central Asia and the surrounding region and believes that the region has been a part of the Persian Empire and should, therefore, remain within Iran’s cultural and political sphere of influence.

But contrary to this belief, they have suddenly noticed Turkey’s growing soft power in the region and consequently, are losing their tempers out of sheer confusion and disillusion.

Tehran’s isolation

Furthermore, ground realities suggest that lack of high quality of diplomacy, as well as its rogue behavior, have brought about the isolation of Iran in the region and the entire Muslim world.

Additionally, Iranian national morale is not in favor of Iran’s external behavior at all.

Turkey has successfully managed to become the second most powerful player in the region after Russia. It has gradually established its hold over the region and has generated a tremendous influence in Africa and many other parts of the Muslim world.

Over the last couple of decades, Turkey has established its soft power almost everywhere that Iran has been trying to win over since 1989.

In the meantime, Iranian foreign policy has been plagued by setbacks and has fallen back to square one. So if there is a “geopolitical coup” that has taken place, it is has been a successful coup. Iran has already lost the game of geopolitics.

Ankara owes this success to its high-quality diplomacy as well as its high national morale. The Turkish nation is standing behind the government policy with regards to Azerbaijan.

It is manifested through political gossips on the streets as well as the national flag of Azerbaijan being hoisted in every nook and corner of the country. Why there is no flag of Venezuela being hoisted in Iran, despite full-fledged support of the Islamic Republic for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro?

Explicitly, Iran has wasted its national resources and hard currency, while Turkey has established businesses to make money and also enhance its soft power besides giving benefits to the locals.

It is this general failure that has made the Iranian leaders nervous, not the Aras poem. Therefore, the Iranian leaders should be rechecking what has gone wrong with their policy.

Certain events should serve as food for thought for Iranian foreign policymakers, i.e., why in 2008, the Azerbaijani authorities seized the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s relief items and publicly set them on fire in the Azerbaijani city of Lankaran, while they invited Erdoğan as their top guest at a time of national celebration?

Why would countries such as Sudan, Tajikistan and Albania close down Iranian cultural centers while Turkey is given more space to do business, initiate cultural and aid activities?

In short, the statements of Iranian leaders, reformists, intellectuals and foreign-based Iranian opposition all indicate the fact that Iran still sees the current ground realities of regional politics with the mentality of the era of Qajar, an Iranian royal dynasty of Turkic origin, when Iran was the No. 1 enemy of the Ottoman Empire.

No doubt the current diplomatic crisis will sooner or later be over, but the general relations between Iran and Turkey will continue to suffer from such problems in the future as long as the Iranian policymakers do not give up their Qajar era mentality.

*Ph.D. lecturer at Department of International Relations and Political Science, Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University

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