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Iranian chances of continuing to exert influence in the Caucasus seem set to weaken more and more unless Tehran seeks rapprochement with Azerbaijan and Turkey
A full-blown conventional war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia following the Armenian attack on military points on the Azerbaijani border on Sep. 27, 2020. The Baku administration began moving towards Karabakh to reclaim its land, after the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group failed to offer a solution, for almost 30 years, to the issue of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. A peace deal was signed on Nov. 9, 2020 between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia after the Armenian army lost Shusha in the sixth week of the fighting, or more accurately, at a time when it was on the verge of a rout, thanks to the fact that third parties did not get involved in the conflict.
As part of the peace deal, it was decided that Armenia would be gradually withdrawing from the three occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan thereby carved out a new geopolitical balance in the Caucasus, while also liberating its lands from Armenian occupation. Russia, for sure, is among the winners of this war as well. As a matter of fact, as a result of the war, Russia made Transcaucasia safe for itself by solving the conflict without the help of the two other co-chairs of the Minsk Group; France and the US. Therefore, Russia managed to push France and the US, in other words, two NATO members, outside of the Caucasus without harming its alliance with Azerbaijan. Russia also implicitly punished Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is known for his pro-Western policies. The fact that Turkey will be actively engaged in the field in the current post-war equation, on the other hand, has been recorded as a foreign policy success on the part of Turkey.
– Iran’s process management
In the Karabakh conflict, the Islamic Republic of Iran would be expected to openly support Azerbaijan, a country that has a predominantly Shia population. However, Tehran’s persistent attitude in order to counterbalance Azerbaijan and Turkey as well as preserve the pre-war status quo has, since the outset, been playing into the hands of Armenia, albeit indirectly. When the clashes broke out, Iran initially wanted to continue laying its usual passive emphasis on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, for the preservation of the status quo would mean continued Azerbaijani dependence on Iran, as it would necessitate Azerbaijan to somehow pass through Iranian territory to get to Nakhchivan. Similarly, the status quo required Turkish entrepreneurs to pass through Iranian territory to reach Asian markets by land. Iran would not want to lose this trump card.
On the other hand, it must have been worrying for Tehran that an Azeri victory in Karabakh could have psychological effects on Iranian Turks, resulting in separatist movements; any other interpretation on Iranian Foreign Ministry’s calls for “immediately stopping the clashes” during the first few days of the war is highly unlikely. Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan would not have gained so much from the situation had the clashes been stopped.
Let alone describe Armenia as an occupying state, the Tehran administration went so far as to claim, through some of its highest-ranking official figures and without providing any proof, that jihadist groups from Syria were involved in the war in support of Azerbaijan. Moreover, Turkey was blamed by many media outlets, while Azerbaijan’s rightful cause of seeking to reclaim its rights was presented as Turkey’s project of destabilizing the region. The analyses published by various media organizations and think tanks in order to propagate these allegations are too many to count. In essence, the pragmatic goal of these allegations for Iran was to influence and shape their own public opinion and especially Iranian Turks’ perception of the Karabakh War. Syrian radical groups taking sides with Azerbaijan and actually fighting on its side could result in Iranian Turks questioning the legitimacy of the war.
Having such motives, Iran wanted to get through this process by readopting the attitude it had assumed in the First Karabakh War, which took place between 1992 and 1994. However, from a socio-political standpoint, while Iranian Turks are not a war-weary people in that they did not suffer the war in 1992, Azerbaijan also did not neglect strengthening its army while also not failing to exhaust all diplomatic possibilities.
In the meantime, although their accuracy is open to discussion, there were reports in various media outlets regarding the transport of some PKK elements from Syria to Karabakh by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran. That there are organic ties between Iran and the PKK based on a “win-win” situation is a claim familiar to those interested. Therefore, it should not be surprising if confessions come in the coming days from captured Armenian soldiers that PKK members actually fought in the war. If there is to be a psycho-political inference from the ever more prevalent allegations in Iran that radical groups were sent to Karabakh, we can say that Iran is merely projecting its own subconscious onto Turkey, using a defense mechanism. Here, it would be appropriate to remember the former governor of Ardabil, Mansur Hakikatpur, who, for the liberation of Karabakh, suggested to Aliyev establishing armed militia structures based on popular power in Azerbaijan, such as Hashd al-Shaabi, Ansarullah and Hezbollah.
Even though Iran’s emphasis on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity became stronger as the war progressed in favor of Azerbaijan, the conviction that Iran is taking sides with Armenia was solidified in both Turkish and Azeri public opinions as Iran’s “wait and see” policy adopted at the initial stages of the conflict was combined with social media posts of military vehicles crossing from Iran to Armenia. Although the Friday Prayer imams, who are the representatives of the supreme leader of Iran, made statements in support of Azerbaijan in order to calm down the reactions of the people in Iranian Azerbaijan, it was not enough. Moreover, the Iranian Government Spokesperson Ali Rabiei reacted as if the Friday Prayer imams had made statements on a foreign policy issue for the first time, and stated that the official stance of the country on the issue would only come from the statements made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
– Iran’s Karabakh plans backfired
It appears that Iran made a miscalculation. Iran initially claimed frequently that conflicts would destabilize the region, because it failed to foresee that the war would end in such a short time. Iran could not foresee either that Iranian Turks could be mobilized so quickly, even though Turkish nationalism has been visibly on the rise in Iran, moving along reactionary and sometimes proactive lines. In addition, the Karabakh issue is not only an issue of the younger nationalist generation; it is a sensitive topic on an intergenerational level. For such an issue, Iran’s weak and late coming discourse on supporting Azerbaijan opens the door to the weakening of the emotional ties between Iranian Turks and Iran’s central authority. The protests that took place despite all the measures taken in cities with large Turkish populations suffice to confirm this opinion.
Russia not immediately supporting Armenia when the war broke out was probably another move that was not anticipated by Iran. As a matter of fact, Iran’s statements were shaped by the position of Russia as well as the progression of the war; as they evolved from inviting the parties to a “cease-fire”, then to laying emphasis on “Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity” and then finally to “taking Azerbaijani lands from Armenian control” when the result became clear. It was once again seen that Russia does not take Iran’s priorities into account in regional issues and this country cannot be a strategic ally for Iran, just as we have observed in the Syrian crisis. As the war was going on, the diplomatic tour of Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Arakchi to present Iran’s Karabakh plan to the parties involved was not met with much response. Russia ultimately pushed Iran, a country neighbors with both warring parties, out of the game.
On the other hand, as the international political conjuncture was favorable, the Baku administration made one of its first decisive moves to take back Karabakh’s border line with Iran, without causing any friction with Tehran. Azerbaijan was obviously following a combat strategy well thought out beforehand, while Iran was waiting for the whole picture to take on greater clarity. In addition to the pre-war technology transfer from Turkey to Azerbaijan, Baku’s military investments over the years also gave Azerbaijan the upper hand. The carte blanche given to Azerbaijan by Turkey from the first day of the clashes gave Azerbaijan the psychological superiority too.
The Baku administration sending official thanking messages to Tehran regarding the position that they took in the war despite the fact that news reports kept surfacing regarding the logistical support Iran was allegedly providing to Armenia should be interpreted as Azerbaijan’s efforts to not risk the military gains it acquired. Baku managed to rescue Karabakh in compliance with international law and without confronting Moscow or Tehran (similar to how, through military action, Tehran liberated its territories invaded in the Iran-Iraq War).
In the final analysis, Iran no longer has the opportunity to interfere with the balances in the Karabakh issue. Pretending to support Azerbaijan in the name of political correctness while not taking deterrent action against Armenia caused Iran to be categorized as a country on Armenia’s side by international observers. This is why the political mission chiefs of Iran made considerable effort to communicate that they were supportive of Azerbaijan. Such efforts, however, were far from satisfying the Turkish and Azerbaijani publics. Tehran seems to have joined the “losers club”, along with Armenia, in the newly formed geopolitical balance as it failed to manage the war process well, first and foremost, because of its manipulative approaches revolving around such untruths as “jihadist groups are being transported to the Caucasus”. The Second Karabakh War has weakened the hand of Tehran in the Caucasus as Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to properly interpret the developments in the field, while giving Baku a chance to win, and also functioning as a litmus test in Iran-Azerbaijan relations. Although Iran stood to gain more from Azerbaijan than Armenia, its securitizing and pro-status quo perspective prevented it from coming up with policies suitable for the new situation. Although Russia, along with Turkey, have set up observation points according to the recent agreement on Karabakh, which is the lesser of evils for Iran, it seems clear that a paradigm shift in Iran’s medium- and long-term Caucasus policies towards getting closer with Azerbaijan and Turkey would be to its advantage. Otherwise, Iran’s influence in the Caucasus will decrease further and further.
By Dr. Umut Basar
– The writer received his PhD from the Institute of Turkish Studies in Hacettepe University. He is a senior expert at the Culture and Society Department of the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) and a lecturer in the Social Sciences University of Ankara.