There is no doubt that the fighting in Karabakh, which has been continuing for three weeks, has seriously affected the balance of powers and the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus region. The change in the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, associated primarily with the successes of the Azerbaijani army, also prompts regional players to revise foreign policy vectors that fell behind the dynamics of the changes and remained unchanged from early 2000s.
The main external actors of the Armenian-Azerbaijani military confrontation are Russia and Turkey. One gets the impression that “sorting out of relations” between Ankara and Moscow has spread from the Middle East and Maghreb to the South Caucasus. And it should be admitted that Turkey has serious success in advancing its geopolitical interests in the region, especially in light of the full and all-round support of Azerbaijan.
It should be noted that Azerbaijan is already a crucial hub of regional interests in the field of security, energy and transit projects. Strengthening of positions of official Baku also dictates to other regional players the need to secure their positions in the post-war period by the old as humankind rule of politics – demonstration of solidarity with the winner.
“Talking about “Greater Turkey”, thinking about “Greater Iran” is the title of an interview with Alexander Konfisakhor, associate professor of St. Petersburg State University, which stresses an historically important role of Iran in the South Caucasus. Iran is a major regional player with considerable influence on both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Vague position of official Tehran in the first days after resumption of the war in Karabakh was, by inertia, related to that.
However, as Azerbaijani army successfully advances in Karabakh, primarily on the border with Iran, Tehran’s official position has transformed. This transformation is a reflection of traditional Iranian diplomacy – choosing the stronger side in the military-political configuration. This also applies to the current stage of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, where in recent days Azerbaijan took control of a strategically important section of its border with Iran.
Let’s see how Iran’s position evolved since the beginning of the war. On the first day of hostilities on the Karabakh front on September 27, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifi took a rather neutral stance, noting “the priority of neighbors in foreign policy” and commitment “to strive to facilitate the negotiation process, as there is a need for peace.” Then the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it was ready to become a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia in order to stop the military conflict.
This position of Tehran became a subject of serious criticism both in Azerbaijan and in Iran itself, where about thirty millions of Azerbaijanis live, whose representatives, including the religious establishment, demanded that the country takes a clear stance in this conflict.
Footage of arms convoys passing through the Iranian-Armenian border, which surfaced on social media, added fuel to the fire, sparking protests in major Iranian cities, such as Tabriz. The Iranian Foreign Ministry immediately issued a second statement claiming that “Tehran will not allow the use of Iranian territory for transportation of weapons and will take this issue under strict control.”
On September 29 the representative of the Supreme religious leader of Iran in Ardabil (the second largest city of Iranian Azerbaijan after Tabriz), Seyid Hasan Amili, congratulated Azerbaijani people on the victories on the Karabakh front via the press and expressed hopes for complete liberation of the territories in Karabakh.
The same day, the governor of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, Aliyar Rastgu, assured that there were no weapons in the cargos passing through Iran to Armenia, but in order to prevent such attempts, he completely suspended passage of trucks from the border cross point Nurduz to Armenia. Following this, the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the Customs Department and even the Iranian Embassy in Baku stated that no weapons were allowed to be delivered to Armenia.
Iran’s position was finalized by a statement on October 1, made by the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei, together with his representatives in the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan. The statement, in particular, notes that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, which today is fighting for the return of its territories by all legal means.
The activity of the spiritual leaders of Iran could also be connected with the statements of theologians from Iraqi Najaf, who unequivocally supported Azerbaijan. The city of Najaf in Iraq and the Iranian religious center of Qom are two of the most important centers of Shia theology, and there is a latent competition between them in order to increase their influence among Shiites around the world.
On October 6, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a telephone call to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed concern about the continuation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan and expressed a hope for a peaceful solution to the issue. Speaking the next day in the Iranian parliament, Rouhani noted that “Azerbaijan is our brother, and Armenia is our neighbor.”
However, in contrast with the diplomatic statements of the Iranian president, the conservative wing of the political establishment, which does not want to give all the laurels to Azerbaijan’s number 1 ally, Turkey, as it is viewed as a strategic competitor in the region, made harsher statements. Thus, the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Jevani, said that “Karabakh is the land of the Shiites of Azerbaijan and Armenia must immediately withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani territories.” At the same time, he recalled that historical documents and international law recognize Karabakh as the territory of the Azerbaijani Shiite people.
Another general of the Guard Corps, Noya Aghdam, went even further, who noted that “in the event of an official appeal to Tehran for help from Baku, our soldiers are ready to fight terrorists on the side of Azerbaijan.”
Obviously, the statements of the above-mentioned spiritual leaders, political leaders and influential persons of the Iranian establishment are related to the fact that Iran does not want to lose its levers of influence on the Azerbaijani society. Against the background of a significant strengthening of Turkey’s already strong positions in Azerbaijan, these statements by the Iranian state are aimed to prevent losing its position not only in Azerbaijan, but throughout the Caucasus, as well as to reaffirm its role in the Muslim world.
It should be noted that Armenia is already highly dependent on Iran. Moreover, the current Yerevan authorities, led by Nikol Pashinyan, are viewed in Tehran as a project of the West. Iran also did not forget that in contradiction with the longstanding policy of Armenia, Pashinyan’s government decided to open an Armenian embassy in Israel. It should be reminded that despite the advanced level of relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, official Baku is still in no hurry to open an embassy in Tel Aviv.
Therefore, Iran will defend its interests in the South Caucasus, playing the Azerbaijani card without regard to Yerevan, but with the view to limitation of Turkey’s influence. Moreover, Tehran understands that Azerbaijan’s victory in the war changes a lot in the region and that Azerbaijan will enhance cooperation primarily with those countries that supported it in the Karabakh conflict. And here Iran does not intend to completely cede the initiative not just to Turkey, but also to Israel.
All this creates favorable preconditions for the projection of Russian influence in the region in the post-conflict period. Russia and Iran have a strategic partnership based on convergence of interests in different regions of the world and global agenda. Joint interest in limiting Turkey’s unrestrained ambitions in Transcaucasia will also be an important factor.
Author: Alexander Gladkov