Conflict in the South Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh regions began after the fall of the Soviet Union and continues today, affecting not only the political and geopolitical relations of the two countries but also their neighbors. One of these neighbors is Iran, which is greatly worried about border and geopolitical insecurities beyond its northwestern borders, especially since a large minority of Iranian Turkic speakers lives in these areas and sympathized with Azerbaijan during the war.
Iran’s policy in this conflict has been to pursue two “contradictory” and “simultaneous” policies. Tehran has officially supported Azerbaijan since the beginning of the First Karabakh War in 1991-1994 until now, but at the same time, it has tried to establish strategic relations with Armenia in the form of a “good neighbor policy” in order to mitigate damages and balance Azerbaijan’s regional actions, which Iran considers contrary to its national interests.
Azerbaijan is a Muslim country in which Shiites make up more than 50% of the total population. According to the 11th article of its constitution “the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of formulating its general policies with a view to cultivating the friendship and unity of all Muslim peoples, and it must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic, and cultural unity of the Islamic world.” In addition, Iran wants to show its international responsibility with the United Nations, whose Security Council has passed resolutions recognizing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the occupied territories. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has even said: “All territories occupied by Armenia must be liberated and returned to Azerbaijan.”
On the other hand, Iran considers Azerbaijan’s regional actions of recent decades to be against its national interests and security. Tehran and Baku have differences over several issues, and their respective media have engaged in propaganda to try and attract the attention of Azeri Shiites from Iran and Iranian Turkish-speaking minorities from Azerbaijan. Baku’s relationship with Israel also worries Iran, who has accused Israel of establishing a presence in Azerbaijan. Baku also has a close relationship with Turkey, and Iran is negatively affected by this cooperation, especially because they can no longer freely send transit trucks through this territory. To balance Azerbaijan’s rising power, Tehran has tried to establish strategic relations with Armenia without confirming Yerevan’s position on the Karabakh territory.
Iran was late in engaging in the Caucasus region because they gave higher priority to relations with Arab countries and the Middle East, and the country’s elites now worry they have ceded influence in the region to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia because of this neglect. In the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, Iran now faces challenges such as changing borders, ethnic agitations, and the presence of new actors in the northwest of their borders. This article will examine Iran’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis from three perspectives: geopolitics, ethnicity, and security.
The geopolitical perspective
Azerbaijan was a part of Iran during the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925) but after losing the war with Russia, Iran handed Azerbaijan over to Russia in the Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the Nagorno-Karabakh region from 1991 to 1994, with Armenia prevailing. Russia mediated a truce called the Bishkek Protocol, which was signed on 8 May 1994, but tensions continued. Despite four resolutions by the UN that recognize Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia was able to consolidate its sovereignty over this region for 26 years.
In the summer of 2020, tensions re-intensified with border clashes. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of attacking civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the main city of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan alleged that units of the Armenian armed forces used artillery fire in an attempt to capture favorable positions on the border towards the city of Tovuz in Azerbaijan. The Second Karabakh War started on 27 September 2020 and lasted 44 days. On 9 November 2020, the two countries signed another peace agreement mediated by Russia that stipulated that Armenia was supposed to gradually withdraw from the three occupied areas around Nagorno-Karabakh.
The South Caucasus conflict has changed the geopolitical map of the region, and with the annexation of Karabakh to Azerbaijan, about 130 kilometers will be added to Iran’s border with Azerbaijan. With this change of borders, Tehran feels that it is trapped in a geopolitical siege in favor of Azerbaijan and Turkey. When Nagorno-Karabakh was under the occupation of Armenia, Iran could drive its trucks through to Russia and West Asia, usually without paying any customs duties.6
In Article 9 of the 2020 peace agreement, Karabakh, Yerevan, and Baku agreed to provide Azerbaijan access through Armenia without checkpoints. This so-called “Zangezur corridor” reduces Iran’s transit role. Until this agreement, Azerbaijani trucks had to pass through Iran to reach Nakhchivan, and from this point, Tehran could earn foreign exchange income and exert pressure on Azerbaijan.7 Although the management of the corridor is under the supervision of Armenia for the first five years, it is likely that in the future Iran will face restrictions on its access to Armenia, which is the gateway to the export and transit of goods from Iran to Europe. These common border crossings between Iran and Armenia are very important to Iran’s economy.
The Zangezur corridor will also result in Turkey — Iran’s chief geopolitical rival — being more involved in the nearest region to the northwest of Iran’s borders. Through this corridor, Turkey can be directly connected to Azerbaijan through Nakhchivan. This strengthens Turkey’s foothold in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, and strengthens the development of Turkey’s “Pan-Turkism” policy in the region, which calls for the solidarity of Turkic-speaking countries such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia.8
In September 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned against border changes amid the Azerbaijan-Armenia flare-up and called it a “historic connecting route.”9 Iran opened a consulate in the Armenian city of Kapan on 21 October 2022 to increase their presence and monitor geopolitical changes.10 Kapan is located in the southernmost Armenian province of Syunik, which is considered a part of Karabakh and has been historically inhabited by Muslims and belongs to Azerbaijan.
The tension in the region to become an energy hub and send gas to Europe, especially after the crisis in Ukraine, has led to geopolitical competition between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. So far, many pipeline construction plans have been proposed to transfer the energy of the Caspian Sea to Europe, but most of them have been prohibited from passing through Iranian territory because of the hostility between the West and Iran.11 Because the pipeline has to be diverted through intermediate countries it will increase the cost of its construction. The increase in project construction costs, insecurity, and legal issues over the construction of these projects has encouraged Iran to finally participate in these projects.
The Zangezur Corridor agreement allows Turkey and Azerbaijan to transfer the pipeline directly to Turkey, without going through an intermediary country such as Georgia. Previously, Turkey was proposed as the center of Russian gas transmission to Europe, and Turkish politicians spoke of their determination to become an energy hub.12 The realization of this goal is a major geopolitical threat to Iran, who could be completely removed from the second largest source of gas reserves in the world.
Iran has a large minority of Turkic speakers in the northwest of the country. Their population is not officially known, but it is estimated to be 17.5 million people, about 20% of the total population.13 This large minority is considered a critical ethnic threat for Iran. Many people in Azerbaijan call the Turkic region of northwest Iran “South Azerbaijan.” Some Azerbaijani nationalists and intellectuals define both northern and southern parts as culturally and socially the same, and wish for the unification of the two regions.14 Until the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, the Azerbaijani media always helped to advance this cause in a way that did not lead to strong resentment and protest against Iran.15 As a result of this advocacy, the Turkic minority in Iran has become sensitive to the events in the Caucasus16 and supports Azerbaijan’s interests in the Karabakh crisis. For example, amid the Karabakh conflict, demonstrations were held in the Turkic cities of Iran in support of Azerbaijan, and during Friday prayers imams of four mainly Turkic provinces, including Ardabil, Zanjan, and West and East Azerbaijan, supported Baku in a joint statement.17
At the 9th Summit of the Organization of Turkic States on 11 November 2022, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, said: “The Turkic world does not consist of independent Turkic states only, its geographical boundaries are broader”18 He was indirectly referring to the Turkic minority in Iran, which he considers part of the Turkic world. Without mentioning Iran, he added: “Unfortunately, the majority of the 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan are deprived of these opportunities.”19
On the flip side, the Iranian Member of Parliament for Tabriz in the West Azerbaijan province, Mohammad Reza Mirtaj Al-Din, who himself is a Turkic speaker, blamed Aliyev, saying he regrets that the president does not know history. “If someone wants to join, Nakhchivan should join Iran,” he said during a session in parliament in a Turkic language,20 referring to Azerbaijan’s history as part of Iran nearly 200 years ago.
At the same time, the media war between the two countries has intensified. Azerbaijani media openly talk about the annexation of the Azerbaijan region of Iran to Baku. Mahmoudali Chehregani, the extreme nationalist and self-proclaimed leader of South Azerbaijan, has repeatedly participated in state-run AZ TV, and the public network İctimai called for the overthrow of the Iranian regime.21 The Iranian Turkish TV channel Sahr is trying to show the frustration of Azerbaijanis with their political regime by broadcasting documentaries.22
The Nagorno-Karabakh crisis has led to a new unwelcome security environment for Iran. Tehran authorities have always prioritized Israel as its most significant security risk, and they object to cooperation with Israel. Azerbaijan, however, has partnered with Israel since the 1990s and currently buys 60% of its weapons from Israel, while Tel Aviv currently gets 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan.23 Hikmet Hajiyev, Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan, confirmed that Baku used Israeli weapons such as drones against Armenian positions and fortifications during the Second Karabakh War. This prompted Armenia to recall its ambassador from Israel.24
Published reports also indicate that Israel has access to Azerbaijan’s air bases for training, refueling, and rescue operations should they choose to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.25 Iran has repeatedly warned Baku against having close ties with Israel, and Tehran views the shift of power in the Karabakh region toward Azerbaijan as dangerous given these ties to Israel. 26
On 17 October 2022, The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) held a large-scale military drill in the northwest boundaries of the Aras River region, on the common border between Azerbaijan and Iran. In the Iranian part of this river, the IRGC used pontoon bridges to move military equipment including tanks, demonstrating to Azerbaijan that should tensions continue they can quickly cross the river and take the initiative.27 “We say to the governments of those countries, don’t let Israel into your country,” warned the IRGC commander-in-chief Major General Hossein Salami. “We firmly and authoritatively defend our security in any situation, but you will be in trouble.”28 Aliyev responded: “If necessary, we will show once again that we can achieve what we want. Everyone knows this, and those conducting military exercises near our borders in support of Armenia should also know it. No one can scare us.”29
Iranian authorities also consider the presence of trans-regional forces and terrorist groups in the South Caucasus as a security threat. During the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, Armenia claimed that Turkey had sent 4,000 Syrian fighters to the conflict to help Azerbaijani forces against Armenia.30 Turkey and Azerbaijan rejected the claim; however, Iranian officials took it seriously. “[The presence of foreign fighters] is not acceptable, and we have clearly told this to officials of neighboring nations,” Hassan Rouhani, the former president of Iran, said on 7 October 2022.31
The presence of terrorist groups in the region threatens Iran’s security, and Tehran is sensitive to their presence. ISIS has claimed responsibility for several incidents in Iran,32 including attacks in Tehran on the parliament building and the mausoleum of Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution on 7 June 2017, and the attack on the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz on 26 October 2022. The attack on Shah Cheragh became a point of divergence in Iran and Azerbaijan relations after Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence identified an Azerbaijani citizen as the architect of the attack.33
Iran foreign policy is opposed to the presence of foreign and extra-regional forces. According to Article 146 of the Iranian Constitution, the establishment of any foreign military base in the country is prohibited, even if it is for peaceful purposes. One of the reasons Iran diverged from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is the existence of United States and United Kingdom military bases in various GCC countries.34 Iran now faces this problem in the Karabakh region with Russia and Turkey. According to the 9 November peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to ensure a truce in Nagorno-Karabakh, within 100 kilometers of the Iranian border.35 On 11 November 2022, 60 Turkish military forces were added, based on the memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey to establish a Joint Monitoring Center.36
Although Iran’s relations with Russia are currently at their best, especially after Iran sent drones to Moscow to use against Ukraine, the political elite of Iran, and even to a lesser extent the government, are not optimistic about the country’s relationship with Russia. They feel that Moscow is using them as a pawn against the West, and if necessary, the Russians may sacrifice the Iranians for their own interests.37 For this reason, Iranians are pessimistic about the presence of foreign forces in the north of Iran’s borders, even Russian forces.
Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan continue to build. Aliyev has called Azerbaijan the main power of the region against Iran, and both sides have summoned their ambassadors in protest. Aliyev and his allies in Turkey and Israel may believe that now is the right time to increase pressure on Iran, which is perceived as weakened by domestic unrest and facing international censure for aiding Russia in the Ukraine war. Encouraged by the statements of support from the U.S., Baku and Ankara may also believe that Washington will be on their side.38
Iran will probably show one reaction to several actions of Azerbaijan, but move towards de-escalation in the future. On 8 November 2022, Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reacted to Aliyev’s threats with restraints,39 hinting at a multilateral response to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.
Iran knows very well that with the entry of competitors such as Turkey and Russia, it is better to turn to cooperation and alliance with countries such as Georgia, Russia and even Turkey, who are involved in Karabakh, instead of creating more tension. Iran will probably strongly support multilateral dialogue plans such as the one proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 6 October 2021. In this initiative, it was decided to hold 3+3 talks (Georgia+Armenia+Azerbaijan and Russia+Iran+Turkey) to advance solutions to Caucasus issues.40
If Iran reaches a common understanding with Azerbaijan, the minimum benefit gained is the relative reduction of Israel’s activities in Azerbaijan.
 “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Islamic Parliament Research Center, January 2004, https://rc.majlis.ir/fa/law/show/133730.
 Orkhan Jalilov, “Iran’s Leader Says All Azerbaijani Territories Under Armenian Occupation Must Be ‘Liberated’, ” Caspian News, November 4, 2020, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/irans-leader-says-all-azerbaijani-territories-under-armenian-occupation-must-be-liberated-2020-11-4-0/.
 “Fighting Erupts Between Armenia, Azerbaijan Over Disputed Region,” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/27/heavy-fighting-erupts-in-disputed-nagorno-karabakh-regin.
 “The Second Karabakh War,” Virtual Karabakh, https://www.virtualkarabakh.az/en/post-item/52/2871/the-second-karabakh-war.html.
 Giorgio Cafiero, “Iran's Dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh,” The New Arab, October 15, 2020, https://www.newarab.com/analysis/irans-dilemma-nagorno-karabakh.
 Murat Sofuoglu, “Why Is Iran Deploying Troops on Its Border with Azerbaijan?” TRT World, September 30, 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/why-is-iran-deploying-troops-on-its-border-with-azerbaijan-50377.
 Umud Shokri, “Why Iran Opposes Azerbaijan’s Zangezur Corridor Project,” Gulf International Forum, September 28, 2022, https://gulfif.org/why-iran-opposes-azerbaijans-zangezur-corridor-project/.
 Alex Vatanka, “Iran, Turkey, and the Future of the South Caucasus,” Middle East Institute, May 4, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/iran-turkey-and-future-south-caucasus.
 Syed Zafar Mehdi, “Iran Warns Against Border Changes Amid Azerbaijan-Armenia Flare-up,” Anadolu Agency, September 14, 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/iran-warns-against-border-changes-amid-azerbaijan-armenia-flare-up/2685462.
 Maziar Motamedi, “Iran Opens Consulate in Armenia’s Kapan as It Expands Ties,” Al Jazeera, October 22, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/10/22/iran-opens-consulate-in-armenias-kapan-to-deliver-a-message.
 Simon Henderson, “U.S. Caspian Policy Faces Fresh Challenges,” The Washington Institute, May 21, 1999, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/us-caspian-policy-faces-fresh-challenges.
 Kristina Jovanovski, “Turkey’s Plan to Become Russia Energy Hub Could Be Election Stunt,” The Jerusalem Post, October 21, 2022, https://www.jpost.com/international/article-720227.
 “The Persian Cosmopolis: Iran and Its Diverse Ethnicities, Explained,” TRT World, December 3, 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/the-persian-cosmopolis-iran-and-its-diverse-ethnicities-explained-52279.
 Murat Sofuoglu, “Why Is Iran Deploying Troops on Its Border with Azerbaijan?” TRT World, September 20, 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/why-is-iran-deploying-troops-on-its-border-with-azerbaijan-50377.
 Paul Goble, “Baku’s Successes on Battlefield Echoing Among Azerbaijanis of Iran,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 149 (2020), https://jamestown.org/program/bakus-successes-on-battlefield-echoing-among-azerbaijanis-of-iran/.
 Rohollah Faghihi, “Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict Raises Specter of ‘Pan-Turkism’ in Iran,” Middle East Eye, October 13, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/azerbaijan-armenia-iran-conflict-pan-turkism-azeris.
 Umut Basar, “Is Iran One of the Losers of the Karabakh War?” Anadolu Agency, November 26, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/analysis-is-iran-one-of-the-losers-of-the-karabakh-war/2056842.
 “Georgian Media Highlights President Ilham Aliyev’s Remarks at 9th Summit of Organization of Turkic States in Samarkand,” Azerbaijan State News Agency, November 11, 2022, http://bitly.ws/x9VX.
 Tzvi Joffre, “Iranian Spy Network Unveiled in Azerbaijan — State Security,” The Jerusalem Post, November 14, 2022, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/article-722323.
 Joshua Kucera and Ulkar Natiqqizi, “Via Official Media, Iran and Azerbaijan Issue Escalating Threats,” Eurasianet, November 9, 2022, https://eurasianet.org/via-official-media-iran-and-azerbaijan-issue-escalating-threats.
 “Iranian Anti-Azerbaijani Fake News Propaganda: Sahar TV,” Aze.Media, November 12, 2021, https://aze.media/iranian-anti-azerbaijani-fake-news-propaganda-sahar-tv/.
 “Payda va Panhan ‘Dosti Vaghaei’ Israel va Gomhori Azerbaijan [Finding and Hiding the ‘True Friendship’ of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan],” DW Persian, November 2, 2020, https://bit.ly/3Mxr3jb.
 Maziar Motamedi, “Iran’s Delicate Balancing Act in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,” Al Jazeera, October 5, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/5/iran-nk.
 Mark Perry, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground,” Foreign Policy, March 28 2012, https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/28/israels-secret-staging-ground/.
 Maryam Sinaee, “Iran Leader Warns about ‘Military Presence’ of Israel in Azerbaijan,” Iran International, March 10, 2021, https://www.iranintl.com/en/20211003344495.
 Joshua Kucera, “Iran’s Military Starts ‘Massive’ Drills on Azerbaijani Border,” Eurasianet, October 20, 2022, shorturl.at/GIOP0.
 “Hoshdar Farmandeh Kole Sepah be Israel va Hamian Mantaghaei An [The IRGC Commander's Warning to Israel and Its Regional Supporters],” Basij News, October 17, 2022, shorturl.at/jlR58.
 Armen Mirzoyan, “Aliyev in Shushi: ‘Azerbaijan Fears No One,’ Warns Iran Not to Meddle,” HETQ, November 8, 2022, https://hetq.am/en/article/149990.
 “Turkey Deploying Syrian Fighters to Help Ally Azerbaijan, Two Fighters Say,” Reuters, September 28, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan-turkey-syria-idCAKBN26J25A.
 Nasser Karimi, “Iran’s Rouhani Slams Sending Fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh,” Associated Press, October 7, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/iran-bashar-assad-azerbaijan-ankara-armenia-40071395e81437f5e1b658449fe19eaa.
 “Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Shrine Attack in Iran,” Reuters, October 26, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/islamic-state-claims-responsibility-shrine-attack-iran-2022-10-26/.
 “Terror Attack in Iran’s Shiraz Was Staged by Azerbaijani Citizen,” TASS, October 26, 2022, https://tass.com/world/1533069.
 Gawdat Bahgat, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Neil Quilliam, Security and Bilateral Issues Between Iran and Its Arab Neighbors (Switzerland: Palgrave, 2017), pp. 1-10.
 Daria Litvinova, “Russian Peacekeepers Deploy to Secure Nagorno-Karabakh Truce,” AP, November 10, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/russia-armenia-azerbaijan-33da1f6a3e66e6c09efd4fa1cad9e927.
 “Turkey, Russia Sign Agreement to Set Up Joint Center for Nagorno-Karabakh,” TASS, December 1, 2020, https://tass.com/world/1229873.
 Faezeh Foroutan, “Suspicious Bind: Iran’s Relationship with Russia,” ESFR, September 2, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/article/suspicious-bind-irans-relationship-with-russia/.
 Eldar Mamedov, “Deep Dive: Are Azerbaijan, Iran Heading for Breaking Point?” Amwaj Media, November 18, 2022, https://amwaj.media/article/deep-dive-are-azerbaijan-iran-heading-for-breaking-point.
 “Vakonesh Sokhangoye Vezarat Khareje be Ezharat Akhir Raeis Jomhur Azerbaijan,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to the President of Azerbaijan, November 8, 2022, shorturl.at/koERV.
 Elena Teslova, “Russia Suggests 3+3 Format with Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia in Caucasus,” Anadolu Agency, October 6, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/russia-suggests-3-3-format-with-turkey-iran-azerbaijan-armenia-georgia-in-caucasus/2384679#.
 Orkhan Jalilov, “Iran’s Leader Says All Azerbaijani Territories Under Armenian Occupation Must Be ‘Liberated,’ ” Caspian News, 4 November 2020, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/irans-leader-says-all-azerbaijani-territories-under-armenian-occupation-must-be-liberated-2020-11-4-0/.
 “Fighting Erupts Between Armenia, Azerbaijan Over Disputed Region,” Al Jazeera, 27 September 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/27/heavy-fighting-erupts-in-disputed-nagorno-karabakh-regin.
 “The Second Karabakh War,” Virtual Karabakh, https://www.virtualkarabakh.az/en/post-item/52/2871/the-second-karabakh-war.html.
 Giorgio Cafiero, “Iran's Dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh,” The New Arab, 15 October 2020, https://www.newarab.com/analysis/irans-dilemma-nagorno-karabakh.
6 Murat Sofuoglu, “Why Is Iran Deploying Troops on Its Border with Azerbaijan?” TRT World, 30 September 30 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/why-is-iran-deploying-troops-on-its-border-with-azerbaijan-50377.
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