What’s Iran’s role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan clash?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 28 Sep 2020

Iran seems to be quietly backing Armenia in the conflict.

An Azerbaijani service member drives an armoured carrier and greets people, who gather on the roadside in Baku, Azerbaijan September 27, 2020. ( Aziz Karimov / Reuters )

Renewed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh are already a geopolitical flashpoint between Russia, which supports Yerevan, and Turkey, which supports Baku. 

But what role does Iran, a Shia-Muslim majority country like Azerbaijan, which neighbours both countries, have? Experts with a close eye on the conflict think Iran is secretly backing Armenia, a Christian-majority country. 

Iran has officially called on both sides to cease clashes, offering mediation between the two countries.  

“Generally-speaking, Iran appears to be closer to Armenia in its relations with both countries,” says Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at Istanbul Policy Center-Sabanci University.

Aras recounts several factors for Iran’s implicit support of Armenia, ranging from Iran’s political alliance with Russia, to Tehran’s trade ties with Yerevan. 

But among other reasons, the changing political nature of Iran’s Azeri Turkish population (how the population with Azerbaijani heritage is referred to inside Iran) plays an important role in Tehran’s close connections to Yerevan, says Aras. 

“Increasing Turkish nationalism [among the Azeri Turks] in Iran has been seen as a serious political problem by Iran. Connections and relations between the country’s north [where a sizable Azeri Turkish population lives] and Azerbaijan have been an important factor in Tehran’s political problems with Azerbaijan,” Aras tells TRT World. 

Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020.(Reuters Archive)

Iran’s ‘Turkic problem’

Some Azeris believe that Iran’s Turkic-origin population, which includes Turkmen, Qashgais and other Turkish-speaking groups, might amount to nearly 40 percent. 

Many Azeris call Iran’s north as southern Azerbaijan, where nearly 20 million Azeris live according to different estimates. Some Azeri nationalists and intellectuals have long defined both northern and southern parts as culturally and socially identical, arguing that they should be joined under a political union. 

“In Iran, due to the enormous Turkish population, there has historically been a political fear that two Azerbaijans, Baku [the capital of northern Azerbaijan] and Tabriz [the capital of southern Azerbaijan] might join at some point,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst. 

“On the other hand, in Azerbaijani political memory and foreign policy, the idea of Greater Azerbaijan has always been an important factor,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World

For centuries, Iran and Azerbaijan had been ruled by Turkic-origin states, from the Seljuks to the Safavids, and eventually the Qajars. During the rule of the Qajars in the 19th century, after losing some crucial battles to the Russians, the Shia-Turkish dynasty ceded some crucial parts of its territories to the Russians - the Aras, or Araxes River, became the border line between the two states, dividing current territories effectively.  

While the northern part of Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union as the Azerbaijan Republic after the communist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the southern part stayed under the Qajars. They were replaced by the Persian-origin Pahlavi dynasty, the founding family of current Iran, in the early 20th century. 

The political argument of Greater Azerbaijan has long been a threat for the Iranian establishment, which has used its support of Armenia as a counter-measure to minimise Azeri aspirations in Iran and across the region, says Yalinkilicli. 

“Iran’s traditional Armenia policy has long been a balancing act against both Azerbaijan and Turkey across southern Caucasia. As a result, behind-the-scenes, Iran backs Armenia,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World. 

While Iran has a Shia majority and Azeris are overwhelmingly Shia, Azeris speak a Turkish dialect, which is very close to Turkey’s Turkish, and have established close connections with Ankara since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union. 

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) speaks as Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev listens during a news conference following a signing ceremony in Istanbul June 26, 2012. Turkey and Azerbaijan signed an inter-governmental agreement on Tuesday on the $7 billion Trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline project (TANAP), planned to carry Azeri natural gas across Turkey to Europe.(Reuters Archive)

Also, national awareness among Iran’s Azeris has increasingly become more evident as globalism has enabled the country’s Turkic-origin population to connect their brethren living in other neighbouring countries including Azerbaijan and Turkey, says Yalinkilicli.

Iran’s other motivations

However, aside from increasing Turkish nationalism in Azerbaijan, there are also other political reasons for Tehran’s support of Armenia. 

“Reasons like land disputes between the two countries [Iran and Azerbaijan], increasing nationalism among Azeri Turks, issues regarding how to share natural sources of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan’s close relations with Israel, [which is an archenemy of Iran across the Middle East] and a political desire to balance Turkey-Azerbaijan relations occasionally lead to some tensions and crisis between Baku and Tehran,” says Aras, the international relations professor. 

Aras also underlines that Iran’s low-profile Armenian policy, which is officially a mediating position between the two countries, might significantly change should the existing political status quo be altered by the clashes in the occupied Karabakh region, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

“We need to pay attention to what Iran would do if the political status quo changes,” says the professor. 

According to recent reports, Azerbaijan appears to have an upper hand in the Karabakh region, gaining some crucial territories during recent clashes. 

“There is a weak possibility that Iran will militarily intervene in the conflict. But if there is a clear development in favour of Azerbaijan, it could be said that some political groups in Iran would have serious discomfort about that. 

“But there is a little possibility that Iran would reveal that discomfort in its official policy,” he concludes.