When the mandarins of Iran’s national security establishment conferred after the Iranian New Year in March, they must have had at least half a dozen issues on their minds, including US sanctions, an apparent sabotage campaign, and the threat of coronavirus-inspired political arrest.
More likely than not, a resurrection of a decades-old war on Iran’s sleepy northern border between two countries friendly to Iran was not high on the agenda of imminent threats—if on the list at all.
But with the more than a month-long war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Iran is contending with exactly that: a conflict that threatens to raise ethnic tensions and divide its political elite. It is also a conflict that Iran has little leverage to influence.
On October 26, video footage circulated showing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hassan Salami surveying the border between Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh, which is ethnically Armenian and run by a puppet government loyal to Yerevan but recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. Rockets and mortars from the conflict have repeatedly landed on Iranian soil, frightening villagers and prompting warnings against both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces by Tehran officials.
“Any insecurity and threat on our borders that harm the mental security and peace of our dear people is not acceptable,” Salami said, according to Iranian media accounts.
The conflict has clearly unnerved Iran. Tehran is geopolitically allied with Armenia even as it feigns neutrality or even to favor the position of Azerbaijan. In a speech broadcasted live on state television on November 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “Azerbaijani lands occupied by Armenia should be liberated and returned to Azerbaijan,” according to state television. But he also demanded that the war should end quickly and that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh be protected.
Whatever the outcome, the conflict offers no advantage for Tehran. An Azerbaijan victory would further embolden Baku’s patrons in Turkey and solidify Ankara’s position on Iran’s border with the Caucasus, where Iran has been losing influence for centuries. An Armenian victory would enrage Iran’s massive Azeri-speaking minority and put extraordinary pressure on Tehran to intervene. The war is already creating cleavages within the Iranian ruling establishment.
Focused on US forces in the Persian Gulf and its rivalries with Saudi Arabia and Israel, Tehran has failed to cultivate intelligence and diplomatic understanding of the south Caucasus—a ticking time bomb for decades and a major blind spot for Tehran. Iran’s inability to influence the conflict underscores a major drawback of its foreign policy posture. At times of crises, Iran has few allies it can count on or even confer with and few arrows in its quiver of diplomatic tools.
“They are caught between a rock and hard place,” says Alex Melikishvili, a Paris-based security and risk analyst focused on the Caucasus. “They don’t really know what to do, other than they would like for hostilities to end and would hate to see Turkey expand its influence in the south Caucasus. But they cannot do much about any of it.”
Iran’s calculations and options are constrained by a conundrum that has underpinned Tehran’s Caucasus policies for decades. Iran’s second language is effectively Azeri and, culturally, it has far more affinity for co-religionists in majority Shia Muslim Azerbaijan than with Orthodox Christian Armenia.
But, geopolitically, relations between Tehran and Baku have often been frosty since the downfall of the Soviet Union. Baku for years has accused Tehran of exporting its brand of Shia ideology to Azerbaijan while Tehran has accused Baku of exporting Azerbaijani nationalism to Iran. Baku has also been a base of US and Israeli intelligence gathering operations as well as a major customer for Israeli weapons.
Meanwhile, Armenians in Lebanon and Syria are mostly allied with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran as part of the self-described “axis of resistance.” Armenians’ domination of Iran’s alcohol trafficking business likely means that they are in close contact with the IRGC commanders who control the borders.
Though relations between Tehran and Baku have warmed up in recent years, Iran’s leaders remain far more comfortable with the weak, landlocked, and impoverished Armenia—allied by necessity with Russia—than they are with Azerbaijan—an oil-wealthy, well-connected autocracy that is a veritable United Arab Emirates on the Caspian Sea.
Iran’s Azeris are perhaps the country’s most powerful minority group. Supreme Leader Khamenei has an Azeri father, while opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, is also of Azeri descent. Azeris dominate the major northern cities of Tabriz and Orumieh from a demographic perspective and have a strong commercial presence in the capital, Tehran.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has ignited nationalistic fervor among Iran’s large Azeri-speaking minority. Accusations by Azerbaijani officials that Iran supports Armenia by tacitly allowing the transfer of Russian weapons have sparked anger and even street protests. Clergy, including members of Khamenei’s own entourage, have urged strident support for Baku.
Meanwhile, Iranian officials are enraged over reports that Azerbaijan has allowed the deployment of Syrian mercenary fighters recruited from the same Sunni Islamist units that fought against the regime in Damascus. “We have warned Azerbaijani, Armenian, and even Russian and Turkish officials during and before the recent talks that Iran will not tolerate such a thing,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in comments published by several Iranian newspapers on November 2.
“We are not joking with anyone in this regard,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying on state television. “We have serious concerns and we hope reports on the presence of terrorist groups in this regard is wrong, as they claim them to be.”
Recognizing the severity of the unexpected challenge, Iran has assigned perhaps its most able diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, to shuttle around the region and make its concerns heard. At the end of October, he visited Baku, Moscow, Yerevan, and Ankara, presenting a plan to end the conflict.
But events seem to be moving faster than Iranian diplomatic endeavors. In October, Baku claimed that it had totally secured the border region with Iran, taking control of key border crossings into Nagorno-Karabakh. “Our problem was that we did not control a significant part of our border with Iran,” said Tahir Taghizade, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, in a conference call last month. “Now we do.”
It seemed that overnight a new security challenge had been sprung on Iran’s leadership.
Like the novel coronavirus that has weakened the country’s institutional capacity, this current challenge is not one that can be dealt with using slogans, Basiji truncheons, kangaroo courts, or solitary confinement. It is a threat that must be handled with deftness and nuance, and that may be beyond the skills and capabilities of the officials of the Islamic Republic.
Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.