In one of my previous articles “Iran and the Second Artsakh War: Has Tehran lost its leverage over the South Caucasus?” I argued that from a geopolitical and geo-economic point of view, Iran lost its influence in the region after the 2020 war. I also raised the following questions: “How can Iran change its loss to a benefit? What is clear is that as Tehran lost its leverage over the region during the war, it may feel pressured to consolidate its relations with Armenia to contain Pan-Turkist influence in the north; however, under the current circumstances, will Iran antagonize Turkey? Iran’s new calculations may be dependent on the future geopolitical shifts in the region and how Russia reacts to them. For now, Iran would be favoring the current status quo with certain amendments that can serve its interests in the region.” Today, a year after the Artsakh War, Iran realizes that it has to respond to Baku’s provocations.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Iran has patiently and cautiously followed developments in the South Caucasus. Tehran’s main strategic objective has been to prevent US-Israeli penetration in the region, and it has viewed the Russian political and military presence in the region, particularly in Armenia, as a buffer zone against Western and even Turkish expansionist activities. When Turkey started to follow an independent foreign policy and came to terms with sharing power in the region with Russia, Iranian policymakers thought that Turkey—by cooperating with Russia—would reduce western influence in the region and give up its Pan-Turkic and neo-Ottoman claims. However, Iran was mistaken.
During the war, Iran’s policy was clear in that it called for Armenia’s withdrawal from the adjacent territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It even tried to mediate between both sides. In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, Iranian political analyst Seyed Mohammad Marandi argued that Iran’s position from the beginning was based on the preservation of international law; hence, “The occupied territory that was largely Azerbaijani has to be returned to Azerbaijan, and the territories that belong to Armenia [have] to be part of Armenia.” So during the war, “Iran accepted and supported Azerbaijani sovereignty, and today Iran supports Armenia’s sovereignty and won’t allow Turkish or other regional forces to weaken the sovereignty of Armenia,” Dr. Marandi said.
However, just one month after signing the ceasefire on December 10, 2020 during the victory parade in Baku, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, officially claimed that Syunik and other Armenian provinces are “Azerbaijanis’ historical lands.” This raised eyebrows in Iran since the Syunik province, which borders Iran, has geo-economic significance for Tehran. Following the signing of the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement, Azerbaijani officials and analysts started demanding a “corridor” (known as the “Zangezur corridor”) in Syunik. According to this narrative, this corridor will have a special status (similar to the Lachin corridor) where Azerbaijani trucks will pass through Syunik and reach Nakhichevan. The November 9, 2020 trilateral statement does not mention anything about a corridor, but rather references unblocking economic transport routes. Within this context, it is worth mentioning that even the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk while speaking with journalists during a business forum in Yerevan announced that both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides have discussed unblocking economic routes and not about opening any transport corridor in Armenia.
On April 20, Aliyev stated that if Armenia did not establish that corridor, Azerbaijan would open it by force. On May 12, Azerbaijani troops advanced several kilometers into Armenia proper and occupied bordering hills and villages in Syunik and Gegharkunik region. Clashes later took place in the direction of Yeraskh near Nakhichevan. The statements coming from Ankara and Baku regarding the “Zangezur corridor” alarmed Tehran. According to political analyst Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, given the existence of around 25 million ethnic Azeris in Iran in the regions bordering Azerbaijan, Tehran may view the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor” as the first step toward not only creating a direct land connection between Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also encircling Iran with a “Turkic arc.” Meanwhile, the “Zangezur corridor” may cut alternative Iranian access to Georgia, the Black Sea and Russia, forcing Iran to only use routes via Azerbaijan or Turkey, thus falling under Turkish mercy.
Since early September 2021, Azerbaijan has started to check and tax Iranian trucks along the Goris-Kapan highway, which connects Armenia with Iran and is partially under Azerbaijani control. Yerevan, lacking any diplomatic maneuvering, handed less than 20 kilometers of the 400 kilometer road, which runs from Iran’s Norduz border to Yerevan, to Baku after the war when the latter claimed that it is part of Azerbaijan’s territory. Azerbaijani border guards imposed strict regulations on Iranian trucks passing through this road, forcing them to pay $130 fees for each truck. Iran engaged in diplomacy to find a common ground with Baku. However, Baku’s main objective was to prevent Iranian cargo trucks from moving into Armenia to further destabilize Armenia’s economy. For a short period of time, Azerbaijani guards closed the road near the village of Vorotan. To add fury to the fire, on September 15, Azerbaijani police arrested two Iranian drivers along that road, accusing them of “illegally entering the territory of Azerbaijan” after they allegedly crossed into Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran condemned the act, and its ambassador in Azerbaijan had several meetings with high-level Azerbaijani officials to resolve the issue, but the efforts were fruitless. When diplomatic channels failed, Tehran sought hard power.
In response both to the failure of diplomacy and to Turkish-Azerbaijani military drills and show-off force in the region, the Iranian army sent heavy equipment to the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia’s Meghri district and launched large-scale military exercises called “Conquerors of Khaybar” on September 30.1 To put additional pressure on Baku and prevent further military cargo deliveries to the Nakhichevan exclave, Iran closed its airspace to Azerbaijani Air Forces. This pushed Ankara to send military equipment to Nakhichevan and organize joint military exercises there with Azerbaijan, near the border with Armenia and Iran.
This analysis will highlight how the post-war regional system redrew Iran’s red lines in the South Caucasus and how Iranian officials and the media responded to Azerbaijan’s provocations. Interestingly, we will see that Iranians view the developments in the region through the anti-Israeli prism. To analyze this issue, I looked into Iranian newspapers and interviewed prominent Iranian political analysts and scholars. Finally, I will highlight and assess the future scenarios that may arise in the region.
The post-war regional system in the South Caucasus and Iran’s “red lines”
With the defeat of the Armenian side during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan and border shifts in the region, Iran redrew two red lines: change in internationally recognized borders in the region (mainly southern Armenia) and Israeli military presence in the region (mainly in Azerbaijan). In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, Iranian political analyst Dr. Seyed Mostafa Khoshcheshm claimed that Iran’s current government is reviewing former President Rouhani’s policies in the South Caucasus. Now Iran is playing a stronger role in the region. Dr. Khoshcheshm argued that Baku’s expansionist pan-Turkic policies are supported by Turkey, NATO/US and Israel. These countries are pushing Azerbaijan to block the North-South corridor and inflict harm to Iran and Russia in Eurasia.
The first concern that Iran has voiced over the course of the Artsakh war is directly related to the geopolitics of the region. Iran has expressed concerns over the change of internationally recognized borders in the South Caucasus region. In an effort to prevent any change in the geopolitics of the region and international borders, Iran has deployed additional troops and military equipment along its borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. As clashes renewed in August 2021 between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides in southern Armenia and Azeri forces stopped Iranian trucks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian underlined the need to preserve internationally recognized borders.
From the Iranian perspective, as Caucasus scholar Laurence Broers described, Azerbaijan’s main objective in occupying Armenian territory was to force Armenia to sign a one-sided peace treaty that would abandon Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for Azerbaijan’s withdrawal of its claims over Syunik. Combined with increased military pressure on Armenia (by conducting military exercises with Turkey near the border and incursions in bordering areas), Baku and Ankara hope to yield an unconditional Armenian capitulation based on their terms. This means that as long as Yerevan resists Baku’s plans, Azerbaijan will keep destabilizing southern Armenia and demand the “Zangezur corridor.”
Senior Iranian officials understood this risk and realized that the more Azerbaijan pressures Armenia, the more their geo-economic interests would be threatened in the north. Hence, Iranian military officials made it clear that Iran will not accept any changes in the official international borders. “Respecting the territorial integrity of countries and preserving the official international borders are among our well-known principles and we will not tolerate any changes in these borders. We have opposed these changes and will continue to do so,” said Major General Seyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, the commander of Iran’s Army. Moreover, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Ground Forces stated, “We will not accept change in the geopolitics of borders. This issue is the red line of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Commenting on Iran’s reaction to the recent developments, Dr. Marandi argues that Iran has information that the Turkish government wanted to put pressure on Armenia to take away part of its sovereignty and change the borders of southern Armenia. “Iran’s intelligence was informed of a serious threat to south Armenia’s sovereignty, and that was a red line to Iran. So Iran under any circumstances would not allow its international borders with neighboring countries to be changed by anyone. So if any country cut the link between Iran and Armenia, Iran will respond militarily and restore that link. The same is true with Iran’s border with Azerbaijan and other neighbors,” added Dr. Marandi. The Iranian analyst also believes that Turkey and Israel are the main responsible countries for the recent tension in the South Caucasus. He argued that the Turkish government wants to create hostilities between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, since these hostilities serve Turkey’s interests. Interestingly, Dr. Khoshcheshm also agrees with this viewpoint, arguing that providing a corridor to Turkey toward Azerbaijan via Syunik, NATO – through Turkey – would be expanding to the Caspian Sea and further toward China. “This would pose a serious threat to Iran and Russia in Eurasia. This is the West-East corridor, planned and supported by NATO and the US. This would impose a serious challenge to the North-South corridor to Iranian and Russian interests,” added the analyst.
A second red line for Iran is Israel’s military presence in the region. The official Iranian narrative is that Baku has given Israel a “green light” to use Azerbaijani soil to stage operations deep inside Iran. With the opening of the Fizuli airport, Iranians had concerns that Israeli spy drones may use it to gather intelligence from northern Iran. Tehran sees Israel intensifying its efforts to encircle Iran. In fact, a number of Iran’s neighbors — Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, and likely Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish regional government in Iraq — look to Israel for cooperation to contain Iran’s influence in the region. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has warned all of Iran’s neighbors against what he called “interference of foreigners in the region” as a “source of discord and damage.” In a direct jab at Baku, Khamenei promised retribution to those neighboring states that collaborate with the Israelis.
To increase pressure on Tehran, Baku went on the “offensive,” conducting military exercises with Turkey and Pakistan and announcing a new military deal with Israel.
On September 12, Azerbaijan conducted a naval exercise with Turkey in the Caspian Sea, triggering condemnation from Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which referred to the “illegality of Turkey’s military presence in the Caspian Sea” and said that the exercise violated norms barring non-bordering countries from deploying forces to the inland sea. Azerbaijan also held another joint military exercise with Turkey and Pakistan in Baku and with Turkey in Nakhichevan. To make things worse, Azerbaijani lawmakers unleashed a series of hostile remarks against Iran. One Azerbaijani lawmaker thundered that Pakistan’s army would invade Tehran if it made any hostile move against Baku. Another lawmaker threatened to cut “Iran’s tail.”
Meanwhile, an Israeli official informed Israel Hayom that Azerbaijan has declared its intention to purchase Israel’s Arrow 3 defense system. If the deal goes through, the Arrow 3 will be the latest Israeli defense acquisition by Baku. The very fact that Azerbaijan is considering the purchase could indicate a regional change in defense outlook that entails a transition from offense to significantly improved defensive capabilities. This defense system is effective against drones, cruise and ballistic missiles. UK-based Arabic news agency Elaph also wrote that an Israeli military delegation visited Baku to offer support if a war erupts with Iran. The news agency mentioned that Israel “owns a military airport in Azerbaijan, in addition to surveillance, intelligence, and espionage facilities.” Meanwhile, the same news agency, citing a senior Israeli source, reported that two advanced Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets have been “permanently stationed” in Azerbaijan. The source reportedly told Elaph that Israel was prepared to provide air support if conflict broke out between Azerbaijan and Iran and that more fighters could be sent to the country if needed.
It is important to mention that Tehran is also aware of Israel and Azerbaijan’s designs to weaken Iran from within. Many Iranians believe that Baku’s provocations are aimed at provoking Azeri secessionism from Iran. For this reason, Iranians prefer to see a strong Armenia that can contain Azerbaijan and Turkey’s Pan-Turkic expansionist aspirations in the north. Dr. Khoshcheshm also mentioned that the Israeli embassy in Baku has been involved in anti-Iranian policies. Israel has used Azerbaijani territory to launch espionage drones on Iran and send Mossad agents and hitmen to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. All these operations show that Israel is given a free hand by the Baku government to conduct terror attacks and radicalize Azeri nationalism in Iran to disintegrate the country from within.
Hence, for both Iran and Azerbaijan, this geopolitical rivalry is hugely sensitive given their geographic, ethnic, religious and historic proximity. Recent history underscores this conundrum. During the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 2020, it was clear that Iran had no choice but to officially sit on the sidelines. Inside Iran, ethnic Azerbaijani nationalism supported by regional actors could create an explosive situation in Iran’s northern provinces. Israeli and Turkish intelligence agencies have a record of seeking to mobilize the Iranian Azerbaijani community against Tehran. To respond to these provocations, Iranian diplomats and military officials send clear signals to Azerbaijan and its regional patrons.
Official Iranian diplomatic and military response to Azerbaijan
The Iranian government’s official response to Azerbaijan’s provocations was harsh and firm both on diplomatic and military grounds.
Iranian lawmakers were more blunt in their reactions to their Azerbaijani counterparts. They responded to the Azerbaijani MPs’ statements by arguing that they must not utter words that are “bigger than their size and capacity.” One of the MPs, Mohammad Reza Ahmadi Sangari, tweeted that the leaders of Baku have been “illusioned” by their recent military victory, which was achieved by “Turkish doping.” “Officials of such a small country as Azerbaijan should not play with the lion’s tail and should sober up, otherwise we will have to take steps,” said another Iranian MP Mohsen Dehnavi. Fada-Hossein Maleki, a leading member of the Iranian parliament sitting on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, advised Azerbaijan to stop its “suspicious moves.” “The drills carried out by the governments of Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are worrying,” the lawmaker told Fars News, adding that Iran is closely following the situation along the Iran-Azerbaijan borders and “warns about some suspicious movements.”
In a joint statement released earlier this month, 165 members of the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Majlis) praised the Iranian army’s “war game” in the northwest region of the country, saying that any border change in the region represents a red line for Iran.
On October 15, 2021, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani tweeted responding to Aliyev’s accusation that for 30 years both Armenia and Iran were conducting drug trafficking in Artsakh: “Ignoring the neighborhood principles and making false statements can’t be a sign of a tact. Accusation against a country that the world recognizes as a hero in the fight against drugs has no effect other than invalidating the speaker’s words. Beware of the devil’s costly traps.”
These harsh words came after Iran’s diplomatic engagement with Azerbaijan turned out to be fruitless. The Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan met several times with high-ranking officials in Baku. Yet Azerbaijani lawmakers continued to make hostile remarks. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with his Azerbaijani and Turkish counterparts on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, but the meeting resulted in a deadlock.
To test Russia’s “silence” position regarding the developments in the region, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian arrived in Moscow atop a delegation on October 5 for consultations with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on issues related to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Afghanistan, Caspian Sea status, South Caucasus region and the Middle East. The Iranian FM once again affirmed his country’s official position that Tehran will not tolerate geopolitical and geographical changes in the Caucasus and expressed the Iranian government’s serious concerns about the presence of terrorists (hinting to Syrian mercenaries) and Zionists (Israeli presence) in this region. At a joint press conference with the Russian FM, the Iranian FM directed his speech to Russia, stating, “We expect Russia to react and be receptive to possible changes in the borders of the countries in the region.” It is worth mentioning that many Iranian officials are still convinced that Syrian mercenaries that were brought by Turkey to support Azerbaijan’s war efforts against the Armenians in Artsakh have not left the region.
Parallel to diplomatic and political engagement, Iranian military officials also participated in the “word games” and sent strong messages to Azerbaijan and Israel.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, commenting on Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s military exercises, said: “Enemies of the Iranian nation would definitely receive a crushing response and pay a big price in case they commit any ignorant, unwise action.” While the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces Brigadier General Kiumars Heidari argued that there are “unwanted elements in our region who wish to destabilize the region and undermine its security,” clearly hinting at Israel, the Brigadier General added that the Iranian army is monitoring the activities of the Israeli elements in the region. The Iranian commander also said, “We have still not been convinced that the terrorists who have come to the region from Syria have left this region” and insisted that Iran will not accept any change in official borders in its vicinity. In a clear reference to Armenia, Heidari said, “A possible weakness in one country to protect its borders gives no reason to other countries to change the borders. The Islamic Republic will not allow that.”
One of the harshest messages sent to Baku was raised by the commander and Brigadier-General of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Force, Mohammad Pakpour. Speaking to reporters, the commander said, “We cannot accept some countries under the influence of third countries making unrealistic and provocative statements regarding the readiness of the combat forces of the Islamic Republic, and undermining our actions.” Pakpour’s comments followed remarks by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in early October questioning Iran’s decision to carry out large-scale drills near the Azerbaijani border. In an interview with Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, Aliyev called the Iranian exercises a “very surprising event” and asked “why they were being carried out now, and why on our border?” Commander Pakpour also warned that the IRGC would not tolerate the territories of neighboring countries turning into “a safe haven and a base for the presence and anti-security activities of the fake Zionist regime.” “We expect that the soil of our neighbors not be used as a breeding ground for the evil deeds of the Zionists. The Islamic Republic expects our neighbors to be a safe and secure environment for other countries and the region,” the commander stressed. He went on to accuse Israel of “helping and supporting” some nations in the region “with the purpose of creating disagreements and rifts among Muslim nations.”
The Iranian army went beyond verbal warnings. After conducting military exercises, the army installed the Iranian air defense missile system “Khordad-3” near the border. This system destroyed the American RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone in the airspace of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2019.
Finally, it is vital to mention that Iranian diplomacy was successful in engaging with Armenia in order to finalize the construction of a route in Syunik that would provide a safe passage for Iranian trucks heading to Georgia, Russia and Europe as an alternative to the Goris-Kapan highway. With the completion of the transit road, less than 15 kilometers of which remains, Iran will bypass Azerbaijan to enter Armenia, through which it will also reach Russia and Europe.
On September 30, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan received the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran Abbas Badakhshan Zokhuri to discuss the importance of expanding cooperation in the trade and economic sphere between both countries, through the implementation of programs that will increase the trade turnover to $1 billion. Within the framework of Armenian-Iranian energy cooperation, the two sides discussed the prospects for increasing the volume of the “gas in exchange for electricity” project.
On October 4, Tehran hosted a joint press conference of the ministers of foreign affairs of Iran and Armenia during which both sides announced that the alternative routes connecting Iran to Armenia are almost ready for operation. Mirzoyan added that negotiations on the settlement of the “Karabakh conflict” should continue on the basis of the OSCE Minsk agreements. Likewise, his Iranian counterpart stressed that Armenia is one of the priority issues for Iran, adding, “We are seriously concerned about the presence of Zionists and terrorists in the South Caucasus. We declare loudly that we will not allow foreign countries to influence Iran’s neighbors, including Armenia.”
On October 8, the Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development, executive director of the Iranian Transport Infrastructure Development Company Khairullah Khademi visited Armenia to get acquainted with the construction of an alternative road through Tatev. “We are negotiating with Armenia so that the movement of trucks and cars along this route will return to normal as soon as possible. The Iran-Armenia road is of strategic importance for Iran. We have visited this road and are ready to help Armenia in its construction. Iran is ready to provide Armenia with its engineering and technical capabilities,” Khademi concluded.
Iran seems to have translated its diplomatic and military reactions into actions and is working hard to finalize the construction of the alternative transit route. While it is important to mention Iran’s official announcements, it is also crucial to highlight and analyze how Iranian society, through the media (reformist and conservative), viewed the developments.
How did the Iranian media perceive the recent developments in the South Caucasus?
The Iranian newspapers and telegram channels continue to provide detailed analyses of the situation in the South Caucasus. Some of these newspapers use terms such as “Baku’s regime” or “Baku’s dictatorship” in their discourse referring to Azerbaijan. Iranian newspapers can be divided into two main categories: reformists (moderates) and conservatives. The conservative press media has adopted slightly harsher rhetoric towards Azerbaijan. Here is how some Iranian newspapers covered the recent tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan.
Vatan-e-Emrooz (the homeland today) covers on its first page the Iranian military exercises near Azerbaijan. The editorial titled “Ready to enter” starts with the following subtitle: “The military drills called the conquerors of Khaybar is not simply a warning. Baku and Ankara know well that in case of manipulating the borders, the Iranian armed forces will enter on Armenian soil and will thwart the Zionist conspiracy!” According to the conservative newspaper, Iran should step in to protect the territorial integrity of Armenia for three main reasons:
- With increased Azerbaijani, Turkish and Zionist presence in the region, the support to the Pan-Turkic separatist groups’ provocations will increase.
- Turkey will tend to increase its influence near the Caspian Sea, thus decreasing Iran’s leverage in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
- Ceding the transit roads (leading to Europe and Russia) to Turkey and Azerbaijan will give these countries leverage to pressure and further isolate Tehran.
The newspaper finally calls on the Russian Federation to cooperate further with Armenia “despite being unsatisfied with Pashinyan’s pro-Western government.”
Kayhan is another conservative newspaper close to the Supreme leader which has harshly criticized Turkey and Azerbaijan. According to an article titled, “The conquerors of Khaybar ready to punish the Zionists,” the military drills were organized in order to “send clear messages to the Zionist regime and its allies, Baku and Ankara” that “Iran will not tolerate the presence of a child killer and occupier regime at its borders.” Kayhan and some other conservative newspapers in their last week’s edition had openly called “Pashinyan a traitor who cooperates with the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel axis.”
Javan Online, which is affiliated with the IRGC, published an article written by Fakhreddin Abbaspour titled “Calm down the turbulence on the north of Arax with an Iranian military base.” The article lists the recent provocations of Israel and Aliyev’s regime: creating a separatist television channel affiliated with the CIA, opening a commercial office in Tel Aviv, building smart villages at the borders with Iran to spy on Iran and signing a military contract with Israel. The author adds that the Iranian military and security establishment had precise information about an imminent Turkish-Azerbaijani attack to occupy Syunik and cut off the border with Iran. To prevent this scenario, Tehran should ask Yerevan for the creation of a military base in Syunik instead of performing regular military drills on the border with Azerbaijan, the author suggests. The newspaper published another article on its front page hailing the military drills titled, “We will not allow the borders of our northwestern neighbors to change.” The newspaper says that the drills are done to “stabilize the northern borders which have been destabilized by the presence of Zionist elements.”
Another analysis was done by the Azariha website entitled “A couple of recommendations for a solution to the transit and geopolitical problems in the South Caucasus.” The author provides four recommendations to solve the transit crisis in Syunik:
- Creation of a military base in Syunik with Armenia and the Russian Federation’s consent with the presence of 700-1000 Iranian forces.
- Opening of a general consulate in Syunik with experienced diplomats and military attachés as its staff.
- Taking over the control of the Tatev road for 100 years to ward off any Turkish or Azerbaijani invasion.
- Increasing the transit fees for Azerbaijani truck drivers passing through Iran heading to Nakhichevan.
Moderate newspapers such as Etemad also viewed the latest developments in the South Caucasus through the anti-Israeli prism. The newspaper mentioned that the drills were directed against “Zionism and ISIS.” On October 3, 2021, an analysis was published about the economic implications of the “Zangezur corridor” with the title “What do Azerbaijan and Turkey look for in the Caucasus? Cutting Iran’s transit access to Europe.” The article touches upon an agreement between Turkey and Iran 80 years ago according to which Iran ceded a small piece of land to Turkey on its northwestern border, which gave the latter access to Nakhichevan. “It seems this border is more important to Iran than to Armenia […] if the Zangezur corridor is opened, Ankara and Baku will have the initiative to cut off Iran’s transit access to Europe. In fact, all the geopolitics of the Caucasus depends directly on the opening of this corridor or the opposite,” the article says. It concludes that the pro-West Armenian government does not enjoy Russian support.
Another reformist newspaper Arman interviewed a university professor and political analyst Ali Asghar Zargar. Zargar criticized Iran’s “pro-Azerbaijani policy” during the last war, stating, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has woken up from its sleep to see that it has no more a border with Armenia if Azerbaijan cuts it off.”
Therefore, if you want to really understand Iran’s position towards the recent crisis in South Caucasus, it is a must to read the Iranian newspapers and the different opinions of Iranian analysis and policymakers. These articles reveal that Tehran is not only criticizing Baku but also the “pro-Western government in Armenia.” Armenian media outlets omit these phrases when presenting the Iranian perspective. Yet when Iran raises concerns about Turkish-Israeli influence in the region, it not only hints at Azerbaijan, but also Armenia. This opinion elucidates why Iran had a passive position during the 2020 Artsakh War.
Assessment and Future Scenarios
Iran has clearly redrawn its red lines in the South Caucasus. It has made clear that it cannot tolerate any change in international borders and any kind of Israeli military presence in the region. Violation of these red lines threatens Iran’s national security and territorial integrity. Meanwhile, Iran has made a comeback to the region through the gates of Syunik. Tehran so far has successfully implemented its soft (diplomacy, meetings with Armenian officials) and hard power (military exercises) to put pressure on Azerbaijan. The fruits of these actions would be harvested in the future.
Iran has clearly redrawn its red lines in the South Caucasus.
For Armenia, Iran is a strategic partner. Forty-percent of Armenia’s trade turnover is carried out through Iran. Iran is important for Armenia both for the import and export of goods to Arab, Indian, Chinese and other Asian countries. If the road issue is not resolved, not only will Armenia’s geo-economic significance be diminished, but Armenian goods will also become more expensive and lose their competitiveness in the international markets.
Despite Aliyev’s announcement that Azerbaijan will plan its own foreign relations and internal affairs as it sees fit and threaten that no one should “pry their nose into (Azerbaijan’s) affairs,” Iran keeps pushing its goals in the region. Earlier this month, the Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development Rostam Ghasemi tweeted, “Thanks to the special mission entrusted to the deputy ministers, the problem of the Caucasian corridor and the road from Norduz to Armenia will be resolved, and soon the transit map of this region will be completely changed. Those who created the problems should know that they will not close the road to Iran, at the same time it will be difficult to restore the burned bridges.” Iran has provided Armenia with the geopolitical and geo-economic oxygen to become a transit corridor connecting Russia and Europe to the Persian Gulf and beyond. Within this context, the Indian Foreign Minister visited Armenia for the first time on October 12 to discuss bilateral matters including Armenia’s participation in the International North-South Transport Corridor. It was remarkable that the Indian FM offered Armenia to use the Iranian Chabahar port as an international transport hub for the Persian Gulf-Black Sea transport corridor.
Meanwhile, Turkey cannot antagonize Iran in the long run as both countries have trade benefits. Last month, the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul road corridor came into operation as a convoy of trucks departed from Pakistan’s capital on September 27 and arrived in Istanbul via Tehran, covering a journey of 5,300 kilometers. Despite Ankara’s support to Baku, Turkey would not risk a direct confrontation with Iran.
Finally, it should be noted that despite the tension that has arisen between Azerbaijan and Iran, Tehran will not take any steps until the Armenian side has expressed its willingness to resist the Turkish-Azerbaijani pressure. If Yerevan continues its passive diplomacy, the Iranian side has neither the tools nor the desire to interfere in this issue or solve it in favor of Armenia. Hence, Armenia should engage in proactive diplomacy to reach for new international and regional partners while maintaining its close relationships with Moscow and Tehran. As Iran is closely monitoring the secret negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan, it has concerns that Yerevan may further compromise the Turkish-Azerbaijani axis and jeopardize Tehran’s national interests.
Author’s note: I would like to thank Sarine Torossian for voluntarily translating and summarizing the content of some Iranian newspapers addressing the topic.
1“Khaybar” is a reference to the 628 CE battle of Khaybar between Muslims, led by the Prophet Muhammad, and Jewish tribesmen at an oasis in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula. The battle led to the Jewish tribes’ defeat, and tribesmen were allowed to continue living at the oasis in exchange for payment of tribute to Muhammad. Many Muslims use this battle as a reminder of their political struggle against Israel.