The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, landlocked in the mountainous South Caucasus and predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians, has recently seen a fresh flareup of tensions and hostilities between the Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory falling under Azeri sovereignty, the 4,400-square-kilometer enclave hosts a population of over 150,000 and is governed by the self-proclaimed Yerevan-backed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh, as Armenians call it. The latest escalation of violence, which broke out on September 27, has proven to be the deadliest conflict since the 1994 ceasefire between the two former Soviet republics. The escalation threatens to drag in regional powers and expand in geopolitical scope. Turkey has explicitly thrown its political-military weight behind Azerbaijan and Russia has implicitly backed Armenia while maintaining close ties with the Azeri government of Ilham Aliyev.
Iran’s position as a major actor sharing land borders with all parties involved, except Russia, has been unsurprisingly ambivalent and complicated. Iran ultimately aims to preserve the status quo or secure a peaceful solution to the lingering problem of political governance in Nagorno-Karabakh for various strategic and national security reasons. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed a Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement between Baku and Yerevan while Iran’s ambassador to Moscow Kazem Jalali has confirmed the continuation of high-level “consultations and talks” between the two partners, suggesting Tehran’s recognition of Russian interests and influence in the region.
Iran’s Nagorno-Karabakh Security Dilemma
During the 1988-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave, the Islamic Republic, itself in the final years of an enervating war with Iraq since 1980, sought to pursue a neutral “hands off” policy towards the conflict. This was t to both stay out of the conflict as much as possible and to refrain from antagonizing Russia, the most influential regional power bent on protecting its “sphere of influence” in the Caucasus. Tehran’s practically pro-Russia approach was replicated in principle during the Chechen Wars from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2000. Now, the reignition of territorial hostilities has raised many pressing questions about the possibility of ethnic cleansing, demographic change, and the spread of violent instability beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.
Following historical precedent, the embattled government of President Hassan Rouhani — whose foreign and security policy plate is already overflowing — has called for a halt to fighting and offered to help mediate between the two adversaries in the hope of de-escalating the inter-ethnic strife. “The region cannot sustain further violence,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, stated a day after the clashes erupted. “Iran’s policy has not changed, but [has] always been oriented towards facilitating talks between the two sides as the use of military force is not a sustainable solution to this decades-old dispute,” he added. Further, he warned that the Islamic Republic “will not by any means tolerate violation of its borders and territory.” The admonition came after a number of stray rockets and shells landed in villages on the Iranian side of East Azerbaijan, causing damage to civilian property and injuring at least one local inhabitant.
In what appears to be a shift of official policy, Friday Prayer leaders serving as representatives of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in four predominantly Turkic-populated provinces — West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardebil and Zanjan — publicly voiced support in a joint statement for Azeri efforts to end the “occupation” of Nagorno-Karabakh. They described the Republic of Azerbaijan as a “[Shia] household country” and its actions to “recapture” the disputed territory “completely lawful and religiously legitimate.” This unprecedented stance was later echoed by Ali Akbar Velayati, current international affairs advisor to Khamenei, who pointed out four UN Security Council resolutions (passed from April to November 1993) calling for withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azeri lands and the fate of “around 7 cities in south Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia.”
“So, we want Armenia to return these occupied parts to the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Velayati asserted on October 6. Subsequently, he added that “over a million Azeri Turks have been displaced as a consequence of this occupation and should return to their homeland, and as we oppose occupation of Palestinian lands by the Zionist regime, we have the same position here.” Shortly afterwards, Ali Rabiei, the Rouhani administration’s spokesman, reiterated similar concerns, calling on Yerevan “to evacuate occupied areas” of Azerbaijan.
Tehran has Motives to Preserve the Status Quo
The Islamic Republic has espoused its Azeri neighbor’s territorial rights and sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh in rhetoric and on official policy platforms. However, Tehran gravitates towards the Armenian side in practice as the status quo, which Yerevan strives to protect with Russian blessing, has benefited Iran strategically over the past three decades. The Iranian leadership is in fact deeply concerned about the geopolitical and security implications of the unrecognized statelet falling under Azeri control and thus, largely prefers to preserve the status quo.
Firstly, an Azeri-Turkish recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh will dramatically invigorate centrifugal ethnocentric tendencies and separatist sentiments in Iran’s northwestern Turkic-majority provinces and more broadly among the 20-million-strong “minority” of Turks living across the country. Iranian authorities have already detained dozens of demonstrators and activists who took to the streets in such cities as Urmia, Tabriz, Ardebil and Zanjan — provincial centers of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardebil and Zanjan, respectively — in protest against Tehran’s policies towards the conflict, including its reported facilitation of weapons transfers from Russia to Armenia. An Azeri-Turkish military victory on the other side of the border is likely to boost the Ankara-Baku alliance’s ethnocentric, sociopolitical influence across northwestern Iran and embolden secessionist forces at the expense of the central government in Tehran.
Given Azerbaijan’s close security and economic ties with both Turkey and Israel, its control of Nagorno-Karabakh will likely turn the territory into a hotbed of hostile activity against the Islamic Republic, including reconnaissance and intelligence operations. According to speculations within the Iranian security apparatus, Baku played an indispensable role in Israel’s uninterrupted heist in early 2018, of over half a ton of top-secret nuclear documents from a warehouse in Tehran. Such vulnerabilities of significance to national security could be further exposed in the event of Israeli entrenchment around Iran’s northern borders, a region or “flank” that has traditionally been safe and uncostly from an operational perspective. On October 13, an Israeli-made IAI Harop strike drone, believed to belong to the Azerbaijani military, crashed in Iran’s northwestern Ardebil province.
Turkey has reportedly sent foreign fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh which has heightened these security concerns. Velayati, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s top international affairs advisor, slammed Ankara for its “insistence” on “the protraction of this war” and urged it to stop “adding fuel to the fire.” President Rouhani doubled down on the warnings in a cabinet meeting on October 7. He intoned, “It is unacceptable for us that some [states] use excuses to transfer terrorists from Syria and other locations to the region and areas near our borders,”. This situation is reminiscent of Iranian threat perceptions about its porous border with Pakistan and the lingering challenge of Sunni militancy in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan.
Lastly, Iranian leaders are deeply wary of making any move against Russian interests in the region. Iran has long since seen the South Caucasus as part of Moscow’s core “sphere of influence” and strategic backyard. This is particularly important at a time when the Islamic Republic is grappling with the “maximum pressure” of US economic sanctions. Further, Tehran relies, above all, on Russia for political support at the UN Security Council and for the enactment of critical arms purchases once an international arms embargo against it expires on October 18.
Russia has had longstanding partnerships with both conflicting parties in Nagorno-Karabakh and has a military base in Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri. However, it seems to be letting Yerevan take a beating two years after a “velvet revolution” brought Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. This stoked fears in Moscow that the Pashinyan government might seek to balance Armenia’s heavy reliance on Russia by fostering closer cooperation with the West. Despite Russia’s balancing act in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is unlikely to let the territory fall into Azeri hands and let the regional balance of power change in favor of Baku. In his first public comments on the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted Moscow’s defense pact with Yerevan in the framework of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), indicating that it might intervene only if Armenian territory proper comes under attack. “We have certain obligations as part of this treaty,” Putin told Russia-24 state broadcaster. “Russia has always honored and will continue to honor its commitments…but [the hostilities] are not taking place on Armenian territory.”
Considering Russian strategic interests on the one hand and the need to maintain a working level of cooperation with Turkey on the other, Iran is arguably treading a tightrope with respect to the reignited conflict, striving to find a middle ground. Notably, in their calls for an end to Armenia’s “occupation” of Azeri land, neither the Rouhani government’s spokesman Ali Rabiei nor Ayatollah Khamenei’s advisor Velayati specified what they meant by “occupied areas.” As such, while Tehran prefers that the status quo remains intact, it seems amenable to the idea of Armenia ceding occupied Azeri territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as a balanced means to resolve the conflict in a sustainable fashion.
Hamidreza Azizi, PhD, is an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He was an assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University (2016-2020) and a guest lecturer at the department of regional studies at the University of Tehran (2016-2018). On Twitter: @HamidRezaAz
Maysam Behravesh is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Lund University, Sweden, and a Research Associate at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael). He worked as an intelligence analyst and policy advisor in Iran from 2008 to 2010, and writes mostly about Iran and Middle East security.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.