The northern borders of Iran are feeling the heat of the Azeri-Armenian conflict. Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli has warned of action if the military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh spills into Iranian borders. These remarks come after an Iranian village in the northwestern border area was hit by a missile from the combat zone.
Although Tehran has offered to mediate between the two nations which are fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an enclave within Azerbaijan, the Iranians cannot stay out of the conflict for long and would be forced to enter the conflict. And given the local and regional dynamics, it would be forced to support Christian Armenia over Azerbaijan & Turkey.
Only last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a press conference without naming anyone said that “Iran will not allow anyone, on some pretext, to bring terrorists that Iran has fought for years to our border.” The obvious attack was on Turkey, as the Syrian leader had earlier stated that Turkey is sending terrorists and Islamist mercenaries from northern Syria to support Azerbaijan in the ongoing conflict.
Rouhani also said that the conflict can very well escalate into a regional war, and given the tribulations and efforts it took to somewhat normalise the western Iranian borders with Iraq, Tehran just cannot afford to have another turbulent border at hand.
The Iranians are already in a very precarious situation. Given the sanctions & COVID-19 pandemic, it cannot afford any social tensions escalating in the Islamic Republic. The local complexities play a major role in making Tehran vulnerable to a major crisis.
Tehran prioritises keeping the conflict from spilling into Iranian territory as well as society. The Azeri Turks are a major minority of Iran, numbering around 15 million in a country of 82 million. They are very influential, even the Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei is of Azerbaijanian descendent too. Thus, the possibility of the rise of Azeri ethnic sentiments, and mixed with the terrorists and mercenaries coming in the bordering region, with whom Iran fought a long and gruelling battle, could have a disastrous impact on its national security.
The scare is that, if the influence of the conflict increases inside the bordering regions, it may lead to protests by Iranian Azeri Turk minorities in support of Azerbaijan, further damaging the sovereignty and national security of Iran.
The regional escalation can have a cascading effect on the region too. The region has been peaceful since 1994 and recent attempts can change the dynamic and any possibility of economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 world. Because Iran has deep economic relations with Armenia and its gas pipeline with Russia to goes from Armenia. Thus, any spillage of these tensions inside the Iranian border may be catastrophic.
Azerbaijan by questioning Iran’s neutrality is playing a dangerous game as it can be seen as an effort to influence Iran’s largest minority. Tehran’s position is also shifting slowly towards Armenia and Russia because of Azerbaijan’s pre-condition to peace, that is, Turkey should also be on the negotiating table. This is not acceptable to Iran as it will, on one hand, increase Turkic influence in the Caucuses manifold and compromise Iranian position on the other.
Iran and Turkey are obvious enemies and there is no doubt about it. They have fought on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict with Tehran taking the side of Bashar Al Assad and Moscow, that is, the pro-government camp and Ankara took the side of the rebels as did the Israelis and the USA.
The tone of the Iranian President and the government are similar to the Russians. They too are requesting de-escalation and even offered to mediate a peace deal. This similarity can be judged as the interests being the same too. Both the nations want the Caucuses to not be influenced by Ankara, and as Azerbaijan is dancing to the tunes of Erdogan, the algebra narrows down to supporting Armenia, be it explicitly or implicitly.
Due to the military alliance between Russia and Iran and Moscow’s previous use of Iranian airports during the Syrian war, suspicions have grown about the Russians using Iranian territory to provide Armenia with weapons.
Iran is sure to help Armenia, as it is apparent by Israel selling weapons to Turkey’s faction in the southern caucus region, that the Turkey-Israel faction which was bombing Syria and Iranian supported forces, is assisting the Azerbaijanians.
Iran is not in any position to find its way out of this situation without being decisive. Although Azerbaijan is a neighbour with deep connections, Tehran has always been suspicious of Baku as it has the ability to sow seeds of discontent in Iran. Now, as all the countries which are arch enemies of Iran are fighting Armenia hand in hand with Azerbaijan, Iran understands that Azerbaijan is not a friend.
Therefore, Iran is sure to take the side of a Christian Armenia and its all-weather ally Russia in the current southern Caucuses regional conflict and will do what it can to contain the crisis and if need be, take stern action against Turkey & Azerbaijan.