The latest diplomatic crisis between Iran and Azerbaijan has brought potential conflicts of interest between the two nations to the table. However, we still do not know how this could affect the development of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and if it will really represent a critical point in maintaining the status quo in the region. As Azerbaijan has remained true to its principles, its commitment and reliability in dealing with its neighbors is paying off. The fact remains, that we cannot lose sight of the power games that take place in an area of the planet so rich in natural resources.
For decades, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been one of the hottest issues on the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus, specifically between Iran, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a simmering war between Armenians and Azeris that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, tensions between the two powers can be traced back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the demise of Tsarist Russia at the end of the First World War. But beyond its origins, and focusing on the role currently played by the conflict on the international scene, we should focus mainly on two issues: on the one hand, the presence of the ethnic struggles that act as a catalyst for this rivalry and, on the other, the geo-economic and geostrategic importance of the region as a producer and distributor of hydrocarbons to the rest of the world. The Nagorno Karabakh War is commonly seen as a conflict between Azerbaijani Muslims and Armenian Christians. Although there are groups that try to turn this enmity into a reality by promoting religious divisions, the truth is that Azerbaijan is a secular country that guarantees freedom of worship, so the religious division is not entirely powerful but it is used many times by various sectors as a political instrument. Although both points have been decisive in the course of the war, the latter is responsible for the recent events that have taken place.
Following the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement of 2020, Russia’s role was decisive in the cessation of hostilities. However, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out a few months ago, it is necessary to moderate the language in order to reach a definitive peace. The problem is that the root of the conflict now seems to have spread to Iran, Azerbaijan’s neighbour, whose diplomatic relations have been altered in different aspects. But how has this situation come about and could these possible disagreements entail a change in the status quo in the region? And finally, is Iran trying to influence Azerbaijan’s domestic politics?
Roots of the Diplomatic Crisis
To answer these questions, we must go back to the cause of this diplomatic crisis which, at the end of September, put relations between these two countries into question. On 15 September, two Iranian truck drivers on the Goris-Kapan route were detained for transporting goods to Nagorno-Karabakh. As stated by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, 60 Iranian trucks entered the Karabakh region without permission between August and September this year, after Azerbaijan asked Iran to stop these actions. In addition, Iran’s unexpected military exercise near Azerbaijan’s borders raised all the alarms. It is true that every country has the right to conduct any military maneuvers or exercises within the limits of its sovereignty, but why now, and so close to the border of its neighbor Azerbaijan?
According to his latest statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that all this was nothing but misunderstandings that “evildoers” use to undermine the good relations between Baku and Tehran. In fact, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, expressed his concern only a few days ago about the new military clashes in the border regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan. A fact that makes us think that Iran has not yet taken part in this conflict by trying to maintain good relations with both sides. But if in the short term this crisis seems to have dissipated, in the long term relations between the two countries could become increasingly complicated. And if the accusations between the two sides have diminished, the divergent geopolitical objectives are leading them down different paths.
Ankara’s growing influence: myth or reality?
Undoubtedly, Turkey’s attempt to expand its influence in Central Asia has been a turning point in its relations with Iran. And even more so if we take into account that Ankara’s support for Baku means much more than it seems. However, a war against Iran seems unlikely, as neither side would be willing to confront the other in a scenario that would be unfavourable to both. It is true that Iran fears that the Zangezur corridor will isolate it. But preserving the channels of dialogue between Baku and Tehran could make these differences, from which both nations could be harmed, more manageable. For example, Turkey is aware that if its relations with its Shiite counterpart deteriorate further, Iran may take advantage of its ties with the Kurdish cause to move closer to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). For its part, the ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have posed another major challenge to Iran, Tel Aviv’s bitter enemy. However, from a realist point of view, Baku has managed to establish a fairly intelligent set of alliances between its neighbours that has not only enabled it to obtain military benefits but also political, economic and social ones. An example of this is the good relationship it has with some European countries that allows it to export oil. Likewise, its international reputation has made it win great allies such as Turkey or Israel. And with regard to Russia, their relationship is quite cordial, and does not pose any threat to the region.
That said, the current challenges facing Azerbaijan are even more accentuated if we take into account the military exercise proposed by Aliyev in August together with Turkey and Pakistan, which received the name of “three brothers“. But although Tehran is trying to play down the issue, the truth is that Armenia’s rapprochement with the West is arousing suspicion, especially as the largest US embassy in the region is located in Yerevan. For its part, the appearance of the Liwa Huseynyun, a shiite paramilitary group, makes us wonder to what extent Iran is using militias or non-governmental actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Mahdi in Iraq as instruments to expand its influence in other territories. For Iran Azerbaijan can be both an irreplaceable ally and a potential enemy. This is mainly due to its relations with Israel and its close ties with Turkey, which make the country a key target, especially when a large part of the population is Shia. Nevertheless, Aliyev has very wisely begun a policy of appeasement to preserve the cultural richness that characterizes the “Land of Fire”, as Azerbaijan is called.
Against this background, we should bear in mind that neither Iran nor Russia will be able to reverse the current situation in the Caucasus since, on the one hand, Iran will not allow Israel to interfere in its areas of influence while, on the other, Russia, fearful of the ever-increasing Turkish penetration in the Caucasus, will attempt to continue to maintain its position on the ground. This is not an easy task since the post-Soviet era, as pro-Turkish sentiments seem to be on the rise. Given this, a fact of special interest in recent days has been the talks promoted by Russia between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin has claimed that these two countries have achieved more than expected in the past year, and that Russian troops will remain deployed for at least five years to preserve the peace. Fact that he has obtained a response from the President of Azerbaijan, who affirms that his country and Armenia will have to build a new future together to live together. On his side, the last meeting between Aliyev and his iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi have notably improved relations between the two countries, which have discussed the creation of an energy center between Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. In addition to emphasizing the benefits that Iran will obtain after the implementation of the Zangezur corridor. In any event, Azerbaijan should continue with its policy of appeasement and interethnic and interreligious coexistence, the essence of the country’s cultural wealth and a shield against the emergence of extremist movements that seek to destabilise the country for the benefit of interests unrelated to the exercise of its own sovereignty.