Iran is a modern-day Persian empire, with Azerbaijanis accounting for a third of its population, and other national minorities also in sizeable numbers. Iran’s revanchism towards Azerbaijan has made it a long-term ally of Russia and Armenia.
Iran, because of Azerbaijan’s history, culture, and Shiite religion, has always viewed Azerbaijan as either a lost territory that should be part of Iran or at the very least within its sphere of influence, which it views as the entire South Caucasus. In many ways, Iran views Azerbaijan in the same manner as Russia views Ukraine: as part of its homeland that has gone astray, but will one day “return home.”
During the last three decades up to the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Iran was content with Russian influence in the Caucasus and two manufactured frozen conflicts in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Iran’s double standards of being supportive of country’s territorial integrity was evident in how it ignored, but de facto supported, Armenia’s occupation of a fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory. At the same time, Iran is hyper sensitive about threats to its own territorial integrity. In the same manner, Iran is also supporting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Therefore, Iran and Russia would both prefer a weak Azerbaijan and Ukraine, rather than revived countries with alliances to Turkey or the West. Armenia concurs, also preferring a weak to a strong Azerbaijan.
Iran therefore shares Russia’s interest in the region’s frozen conflicts never being resolved, as they both view frozen conflicts as a means to allow them to continue to divide and rule and maintain their sphere of influence over the Caucasus. During the Second Karabakh War, Iranian troops briefly invaded Azerbaijani territory. The aim was to pull Azerbaijani military forces away from their pincer movement in the south against Armenian forces.
After nearly three decades of being content with the situation on the ground, Iran became more bellicose following Azerbaijan’s military defeat of Armenia in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Since the defeat of its ally, Iran has made repeated military threats, held military maneuvers near the border, and issued stark warnings. Iran began to supply drones to Armenia, as well as to Russia. Iran has trained and provided finance and intelligence support to Islamic terrorist groups in Azerbaijan. Since October 2021 Azerbaijan began to clamp down on radical Shiite cells and expel Iranian clerics. Azerbaijan detained nineteen people belonging to the banned Muslim Unity Movement, who had been trained by Iran in Syria to undertake terrorist attacks. They had also smuggled banned extremist religious literature into Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani security service unveiled private WhatsApp groups run by Azerbaijani nationals in Iran and “acting on instructions of the Iranian secret services which propagated radical and extremist religious ideas” with the aim of regime change into a Shiite theocracy. The Azerbaijani security service arrested five Azerbaijani members of what it called an Iranian spy network, who had been recruited by Iranian secret services to gather intelligence about military exercises, facilities and hardware, including Israeli and Turkish drones (UAVs), as well as energy infrastructure and facilities. A captain of the Caspian Sea Oil Fleet of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) was recruited while he was receiving religious education in the Iranian city of Qom. He gathered information about foreign companies operating in Azerbaijan, as well as about the venue and time of military exercises of the Azerbaijani Navy in the Caspian, and about cargo delivered to offshore oil platforms.
The rather odd military alliance between two fundamentalist countries – one Shiite (Iran), seeking to install a Shiite theocracy in Azerbaijan and return the country within its sphere of influence, and another Christian (Armenia) – has been cemented in three ways. The first was Armenia assisting Iran and more recently Russia to evade international sanctions. The second was to act as an intermediary in the supply of drones and missiles to Russia that the Kremlin uses in its terror attacks against Ukrainian civilian targets. The third was for Armenia to diplomatically support Iran at the UN and in other international organizations.
The US imposed sanctions on a number of Armenian companies who they accuse of constituting a “trans-national network” that was buying technology for Russia’s military industrial complex. The latest Armenian company to be sanctioned was Milur Electronics.
Iran’s growing bellicosity is due to the defeat of its close ally Armenia as well as because of the strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Turkey, as seen in the June 2021 Shusha Declaration. Iran, having always viewed Azerbaijan as its “younger brother,” saw that it had lost influence to Turkey and its neighbor had come under Turkic influence. Iran seeks to counter Turkey through a close alliance with Armenia and Russia, together with possibly India.
Iran could not but have noticed the military component of the Shusha Declaration, which stated that in the event of “a threat or an act of aggression from a third state or states against their independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, or the inviolability or security of their internationally recognized borders,” Azerbaijan and Turkey “will hold joint consultations” “to eliminate this threat or acts of aggression.” The type of assistance was not specified as security threats can be quite varied; nevertheless, the Shusha Declaration clearly spelled out a military dimension to the Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership.
Iran is particularly angry at what it sees as losing a border with Armenia. Iran and Armenia initiated the alternative North-South route together with India, as an alternative to the Zangezur Corridor, but neither party has the financial means to invest in such a large project.
Although the Zangezur Corridor would increase economic opportunities and trade for the South Caucasus and Iran, Tehran views it through the prism of geopolitics, believing it will diminish its influence. As Cavid Veliyev points out, Iran believes the Zangezur Corridor would reduce Iran’s influence as the main connection between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan; it would also lose its role as a bridge between Turkey and Central Asia and overall Iran would no longer be as important for East-West transportation links. Finally, the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia is a member and with which Iran has a free trade agreement, would become more isolated. Iran views Armenia as its gateway to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Iran views Turkey as its rival competitor for influence in Central Asia. The Zangezur Corridor would provide Turkey with an alternative route, that would bypass Iran, to Central Asia. In reality, both Turkey and Iran are competing with a financially more powerful China for influence in Central Asia where the biggest loser is Russia.
Veliyev pointed out that the Zangezur Corridor is similar to the EU’s Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia (TRACECA) project. The Zangezur Corridor is also similar to the US Turkey-South Caucasus – Central Asia Silk Road Transportation project outlined in the 1990s.
Another aspect that Iran views as a threat to itself is Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Israel, a country that Tehran has called on many occasions to erase from the map of the Middle East. Iran is convinced – without showing any evidence – that assassinations of high-ranking Iranian military figures, notably Major General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 along with other nuclear scientists, are being undertaken by Israel from Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan has always denied that its territory is being used to launch attacks against Iran.
Since the first attack in late August, Iran has been supplying Russia with drones and missiles in an alliance forged out of a mutual xenophobic hostility to the West and the so-called “unipolar world.” Iran gains from either a Russian victory, which would be seen as having destroyed the “unipolar world,” or a Russian defeat as it could then take Russia’s place as a leading great power.
Iran and Russia are both obstacles to peace and economic development in the South Caucasus. Neither Iran or Russia wants to see an EU-brokered peace treaty signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, preferring instead the continuation of fake negotiations, as in the last three decades, that continue to freeze conflicts. Iran and Russia also look aghast at the rising influence of Turkey, whose diplomacy on the blockaded grain trade from Ukraine and sale of weapons has benefitted significantly from the war in Ukraine.
Iran’s military support to Russia is a continuation of its three-decade old security policy that combines anti-Western xenophobia with economic opportunism. Iran believes it will gain either if Russia is defeated or victorious in its war against Ukraine.
Irrespective of the coming to power of a democratic regime under Nikol Pashinyan four years ago, Armenia has continued to play strategic games with Iran, rather than use the opportunity of its military defeat to secure peace and economic progress. The signing of a peace treaty with Azerbaijan are in the national interests of Armenia whereas continued military alliance with Iran and Russia is merely a recipe for more decades of stagnation, emigration, and poor relations with the West.
Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War and Fascism and Genocide. Russia’s War Against Ukrainians.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com