Last fall, Iran reacted to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s unfreezing with a careful approach based on balanced diplomacy. Although historically on Armenia’s side, Tehran has officially supported Azerbaijan’s right to control all territory within its UN-recognized borders, including Nagorno-Karabakh. Nonetheless, amid that 44-day war the Islamic Republic had concerns about Azerbaijani actions fueling a conflict that could further spill into Iran, especially amid Iran’s struggles with COVID-19 and economic sanctions. Domestic politics were of course a factor too, with Tehran officials knowing that among ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of northwestern Iran, there was much sympathy for Baku’s struggle to “liberate” Nagorno-Karabakh during last year’s war.
To advance its national interests in de-escalating the crisis, Iran sought to serve as a diplomatic bridge between Yerevan and Baku after clashes broke out on September 27, 2020. “The region cannot sustain further violence,” declared Saeed Khatibzadeh, the then-spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, shortly after the 2020 Karabakh War erupted. “Iran’s policy has not changed, but [has] always been oriented towards facilitating talks between the two sides as the use of military force is not a sustainable solution to this decades-old dispute.” Khatibzadeh also warned that Tehran “will not by any means tolerate violation of its borders and territory.”
In the South Caucasus, there was a geopolitical status quo that lasted from 1994 to 2020. Iran favored that balance, which took shape after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994). However, the 2020 Karabakh War brought that equilibrium to an end. As a result of the 44-day conflict, in which the Armenians suffered losses to an emboldened Turkish-, Israeli-, and Pakistani-backed Azerbaijan, there are now new power dynamics in the region that worry Tehran. Unprecedented tensions between Baku and Tehran in September/October 2021 highlighted Iran’s grave concerns about the consequences of the 2020 Karabakh War. Although recent frictions between Tehran and Baku have fortunately cooled this month, the extent to which problems between these two capitals heated up speaks to Iran’s sense of insecurity after its loss of influence in the South Caucasus.
The extent to which problems between these two capitals heated up speaks to Iran’s sense of insecurity after its loss of influence in the South Caucasus.
Stepping Back From the Brink of War
On September 12, the militaries of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan kicked off “Three Brothers – 2021” in Baku, marking the first-ever such joint exercises. As experts, such as Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), have noted, Iran was not surprised by Azerbaijani-Turkish joint exercises because of the extremely close military ties between Ankara and Baku. But Pakistan’s involvement shocked Tehran, which saw “Three Brothers – 2021” as not boding well for regional stability. That same day, Armenian authorities reported that Azerbaijan began levying a “road tax” on Iranian vehicles near Eyvazli, an Azerbaijani city near the Armenian border. Two Iranian truck drivers were even detained for weeks after they entered Nagorno-Karabakh.
On September 28, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, told Anadolu Agency that the Islamic Republic had violated his country’s sovereignty by taking “illegal” actions such as hiding the identities of Armenia-bound Iranian trucks. A few days later, the Iranians staged unprecedented war games near the Azerbaijan border. These exercises, held near two border crossings (Poldasht and Jolfa) entailed drones, helicopters, and artillery units. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian referred to the Azerbaijan-Israel partnership when he said, “Iran does not tolerate the Zionist regime’s activity against its national security and will take whatever action is necessary.” Aliyev expressed “surprise” in response to these Iranian war games, to which Iran responded by asserting its right to stage military drills within its sovereign territory.
Ultimately, Baku and Tehran have enjoyed mostly positive relations since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 and the Islamic Republic has attempted to strike relatively neutral stances on problems between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But the recent rise in tensions in the South Caucasus have pushed more voices in Baku to portray Iran as “purely and actively pro-Armenian”, according to Joshua Kucera, a freelance reporter who specializes in the former Soviet Union. There have also been suspicions in Azerbaijan, a Shi’a Muslim-majority country which has a very secular society, about the Islamic Republic’s religious influence. As tensions were escalating earlier this month, Azerbaijani officials accused Iran of not only invading the southern part of their country amid the 2020 Karabakh War but also allowing its clerics run networks of “secret agents” in Azerbaijan. Also, Baku alleged that Iran has laundered billions of dollars in Nagorno-Karabakh via various financial institutions.
Despite the military exercises and accusations, Azerbaijan and Iran took steps to ease friction and dial down tensions through talks on October 13. Afterwards, Iran’s Foreign Ministry declared that the two countries needed to “prevent misunderstandings” and that conflicts should be resolved through communication and an understanding of shared enemies. Baku released a similar statement about both sides taking note of “harmful rhetoric…which does not correspond to the level of friendly relations between our countries, and the need to resolve all differences through dialogue.” Azerbaijan’s release of the two Iranian drivers, which Tehran praised as a “constructive step”, was important to this easing of friction.
Baku knows its military is much weaker than Iran’s, thus any war with the Islamic Republic would be disastrous for Azerbaijan.
Baku knows its military is much weaker than Iran’s, thus any war with the Islamic Republic would be disastrous for Azerbaijan. “I find it unlikely that Baku at the end of the day really seeks a confrontation,” said Dr. Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with Inside Arabia. “Ultimately, [Azerbaijan] knows it would be the loser in such a confrontation.” What Baku sought during the escalation period was “to take advantage of Iran’s compromised position, mindful of the outcome of the [2020 Karabakh] war,” the “continued tensions between the United States and Iran,” the failure “to revive the JCPOA,” and “Iran’s continued isolation,” according to Dr. Parsi.
“This may score Azerbaijan some points in Washington with hawkish elements here. However, it is an extremely risky and dangerous strategy,” Dr. Parsi told Inside Arabia. “It’s happening at the same time as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are taking clear steps to avoid being a frontline state against Iran,” he added. “These two countries are doing so because they have come to the conclusion that the United States will not back them up. Azerbaijan may have a different read of Israel’s intent and commitment if a confrontation were to occur.”
Even with a military confrontation being averted in October 2021, wider geopolitical and geo-economic issues are set to continue pitting Azerbaijan and Iran against each other. Fundamentally, the Islamic Republic’s main problems with Baku pertain not so much to Azerbaijan itself. Instead, they are about Azerbaijan’s strong relationship with Israel, as well as its role in serving Turkey’s hegemonic aspirations throughout the Caucuses and Central Asia.
“Iranians fear Israel’s security and intelligence presence in Azerbaijan as a threat across their border.”
“Iranians fear Israel’s security and intelligence presence in Azerbaijan as a threat across their border,” Negar Mortazavi, a Washington, DC-based Iranian-American journalist and political analyst, told Inside Arabia. “Israel seems to want to use tensions with Azerbaijan to create a situation on Iran’s border similar to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is on Israel’s border.”
Syunik’s Strategic Significance and Turkey’s Role
Syunik, a province in southern Armenia bordering Iran, is a delicate variable in the equation. Iran fears that designs to redraw the borders of the South Caucasus could result in the Islamic Republic and Armenia ceasing to be immediate neighbors. As part of the November 10, 2020 peace deal that Russia and Turkey pushed both countries to sign last year, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan proper are to be linked through a transit corridor that goes through Syunik. After the peace deal went into effect, Iranian officialdom quickly vowed to forbid their country’s border access to Armenia to be cut off, with Khatibzadeh declaring last year that Iran’s international borders “will not change in the future.”
If Azerbaijan takes control of this land on the Armenian side of the border, the Islamic Republic will feel geopolitically and geoeconomically disadvantaged. Amid the Trump era of “maximum pressure,” which in practice, has continued under Biden, the risk of being cut off from Armenian land is particularly worrisome from Tehran’s perspective.
“Losing the land bridge to Armenia would be a significant strategic loss for Tehran, and increasingly so as its strategy is to evade sanctions by trading more with immediate neighbors,” Dr. Parsi told Inside Arabia. “To have its northern border essentially checked by Azerbaijan, which Tehran increasingly views as a proxy for Israel, will be deemed unacceptable in Tehran.” Indeed, on October 4, one Iranian parliamentarian, Mojtaba Zonnouri, accused the leadership in Baku of attempting to cut Iran’s access to Armenia, with Israeli and Turkish backing. Within this context, Armenia and Iran have come together in recent weeks to publicly affirm their mutual willingness to continue sharing a border.
One Iranian parliamentarian, Mojtaba Zonnouri, accused the leadership in Baku of attempting to cut Iran’s access to Armenia, with Israeli and Turkish backing.
Iran’s public statements about its problems with Azerbaijan have focused on Baku’s links to Israel. But the role of Turkey in Azerbaijan also unsettles Tehran. The ways in which Ankara has benefited because of Armenia’s losses in the 2020 Karabakh War do not sit well with Iran’s leadership. For one, the issue of reconstruction is important. Iran calculated that by taking a balanced position in the 2020 clashes, it would be able to secure contracts for the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed by warfare in and near Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the bids have largely gone to Turkey, not Iran.
In the grander picture, this transit corridor through Syunik will enable Turkey to link itself to northern Iran and Turkic countries in Central Asia, making Turkey increasingly central to East-West trade. Tehran believes that this would harm Iran’s geo-economic interests while possibly bolstering pan-Turkism within the Islamic Republic. This may lead to concerns about potential ethnic unrest in Iran due to shifts in the South Caucasus’ geopolitical order.
Ethnic Factors in Iran
During and after the 2020 Karabakh War, and especially in reaction to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech, delivered in Baku on December 10, Tehran has become increasingly unsettled by the possibilities of ethnic unrest in northwestern Iran. As explained by Dr. Parsi, Baku’s claim on Iranian territory has added to Tehran’s conclusion that “several countries in the region have tried to stoke ethnic divisions in Iran in the last few years.” Indeed, many Iranians interpreted Erdogan’s speech in the Azerbaijani capital as a sign of Ankara’s supposed quest to carve up Iran by inciting ethnic separatism and Turkish/Azerbaijani nationalism in the Islamic Republic.
Nonetheless, even if outside powers may seek to play the ‘ethnic card’ to divide or weaken Iran, it is important to consider that ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran—one-fourth to one-third of the population, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—are well integrated into the country. Thus, while the idea of foreign powers trying to stoke ethnic unrest in northwestern Iran is a concern to Tehran, the regime has more reason to fear forces of separatism among other ethnic minorities in Iran (Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds, etc.). It is fair to say that the threat of Azerbaijani/Turkish nationalism within Iran’s borders is of less importance than the Israel factor.
Tehran’s Turn to Russia
Historically, Turkey and Russia have been the dominant outside players in the Caucuses, with Iran playing a less influential role. At this current stage, Iran is looking to Russia to push back against Israel and Turkey’s agendas in the Southern Caucuses. Earlier this month, Tehran’s chief diplomat said that the Islamic Republic seeks a “big jump” in its partnership with Moscow.
Iran is looking to Russia to push back against Israel and Turkey’s agendas in the Southern Caucuses.
To be sure, Russia and Iran’s governments share concerns about Turkey’s ability to make greater geo-economic gains in the region. “Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes,” wrote Dr. Emil Avdaliani, a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Tbilisi-based think tank Geocase. “The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious.” The Caspian Sea is important to this geopolitical picture. This body of water has “always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone” shared with Russia, as Dr. Avdaliani explained. “Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.”
That said, there is no clear indication that Russia has the means or the will to use its influence over Baku in the ways wanted by Tehran. The Iranians would like Russia to tell Azerbaijan to stop providing Israel with a position near the Iranian border which makes Tehran feel vulnerable. “I don’t think there’s much that Iran can expect to get from Russia,” Dr. Azizi explained. “When it comes to Israel…this is a bilateral issue between Azerbaijan and Israel so it’s highly unlikely that Russia would interfere directly…After this round of conflict in Karabakh, Iran lost its real influence in the region so there’s not much that it can do by itself. So, resorting to Russia is the only way left for Iran. But that’s not going to change much.”
Looking ahead, it would be difficult to imagine Tehran’s concerns about Azerbaijan becoming Israel’s anti-Iran “puppet” being assuaged anytime soon. This means that Iran is very likely to continue flexing its military muscle to intimidate Baku into distancing itself from the Islamic Republic’s arch-nemesis. To prevent tensions from escalating out of control, it is necessary for Iranian and Azerbaijani officials to agree on practical terms for a long-term de-escalation.