Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Nagorno-Karabakh: Iran Among the Entangled
The Southern Caucasus, a vacuum during the Soviet Union, turns into a cauldron
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Flaring tensions in the Southern Caucasian region are drawing in competing geopolitical interests including not just the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who have been slugging it out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but a Russia weakened by its invasion of Ukraine, as well as Turkey, Iran, and inevitably the US-led NATO.
As the world knows, the affair has culminated in the mass flight of as many as 120,000 terrified Armenians from the region with no more than what they could carry with them in one of the biggest bursts of ethnic cleansing in recent memory. More than 80 percent of the region’s population is fleeing. Entire towns have emptied out, leaving the accumulations of lifetimes scattered in streets now occupied by stray animals. Cars caught in departure traffic jams have been left deserted in the streets. The refugees’ fears are not unfounded. The Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans in 1915-16 led multitudes of them to flee to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the first place.
In 1918, Armenians and Azerbaijanians clashed again in Baku. In 1920, pogroms in the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Armenians. In the following decades, the region remained disputed until it lost its status to the Soviet Union’s consolidation. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, both Armenia and Azerbaijan laid claims to it and fought the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, leading to a ceasefire agreement in 1994 that consolidated the region but didn’t resolve the dispute.
Ever since 1991, the region has been led by ethnic Armenians, but in 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia again fought a bloody battle that led to the former, backed by Turkey, to reclaim some of the disputed territory. While the 2020 clash was brought to a halt via a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement, this time Russia, which theoretically acts as a guarantor of Armenian security, is nowhere to be seen due mainly to its preoccupation with the military conflict in Ukraine. In addition, Moscow is not happy with Armenia's current prime minister, whom it deems to be too pro-Western.
Instead, Moscow’s absence plus the fact that Iran has critical interests to protect amid its long-standing rivalry with Azerbaijan (and Turkey), has brought Tehran to the front of the conflict. Iran is Russia’s ally and both support Armenia against Azerbaijan, which is proving to be the key aspect of fresh geopolitical tensions, as Iran sees Azerbaijan’s control of the Nagorno-Karabakh as only a step towards claiming another strip of land in southern Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan – which borders Turkey but is separated from mainland Azerbaijan by the Armenian territory – is a Soviet-era territorial anomaly that Baku wants to reset with help from Ankara to establish the Zangger corridor that would not only territorially unify Azerbaijan but would also connect it with Turkey and Israel – a country that Baku sent its first ever ambassador to in March 2023 in an anticipation of such a development.
The corridor also lies in a region that had a substantial Azerbaijani population up until the early 20th century. Azerbaijan’s official narrative blames the Soviet Union and Armenia for displacing the ‘original’ population, putting in place a historical justification for retaking the lost land. If the land is annexed, Armenia will lose. But, in addition to Armenia itself, Tehran, too, stands to lose from this possible land corridor and the politics surrounding it.
This would, for Iran, bring Azerbaijan and Turkey in very close proximity to Iran’s north, where Turkic and Azerbaijan minorities are based. Almost one-third of the Iranian population is of Azerbaijanian origin, which is why Tehran has been accusing Azerbaijan for a very long time of inciting separatism. Plus, if Azerbaijan ends up securing this piece of land, Iran will lose its border connection with Armenia, making bilateral trade – which is currently more than US$700 million annually and is expected to reach US$3 billion in the future – dependent upon Azerbaijan.
Currently, Azerbaijan relies on Iran to reach its exclave. However, if Azerbaijan succeeds in establishing the new corridor, Tehran will also lose its leverage on Azerbaijan. Thus far, this factor has played an important role in the calculations of the leadership in Baku and is a strong motivator to prevent a continuation or worsening of tensions with Tehran. But if this were to change, Iran suspects Baku to become even more involved with Iran’s Azerbaijanian population to entice them against Tehran.
Iran, therefore, has been resisting such prospects. In October 2022, the Iranian President warned Azerbaijan’s leader that “any change in historical borders, regional geopolitics, and Iran-Armenia transit routes is not tolerable.”
But the warning has had no effect, as Azerbaijan, with support from Turkey, continued to pursue its objectives to establish the corridor. Iran had to respond. In December 2022, Iran retaliated by opening a brand-new consulate in the town of Kapan, the capital of Armenia’s Syunik province that Azerbaijan wants to control to establish the land corridor. The consulate has clear military and intelligence purposes. In fact, Tehran took steps to make it clear when, only days before the opening, it conducted massive war games on Iran’s border with Azerbaijan.
According to Iranian Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the drills were designed to send a message of “peace and friendship” to countries in the region, while demonstrating their ability to “respond decisively to any threat.” But in fact, the Azerbaijan military’s triumph probably increases the potential for escalation into a wider conflict with Armenia. It also signals the failure of Western diplomatic efforts to resolve the territorial dispute. In fact, following the drill, the Azerbaijanian embassy saw itself getting attacked in Tehran, leading Baku to suspend its embassy's operation and blaming Tehran for the incident.
Although Iran denied its involvement, this was only a prelude to what started to happen in late September. After taking over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan’s president met Turkey’s Erdogan on September 25 and discussed the politics of the corridor. In a symbolic move, Erdogan flew to Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave, which is at the heart of new tensions involving Armenia and Iran vis-à-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The presence of Erdogan, for Iran, also means the presence of the US-led NATO in the region. In the present context framed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the heightened role of NATO in regional geopolitics, Turkey’s expansion also means NATO’s expansion, which concerns not only Iran but Russia as well.
Therefore, Iran’s resistance and expansion in Armenia are very closely tied to Tehran’s deep cooperation with Russia, which extends to Russia’s ongoing campaign to swallow Ukraine as well, which NATO, led by the United States, is doing its best to stop. To expand this cooperation, the Russian defense minister arrived in Tehran in the third week of September to develop a coordinated policy vis-à-vis the crisis to prevent it from turning too much to their disadvantage, anticipating that Azerbaijan’s recent success is only the beginning of more conflict to follow – a situation that extra-regional powers would be eager to exploit.
Dr. Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel