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10/12/2020

The Karabakh conflict and reflections on Iran

The Karabakh conflict and reflections on Iran

The military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh came to an end via a fragile ceasefire after about two weeks. This war, however, was much more confined in terms of scale and time of conflict in comparison to other conflicts in the Middle East; it was all the same significant due to the deep effects it has had on regional and international balance. The conflict has come to involve almost all of the regional powers. Russia defines the south Caucasus as its “Near Abroad”, and hence can not afford to ignore the conflict. Given that the region is home to more than 6 million members of the Azerbaijani and Armenian diaspora, the conflict is understandably a sensitive subject. Turkey has already signed a Strategic Alliance treaty with Azerbaijan, which advanced the slogan “One Nation, Two States”. The EU was also worried about the proximity of conflicts to an important Energy pathway (Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline), while China is thinking about the last part of the Belt and Road puzzle in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, the United States is invested in maintaining the strategic geopolitical balance of the region.

Governmental and popular reactions in Iran

Iran has naturally also been following the conflict intently, perhaps just as much as it had followed the situation in Baku, Yerevan and Ankara. The conflict is taking place a few meters away from Iran’s northern borders, so close that Iranian citizens are watching the clashes on the other side of the border river of Aras daily. Several rockets and mortar shells have hit Iranian territory during the war, affecting the security of border villages. However, the Iranian government never commented on the origin of the mortars (whether they came from Azerbaijan or Armenia), but strongly warned against actions that endanger the lives of Iranian citizens in borderlands.

Iran has so far observed the situation while taking a soft and neutral stance, trying to refrain from making any serious comments about either side. In a clichéd manner, Iranian diplomats are calling for both sides to restrain themselves and end the conflict, and to resume peaceful negotiations. This approach proves Iran’s passivity and standing aside from being influential in the region, unlike during previous instances in the 1990s, when Iran, positioning itself as an ‘older brother’, tried to establish peace talks between the two sides in order to extinguish the flames of war. However, these negotiations failed, prompting Iranian leaders to accuse other world powers of playing a role in the failure of Tehran’s mediation.

Due to the bitter experience that the Iranian side had with the Azeri and Armenian sides over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Tehran has dramatically chosen a passive approach and even refuses diplomatic efforts in any proposed settlement. However, alongside passivity in government structures (in comparison to the 1990s), we are seeing unprecedented activity in popular structures, especially in the northwestern provinces.

Since the first flames of war rose, campaigns in support of the Azerbaijani government have been launched by social media users, demands for the Iranian government to declare its support for the Azerbaijani government have strengthened, even leading to rallies in cities with strong support for Azerbaijan where protesters clashed with police. The increase in demand from the popular movements have forced the government to react, which could be interpreted as a kind of structural dichotomy‌.

While the religious officials (Friday Imams who are under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Senior Advisor to the Leader of Iran on International Affairs, Aliakbar Velayati) stand in support of the Azerbaijani government, President Rouhani talked to Armenian Prime Minister on a phone call and the Foreign Ministry stresses Iran’s neutrality as Tehran’s main position. However, President Rouhani had another phone conversation with Azerbaijani President a few days after doing so with the Armenian side.

Another significant phenomenon during this war was to bring up Iranian military aid to Azerbaijan in the 1990s. Along with the two weeks of war, some Iranian military officials released photos, videos and other documents for the first time, revealing Iran’s military presence in Azerbaijan in the 1990s. Earlier, Iranian officials had declined to comment about it.

The other issue that arose during the Karabakh conflict was the transit of Russian trucks to Armenia through the Iranian border, which led to limited unrest in Iran. While Iranian and Russian officials stressed that these trucks were not for military use and that the transit took place under an old contract that has no relationship to the current war, public sensitivity and popular protests eventually led to the transit being halted.

Reactions to the rumors about foreign mercenaries

The other issue that has made both the Iranian people and the government worry about the consequences of the war in Karabakh was the presence of foreign mercenaries on both fronts. In a series of short videos, rumors spread about the ‘Free Syrian Army’ helping the Azerbaijani army and PKK forces supporting the Armenian side; this information has yet to be confirmed. Moreover, rumors about Armenians from Iran who departed to Karabakh to participate in the war has been a hot subject of discussion.

Keeping in mind the experience of Syria and Iraq and the sour memories of terrorism in the country, the Iranians strongly warned about possible the consequences of the involvement of these groups. The presence of Syrian forces in Azerbaijan was strongly highlighted. Russian officials drew attention to these foreign mercenaries and also warned about the possibility of the reactivation of PKK forces on Iran’s borders. Simultaneously with these warnings, the killing of two Iranian border guards in the Kurdistan region by PKK forces seemed to confirm these concerns.

Given these developments, Iran will undoubtedly begin to play a more active role in the conflicts in the Caucasus, especially when it comes to determining the goals and fate of potential terrorist forces in the region. This is undoubtedly of great concern for Iranian officials and will make Tehran lean further into cooperation with Moscow. Threats from the terrorist forces of the Free Syrian Free Army and the PKK are the mutual concern of Iran and Russia.

On the other hand, the factor that will lead Tehran to become more active in the Caucasus is the growing role of Turkey. In recent conflicts in Karabakh, Turkey has become an active presence as a regional power, making Turkish officials more popular between Azerbaijan Republic and also citizens in Northwestern provinces of Iran. At the same time, this situation indicates Iran’s reservation regarding the situation in the Caucasus compared to 3 decades ago. Therefore, Iran is likely to review its policies and expand cooperation in order to play a larger role in the region.

Masoud Sadrmohammadi
Journalist and Researcher in Middle East studies, Former editor of “Eurasia and Turkey” in Tasnimnews, P.h.D candidate in Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey.

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