BY MUSTAFA CANER –
In the early hours of Sept. 27, Armenian troops violated the 1994 cease-fire and attacked populated regions of Azerbaijan. The initial act of aggression was suppressed by Azerbaijani forces, however, soon clashes resumed and showed this fight had the potential of evolving into a much broader conflict. Both parties have recorded casualties including civilians on the Azerbaijani side. Baku’s parliament declared martial law as well as the liberation of several villages from Armenian occupation.
Recent clashes between the two Caucasus nations cannot be analyzed without including the influence of other regional powers in the equation. It is evident the Armenian aggression is supported by the Russians who wish to hold on to their influence in the Caucasus in the post-Soviet era. Moscow sees Yerevan as a tool to curb Baku’s potential power in the region and restrain the energy-rich country. The Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance and its potential regional implications is another headache for the Kremlin. Turkey announced its support for Azerbaijan from the get-go and condemned the Armenian attacks. Ukraine, one of Russia’s prominent opponents, followed Turkey in blaming Yerevan for the aggression and declared its support for Azerbaijan.
Another close friend of Russia in this regard is Iran. Tehran has declared numerous times its position of neutrality on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and has offered to act as a mediator between the two countries, a proposal recently reiterated by the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson of Iran Saeed Khatibzadeh.
Although Tehran verbally accepts United Nations resolutions and international law, it has never clearly condemned Armenia for occupying Azerbaijan’s territory. On the contrary, it has recently come to light that Iranian tankers carrying oil were operating between Iran and the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is a blatant violation of international law.
Two power plants have been set up along the border between Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh, which Iran claims are part of a deal with Azerbaijan but many are claiming Tehran actually made a secret agreement with the self-declared Republic of Artsakh. During the early phases of the recent conflict, reports indicated that Russian planes loaded with weapons were passing through Iranian airspace to help the Armenian forces.
In addition to Tehran’s problematic stance on the issue, the Iranian media’s continued campaigns of defamation against Azerbaijan and Turkey add another layer to the issue. Following the Tovuz clashes in July, many Iranian outlets claimed that Turkey had started to send “fighters” from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh, with many sources close to the Assad regime circulating the same baseless claim in an attempt to undermine Ankara’s stance in both Syria and Azerbaijan. After recent fighting, some Iranian outlets accused Azerbaijan of attacking Armenia, indirectly participating in Armenia’s propaganda efforts.
Iran’s position on recent tensions is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Tehran’s regional activities have always been under the premise of building a “(Shiite) crescent,” but this does not seem to apply when it comes to its dealings with Azerbaijan, where the majority of the population are Shiite Muslims. Iran’s attitude towards Azerbaijan cannot be explained through religious or sectarian reasons.
Ali Motahari, son of the famous Islamic revolutionary Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, openly criticized Iran’s position regarding the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh territory. He said, “Iran should have been with Azerbaijan in the name of Islamic unity. However, it acts the other way around.” As in the case of Ali Motahari, Tehran’s policy has criticism coming from within.
Various factors contribute to Tehran’s Azerbaijani agenda with one of the foremost being the Turkish presence in Iran. Nearly 40 million Turks are living in the nation today and they share cultural commonalities with Azerbaijani Turks and this reality fuels Tehran’s fears of separation in Turk-populated areas. Another reason for this policy is Iran’s struggle for hegemony in the Caucasus, where there are no “neighborly” policies in place and Azerbaijan is considered a rival.
From an energy perspective, Turkey has reduced its dependence on Russia and Iran by recently buying more gas from Azerbaijan. Officials in Tehran have complained several times with some even accusing Ankara of not repairing the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline on purpose, which was damaged in terrorist attacks. All in all, Tehran examines the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh through a practical rather than moral or ideological perspective while pursuing its material interests. Iran’s dubious policy towards Azerbaijan shows that its declarations of Islamic unity, international law and creating a good neighborhood in the Caucasus are just empty words. Iran could potentially complicate its relations not only with Azerbaijan but also Turkey, a country on which it relies on for support in the face of U.S. pressure coupled with its internal economic and social crises.
*Research assistant at Middle East Institute, Sakarya University