Iran Torn Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Despite a precarious cease-fire, the prospect of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh flaring up again has Tehran worried. Though Iran is, like Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, it is allied with its traditional trading partner, Armenia, while in the country’s Azeri provinces, public protests have ignited in favour of Azerbaijan. So, Iran is playing it safe by offering its mediation, hoping to avoid a conflagration which could prove harmful at home.

Hassan Rouhani with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on a visit to Tehran, 5 March 2017
Iranian persidency/AFP

The resumption on 27 September 2020 of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh which has, since 1991, pitted the Republic of Azerbaijan against local forces backed by Armenia, has quite naturally prompted reactions from the major powers in the vicinity. While declarations by Russian and Turkish officials have made headlines since the conflict began, the Iranian neighbour seems to have adopted a low profile and its attitude has elicited fewer comments. Yet the Iranian Republic can scarcely be regarded as indifferent to a struggle taking place on its doorstep and which constitutes a threat to its own security. Ever since it began, Tehran has been worried about the possible presence of foreign troops or mercenaries just across the border, and about the need to protect its infrastructures and the populations living nearby, when mortar fire has already hit the Iranian side of the Aras River, the boundary line between Iran and the Caucasus.

A special relationship based on energy

Yet however paradoxical, Iran’s position seems clear enough. Rather than lend a hand to Azerbaijan, a Muslim country with a Shiite majority, but which has chosen to ally itself with the USA, the Islamic Republic has, since 1992, made no bones about being Armenia’s great ally, for example by providing a supply line from the sea, during and after the war, for the tiny landlocked republic. This privileged relationship, especially in matters of energy (Tehran supplying gas and Erevan electricity from its nuclear plant in Metsamor) is often taken by analysts as proof of Tehran’s pragmatism, its readiness to put the national interest before Islamic solidarity. The Islamic republic’s loud rhetoric in defence of downtrodden Muslims, prolific enough when it comes to Palestine, Cashmere or the Rohingyas, generally leaves out the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Yet this judgement needs qualifying, in the light of recent developments. Indeed, on 6 September 2020—some ten days after the conflict had begun—Tehran declared its neutrality and its commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, which represented ipso facto a judgement in Baku’s favour.

Improvement in Irano-Azeri relations

Irano-Azeri friendship is an undeniable reality, though with limited consequences. In 2017, Armenia received only 0.45% of Iranian exports. Trade between Iran and Azerbaijan is slightly more active, though has not again reached the 2017 peak of 0.70% of Iranian exports. For several years now Iran has been trying to develop its relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan, which have been tense, to say the least, since the latter’s independence in 1991. The sources of friction between the two countries have been many: Iran’s instrumentation of Islamist groups, the issue of Azeri minorities in Iran, the conflict over the demarcation of maritime borders in the Caspian Sea, ambiguous military demonstrations by both sides, or more trivial episodes such as Tehran’s insistence on Baku’s cancelling the organisation of the “decadent” Eurovision competition in 2912 (which the mullahs described as a “gay festival”). These tensions, which never issued in serious confrontations, finally began to thaw after 2010.

Under the presidencies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rohani, steps were taken to improve relations with Azerbaijan. Azeri President, Ilham Aliyev, seeking to implement a balanced and independent foreign policy, established many links with neighbouring countries after US influence in the region had begun slightly to decline. The US had been the country’s (and the regions’) main ally during the presidency of his father, Heydar Aliyev. The son undertook to extend the scope of Irano-Azeri relations in terms of security— a pact of non-aggression was signed in 2005,—of energy—Ilham Aliyev and President Ahmadinejad inaugurated a pipeline providing Iranian gas for the Nakhichevan “autonomous republic”, also in 2005—and of trade.

Street protests in Iranian Azerbaijan

Thus, may we speak of a budding friendship, still in its infancy, between these two countries with their Shiite majorities, a friendship much less spectacularly celebrated, however, than that with Armenia. In this 2020 conflict, Iran is playing the neutrality card and has offered to mediate, even claims to be working on a crisis-resolution plan.1 But it is proving hard to divest itself of its role as Armenia’s staunch ally, and this raises serious problems for the Islamic Republic, including within its own frontiers. Indeed, the Azeri population of Iran2, whose national consciousness and desire for autonomy have never been so intense, appears to be increasingly passionate about the current conflict. Witness the street protests on October first which brought several thousand demonstrators out into the streets of the main cities of Iranian Azerbaijan as well as Tehran, who demanded the closing of the frontier with Armenia, alleged to be a channel for the supply of weapons and military equipment from Russia.

Within this context, Iran’s reputation as Azerbaijan’s enemy is hard to live down and is in fact a source of internal tensions capable of reviving separatist aspirations or even deleterious inter-ethnic conflicts. Some shots of the October 1, 2020 protests to be seen on Turkish media show demonstrators burning the Armenian flag. Thus such revelations as those claiming that 80 Iranian companies have invested in the Nagorno-Karabakhian economy, or the video dating from April 2020 showing Iranian lorries en route to Nagorno-Karabakh were certainly not to the liking of Iranian authorities and were the object of official denials. What kicked the hornet’s nest these last few days in Iranian Azerbaijan were other videos showing tarpaulin-covered military lorries (bearing what mysterious loads?) driving through Norduz at the Irano-Armenian border. Yet Tehran refutes accusations of supplying military aid to Armenia.

Dissonant voices at the heart of the power structure

Yet dissonant voices are starting to be heard within the power structure and even in the close entourage of the Guide Ali Khamenei. On October first —the day when the protests were planned—the Ayatollah’s representatives in the four provinces of Iranian Azerbaijan (Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan) published a common statement emphasising the need to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. This declaration appeals to international law as much as to Islamic fraternity. The signatories insist on the fact that this would be in keeping with Koranic principles and with the Islamic Republic’s philosophy of defending the oppressed, whereby it is obliged to support and to aid the struggle of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Declarations of this sort are not unprecedented. Ayatolla Ameli Ardabil, like his predecessor Ayatollah Musavi Ardabili, has already in the past spoken of the need to respect Islamic solidarity concerning the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, Mohsen Reza, former commander-in-chief of the Pasdaran (Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) declared in 2013 that he had authorised the training of Azeri fighters on Iranian territory as well as the deployment of Iranian combatants on the other side of the border. It is surprising that the term “Republic of Azerbaijan "is never used in these declarations which refer to the neighbour to the North merely as “Azerbaijan.” In the past, it has been customary for Iranian officials to distinguish clearly between the “Republic of Azerbaijan” and the Iranian provinces bearing the same name in order to avoid any confusion and to stress the existence of a political and institutional (and indeed cultural) boundary between the two regions. Using the generic term “Azerbaijan” in reference to the country governed from Baku implies taking sides and is no doubt aimed at catering to public opinion in the Azeri provinces, increasingly excited over the conflict.

Thus, it seems that Iranian authorities feel they must show caution. On the one hand, their strategic partnership with Armenia must not be endangered, and on the other they need to create a climate favourable to increasing their cooperation with Baku and to spare the feelings of national solidarity among the Azeri of Iran. At the end of the day, the rhetoric employed tends towards reappropriating and subverting Azeri nationalist rhetoric, in other words, rendering it compatible with the Islamic Republic’s conceptual framework: in this case solidarity with the Azeris “to the North” is Shiite before it is ethnic. The declaration quoted above also contains the assertion that Azerbaijan is the “land of Ahl al-beit”; in Arabic, this expression designates “the people of the Household,” a reference in Shiite theology to the Prophet and his descendants, the Imams, worshipped by Shiites.

A mediator to resolve the crisis?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict represents a relatively major challenge for Iran, but also an opportunity to reinvent itself. It is above all a threat to its security, but also a source of internal strife. Iran has therefore officially declared its neutrality and its commitment to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan (in keeping with the norms of international law) and is seeking to appear as a possible mediator between countries with which it shares a common culture and to play down its reputation as a fundamental ally of Armenia, which seems to have become a difficult role for it to assume. This proposal to mediate also allows the Islamic Republic to earn for itself a reputation for moderation (at odds with the one that has transpired in recent months) and a country committed to stability, in contrast with Turkey, accused by an Iranian high official of “throwing oil on the fire.”3 Thus, the leadership tolerates a discreet pro-Azeri rhetoric, probably in order to gain favour with Azeri public opinion. In the end, this phenomenon is quite typical of the Islamic Republic which, over the past few years, has made efforts to channel dissident rhetoric, be it linked to religious themes (the Sunni of Kurdistan or Baluchistan4) or ethnic issues (the Azeris), by adapting it to its own conceptual and ideological framework.

As for its acting as mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we must be somewhat cautious. The key contacts in this conflict are the co-chairmen of the Minsk Group, Russia, France and the United States, and the chances of seeing Iran poke its nose into these negotiations are slim indeed. But not inexistent. Following on the events of July 2020, President Aliyev did indeed denounce the “inaction” of the Minsk Group in the face of what he called an Armenian aggression. On the basis of its special relationship with Armenia, Iran might appear in the eyes of Baku as a privileged partner for a solution to the crisis. Moreover, the Islamic Republic never fails to criticise the ineffectualness of the Minsk Group. For example, Ali Velayati, advisor for foreign affairs to the Iranian Guide, has no hesitation in saying that Iran, given its cultural and geographic proximity with the two belligerents, is better qualified than France to work on a solution to the crisis.5

1Declaration by the Foreign Minister on 6 October 2020.

2Iran has a sizeable Azeri community, actually larger than the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan (which numbers some 10 million inhabitants, whereas the Azeri population of Iran is thought to be around 20 million—much more, according to certain sources) as well as an Armenian community, numerically limited (between 100 and 150,000) but dynamic and influential.

3Keyhan, 6 October 2020.

4On this matter, see Stéphane Dudoignon, The Baluch, Sunnism and the State in Iran, Hurst, Oxford University Press, London, 2017. The author studies the networks of Sunni Deobani schools in Iranian Baluchistan, and shows how the Iranian government, by financing them, manages to incorporate them into its conceptual framework and make them a rampart against the spread of Salafism, and a means of producing and even exporting a brand of Sunnism made in Iran.

5Keyhan, 6 October 2020.