Iran’s northwestern border has been witnessing a fierce war between its two neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan. The spillover of the war seems to have affected the Iranian territories. Artillery shells are reported to have fallen on Iranian villages in the East Azerbaijan and Ardabil provinces, which are inhabited by the Azeri community in Iran. In addition, the Iranian air defense system has responded to a drone that crossed the Iranian borders. This prompted Iran to express a strong-language objection to both parties to the conflict, stressing that "encroachment on the Iranian borders is a red line".
In terms of rhetoric and political positions, Iran considers that the conflict is taking place in the area right outside its borders where it has played a clear role during the past years, and on which it has relied to withstand US sanctions, despite the limited Iranian role in this region in particular, considering that Russia is against any attempts at carrying out any activities therein. Moscow considers the region a traditional sphere of its influence.
Iran's position on the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict
The political and media rhetoric in Iran has addressed the war between the two northern neighbours in broad terms only. Some analysts claimed that it might be the "October surprise", and that one of the main goals of this war is to undermine Iranian security, depending on the cultural and ethnic extensions of each of the two countries inside Iran, especially the Republic of Azerbaijan. This means that any political development within the borders of the Azerbaijani neighbour directly affects the Azeri community that resides in the provinces bordering Azerbaijan, which is called South Azerbaijan in the ethnic political literature.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Armenian-majority Nagorno Karabakh region is an old one in which (official) Iran has tried to hold the stick from the middle through its relations with both parties to the conflict, in an attempt to prevent the spillover of the crisis into its northwestern borders. However, upon tracking the Iranian behaviour over the previous years, it appears that Iran is adopting a closer approach to Armenia at the expense of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This is reflected in the exchange of visits between the two sides. The meeting between the Armenian President and the Iranian Supreme Leader, coinciding with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, is widely considered a clear sign of this rapprochement, albeit without the adoption by Iran of an official position on the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region between the two sides. Over the past years, Iran has tried to avoid supporting the Armenian position on Nagorno Karabakh because of the regional repercussions that this might have in terms of spoiling the relations with Azerbaijan and its Turkish ally, and the possible internal repercussions that would lead to provoking the Azeri public opinion in the Iranian provinces with Azeri majority and destabilising those provinces that experience a growing ethnic awareness.
Some of the reasons for this rapprochement between Iran and Armenia at the expense of the Republic of Azerbaijan can be outlined as follows:
The Iranian factor in the Azerbaijani-Armenian War
Attempts to support Yerevan
Several reports indicated that Iran has supplied arms to Armenia during the first days of the war. Videos have been shown of trucks loaded with weapons crossing the border point between Iran and Armenia. There have also been reports of Tehran's attempts to transfer a part of the Armenian militants from Syria and Iraq to Armenia to fight in the ranks of Yerevan against the Azerbaijani-Turkish front. Nevertheless, Iran has tried to appear neutral, calling on the two countries to desist from the conflict. In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that Iran has an initiative to defuse the crisis between the two countries, given that the initiative has not been disclosed by Iran, perhaps due to its fear that Moscow would consider this an Iranian intrusion into the Russian sphere of influence.
The Iranian support for Armenia is largely attributable to Russian pressures on Iran to be a station for the transfer of weapons and equipment to the Armenian front. Iran (which is Russia's ally) is the most important stop for transporting those goods from Russia (which wants to provide indirect support to its Armenian ally) to Armenia which does not share land borders with Russia to receive direct support therefrom. Iran's participation in supporting the Armenian camp is also attributable to an Iranian desire to secure a balance in the face of the Turkish intervention in support of Baku, in the form of the transfer of weapons and mercenary fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan. Indeed, the Iranian support for Armenia angered Baku which protested against the Iranian intervention. This prompted Iranian quarters, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Iranian Embassy in Baku, to refute this news, underlining that they are mere rumors that seek to undermine relations between the two neighbouring countries.
The changing Iranian position: paradoxes of politics, sect, and ethnic extensions
Despite those positions in support of the Armenian camp, on the basis of serving the Russian interests, and from the standpoint of finding a balance in the face of the Turkish expansion, and harassing the neighbour that is supportive of the separatist rhetoric, and perhaps in the spirit of sending a positive message to some Western countries, some developments prompted Iran to subsequently reverse its position. The Iranian cities with Azeri majority witnessed protests that began to expand in solidarity with Baku. This could be considered an indication of the role of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia in supporting the national consciousness of Azeris in Iran. The importance of those protests lies in that they have taken an expansionary trend. The following days witnessed their expansion in more cities inhabited by the Azeris, threatening that they would turn into overall protests based on ethnic grounds that would be difficult to control. They also gained importance in terms of focusing their slogans on rejecting the Iranian intervention in support of Armenia and the clashes that took place between protesters and the police in some areas. All this showed that the continuation of the Iranian position in support of Armenia in its war against Azerbaijan may serve to expand the war between the two countries into the Iranian territories in the form of protests from an ethnic standpoint, that are both prone to expansion and open to several unfavourable possibilities for Tehran.
The political arena in Iran has witnessed a conflict between the position of the government in support of Armenia and the position of other influential bodies, mainly the clergy, in support of the Azerbaijani side. Among the most important of those positions was that of the director of the scholarly seminaries Ayatollah Araafi who declared in an official statement that the Nagorno Karabakh region is an inseparable part of the body of the Islamic world, alluding to the need to fight alongside Azerbaijan in the face of Armenia. This position is perhaps largely attributable to the ethnic affiliations of the clerics who expressed support for Azerbaijan, especially the statements issued by Khamenei's representatives in four Iranian provinces, which underlined Baku’s right to fight to regain this part of its territories. Those statements used inflammatory sectarian language, which heralded the transformation of the issue into a religious and sectarian one that could expand into an internal political crisis, in light of the influence enjoyed by the Azeri community within the clerical class in Iran.
Those repercussions prompted the Iranian regime to modify its position on the conflict in the following days. It emphasised that the Nagorno Karabakh region is an inseparable part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This implicitly gives Baku the right to fight in order to regain control over it. The new position constituted a departure from the Russian ally and a convergence to the Turkish position (in response to internal pressure), with the continued Iranian reservations regarding the continuous Turkish-Azerbaijani attempts and efforts to transfer fighters from the Syrian front to fight alongside Azerbaijan. This is considered by Tehran a possible targeting of its security in light of the anti-Shiism ideology (as described by the Iranian side) adopted by those fighters.
The armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region has had direct repercussions on the internal arena in Iran, in addition to its security implications on the borders. Overall, those repercussions determined the features of the Iranian position on the conflict. The official Iranian position on the conflict developed under the influence of conflicting internal positions and renewed security risks. This case constitutes one of the prominent examples of the influence of internal mechanisms in shaping Iran's external behaviour. These mechanisms must be taken into account when analysing Iran’s foreign policy developments, its programme of regional expansion, and the internal implications of that programme.
While Iran began during the first days of the crisis to support the Armenian side, which is Russia’s ally, in the face of the Azerbaijani side, so that the harmonious position with Russia appeared to be a logical position on the part of Iran, a group of pressures has led to the cessation of this support, which could be considered a partial departure from the Russian position. Of course, the impact of this divergence on the relations between the two countries should not be overestimated. However, it does mean that there are important obstacles on the road to the strategic alliance between them, and that Russia should not rely fully on Iran to take a unified position on the outstanding issues and emerging crises.
On the other hand, the social pressures resulting from the protests of Iranian cities with Azeri majority, and the positions of the Azeri clerics, led to a change in the course of the Iranian policy towards the Nagorno Karabakh issue, from its supportive position for the Armenian camp to the cessation of support for Armenia, and subsequently to support for the position of Azerbaijan, albeit relatively. This means that the internal factors can have a clear effect in changing Iran's stances towards regional issues. This opens the door to other regional and international parties to use this rule to alter the course of Iranian policies towards the controversial issues, which makes it a general rule that plays a role in future issues. The crisis has showed that such regional conflicts of an ethnic nature can quickly turn into internal protests based on ethnic grounds that are difficult to control. In light of the difficult economic and political conditions that Iran is experiencing, which make the Iranian society prone to popular protests, this point may prevent Iran from practicing controversial regional policies for fear that they would reflect on the internal arena and open the door to mass protests.
The crisis constitutes an important turning point in terms of the Turkish expansion near the Iranian border, and in terms of fanning the flames of ethnic rhetoric, and the impact thereof on the Azeri community in Iran. This serves to establish Azerbaijan's position as a potential threat to the Iranian national security. However, the most prominent point emphasised by the Iranian rhetoric was the Turkish-Azerbaijani measures of transferring armed fighters of anti-Iranian ideologies from Syria to the borders adjacent to Iran, a step that was severely criticised by Tehran, and considered by the Iranian rhetoric as the transfer of the enemy to its borders. This Iranian assessment would make the arena open to several possibilities on the part of Iran to counter this step, including the resort to transferring pro-Iran Armenian militias to the region, thus making the region prone to getting involved in a long-running confrontation between militias affiliated with Iran and others loyal to Turkey.
Iran could try to use the cards in its possession to pressure the Azerbaijani side to amend its policies. Iran has the power to influence Azerbaijan by virtue of the sectarian dimension that has an influence over the Shiite community in Azerbaijan, and by virtue of the Iranian geographical location as the only route of communication between the Republic of Azerbaijan and its isolated region (Nakhchivan). This is an important card that Tehran may use to pressure Baku to grasp some privileges and adjust Baku’s policies in the future.
Zeinab F. Shuker | 21 Jan 2021
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