Iran Stirs the Pot in the South Caucasus

cc Meghdad Madadi, modified,

There has been a lot of saber-rattling in recent days on the Iranian side of their border with Azerbaijan. One analysis suggests three reasons: a joint drill by Azerbaijani, Pakistani, and Turkish troops, which occurred 500 kilometers from the Iranian border; Azerbaijani restrictions on Iranian truck drivers’ access to roads, because instead of going through to Armenia as declared, they went to the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under control of Russian peacekeepers; and Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel.

Iran also pretends to be concerned about the joint Azerbaijani-Turkish military exercises in Nakhchivan. However, the two countries emphasize that these are defensive, not offensive. Indeed, many observers seem unaware that Turkey is a guarantor of Nakhchivan’s status, as a part of Azerbaijan, under the Treaty of Kars (1921), which defined its borders of and was signed by Turkey, the three South Caucasus states, and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (the USSR was not created until 1922).

In fact, this is the first time that Iran has held military drills and exercises on Azerbaijan’s border. It never did so when the adjacent Azerbaijani territories were under occupation by the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia, and also it never objected to this occupation. Iran’s upset may be due to the fact that it can no longer engage in illegal activities in such “grey zones.”

Underlying all these complications is the fact that Armenia has for decades objectively acted as, and subjectively considered itself to be, an ally of Iran; and Iran is a terrorist state that has metastasized like a cancer all over the Middle East, including but not only in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Some apologists for Iran pretend that this is all about Israel, even invoking the absurd thesis of Iran’s “encirclement” by Azerbaijan and Israel. Others repeat Iranian claims of an Israeli presence in Azerbaijan.

They follow Iran’s lead in pretending that this is about Israel; but Iran chose the Armenian side in the South Caucasus conflict in 1992, yet Azerbaijan began developing strategic relations with Israel only in 1998. In 2007, Iran opened a crucial gas pipeline to Armenia providing an energy lifeline, constructed two hydroelectric plants on the Araks River that marks their common border, and built a highway and railroad between the two countries.

The Iranian foreign ministry called on Azerbaijan “to prevent third parties [i.e., Israel] from using its territories and border.”  President Aliyev has answered plainly that “Azerbaijan will continue to plan its external relations and internal affairs as it likes.”

Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation in security area has as a matter of fact helped to prevent Iranian-inspired terrorist attacks inside Azerbaijan, for example during 2012 Eurovision Song Contest of 2012.  It also foiled a plot against Israeli Embassy in Baku in 2013.

Iran’s recent actions on its border with Azerbaijan show that it is not interested in peace and stability in the South Caucasus, and that it has no intention of participating in the Six-way Platform (with Russia, Turkey, and the three South Caucasus countries) to ensure economic development and the humanitarian well-being that depends upon this. Iranian assistance was essential to Armenia’s aggression against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s and its occupation of the latter’s lands.

However, between the two South Caucasus countries, there are positive signs. On the day after Iran closed its airspace to Azerbaijani planes flying to its exclave Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani airplane for the first time transited over Armenian territory on such a route.

In reply to the Iranian act, Azerbaijan closed Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s office in Baku and a related mosque (ostensibly for reasons related to Covid-19).

It would appear that Tehran wishes to mobilize Moscow’s support for its new confrontation with Baku. At least this is the impression created by provocative statements by Iran’s new foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian during his very recent visit to Moscow. Iran says it will not accept “geopolitical changes” in the South Caucasus, although it made no objection to Armenian-induced geopolitical changes from the early 1990s until late last year.

Typically, Iran’s rhetoric gives the impression of wanting to make this about Israel; but it is not about Israel – it is about Turkey. According to Lebanese Shi’ite scholar Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, the Iranian foreign minister told him that Iran wants “to sever Turkey’s ties with the rest of Turkish states” and therefore supports the Armenians “so that there is a barrier in front of Turkey.” Tehran is cynically manipulating the Israel issue in the South Caucasus for the same reason.

In contrast to Iran’s bellicose declarations, there have been positive developments between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the wake of these two countries’ meeting at the foreign-ministerial level, encouraged by the OSCE’s Minsk Group, in the margins of the opening of the UN General Assembly session. Moreover, Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov did not share the concern of his İranian colleague and called for advancing regional cooperation.

President Aliyev recently repeated his offer to Prime Minister Pashinyan for a bilateral meeting without intermediaries, so that the two sides may discuss directly between themselves the matters of concern to each. This development is, frankly, inevitable, and it is the only way to bring long-term peace to the region.


Robert M. Cutler is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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