In recent months, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been involved in intense negotiations to sign a peace agreement with discussions in Brussels, Washington, DC and Sochi. The existence of different formats provided some flexibility for the sides. As mediators are increasingly at odds with each other, Armenia-Azerbaijan relations may become part of an ongoing Russia-West confrontation, which may derail the process. While experts and pundits are exploring ways to avoid that scenario, the South Caucasus is slowly moving toward becoming a battlefield for another rivalry, this time between Iran and Israel.
Many may wonder what these relations have in common with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was little, if anything, uniting the Karabakh conflict with the Iran-Israel rivalry. The situation started to change around 2010 when Azerbaijan launched its strategic defense cooperation with Israel and began buying billions of US dollars worth of armaments from Israel, including loitering munitions, advanced anti-tank missiles and reconnaissance drones. Israeli weapons proved helpful during the April 2016 Four Day War, while their large-scale deployment during the 2020 Artsakh War played a significant role in securing Azerbaijani military victory. Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation has gone well beyond defense cooperation. Azerbaijan allowed Israel to use its territory for different anti-Iranian activities, including recruiting Iranian citizens who visited Azerbaijan for different reasons. Tehran was always looking cautiously at the growing Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation. Iran was concerned with transforming Azerbaijan into the launchpad of anti-Iranian activities, including the possible spread of separatist ideas among a multi-million Azeri-speaking population along the Iran-Azerbaijan border. In this context, the 130-kilometer Nagorno Karabakh Republic-Iran border aligned with Iranian national interests. Azerbaijan took control of the Nagorno Karabakh-Iran border after the 2020 war in Nagorno Karabakh. Iran officially welcomed the Azerbaijani victory.
Tehran has always supported the territorial integrity of all regional states and has never publicly aired any doubts about Karabakh legally being a part of Azerbaijan. However, the growing Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation after the 2020 war has raised suspicions in Iran. Azerbaijan continued its large-scale purchases of weapons from Israel, and high-level Israeli military delegations continued to visit Azerbaijan. Iranians were asking themselves why Azerbaijan still needed Israeli weapons and bilateral defense cooperation with Israel after the military victory over Armenia. If Azerbaijan were to explain these activities before the 2020 war with the necessity to increase its military capabilities to defeat Armenia, after November 2020, this argument does not seem reliable. The opening of two “civil airports” in the territories taken by Azerbaijan during the 2020 war in the close vicinity of the Azerbaijan-Iran border raised additional questions for Iran. Given the low population in these territories, the only reasonable explanation for opening these two airports is the possibility of using them as military airports. Their location signaled that Armenia was not the only target for them.
As negotiations to restore the Iranian nuclear deal reached a deadlock and Israeli officials started publicly circulating the possibility of Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites, Azerbaijan-Israel military cooperation started to threaten Iran’s vital national interests. Not surprisingly, Iran launched several large-scale drills along its border with Azerbaijan in October 2021 and again late last month.
On November 2, 2022, Azerbaijan arrested 19 citizens it accused of being trained and funded by Iran to spy for its intelligence services. On November 7, the Iranian intelligence ministry stated that an Azerbaijani citizen was the main organizer and coordinator of the October 26, 2022 terror attack in the Shah Cheragh mosque in the Iranian Shiraz province. Days later, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassador of Azerbaijan to Tehran to protest the propaganda campaign waged by the country’s officials and media against Iran. On November 14, five more citizens of Azerbaijan were arrested for high treason for working with Iranian intelligence. As Iranian authorities currently grapple with months-long protests and nationwide demonstrations, the Iranian government views with concern the growing influence of Israel in Azerbaijan. They are primarily worried about the potential use by the Israeli military and other services of the territories located along the Azerbaijan-Iran border as a serious threat to the security and stability of Iran.
On November 11, 2022, during his speech at the 9th Summit of the Organization of Turkic States, President Ilham Aliyev stated that most of the 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan were deprived of opportunities to study in their mother tongue. It was a thinly veiled hint toward Iran and only added concerns in Iran that Azerbaijan may be used to sow instability in the northern parts of the country.
The transformation of Azerbaijan into another Iran-Israel battlefield will negatively impact the already complicated Azerbaijan-Armenia negotiation process. The South Caucasus risks becoming embroiled in different conflicts, which only increases the involvement of external actors in regional geopolitics. Azerbaijan probably did not act smartly by bringing outside countries, such as Israel and Pakistan, into the region to support Baku in its rivalry with Armenia. However, the process has been launched, and repercussions are already here. Armenia should be cautious not to be seen as overtly anti-Israeli or pro-Iranian.
Armenia should also signal to Israel that Tehran’s current position in the South Caucasus, arguing for the inviolability of state borders, contributes to regional stability. All understand that Israel has the full right to supply weapons to whatever state it wants. However, as Azerbaijan uses Israeli weapons to occupy Armenian territories and kill Armenian soldiers and civilians, Armenia has a right to cooperate with whatever state it wants, including Iran, to fight back against Azerbaijan.