Tehran’s Worst Nightmare

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could spill over to Iran’s Azeri minority, setting off a battle the government can’t contain.

An unexploded BM-30 Smerch missile is seen on the outskirts of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 12.
An unexploded BM-30 Smerch missile is seen on the outskirts of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 12. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan comes at a particularly bad time for Iran. At home, it faces an extremely difficult economic situation thanks to U.S. sanctions. Abroad, it is involved in multiple unfinished geopolitical adventures in the Arab world—from Iraq to Syria and beyond—in which it has invested considerably in recent years.

Although it might like to involve itself in the conflict in the South Caucasus, where it has played the role of mediator before, Tehran’s bandwidth to do so is considerably less than its geographic proximity to the conflict might suggest. Worse still, Tehran does not enjoy the diplomatic independence it had in the early 1990s, when fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh last erupted on this scale and when the Iranians could more effectively work between the two sides.

Instead, this time around, Tehran has to take a back seat to Russia, Turkey, and the West as those powers shape the trajectory of the conflict. And yet, thanks to Iran’s sizable Azeri minority, at around 20 million strong, there’s a real possibility that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict could overflow and pose a serious risk to internal Iranian security. Tehran doesn’t want to lose in this conflict, but it holds a weak hand.

After the latest hostilities between Christian-majority Armenia and Shiite Muslim-majority Azerbaijan broke out on Sept. 27, it took Tehran three days to accept that this new outbreak of violence was qualitatively different from previous skirmishes. Despite the signing of a cease-fire at the end of the 1988-1994 war, the two neighboring countries have engaged in multiple rounds of fighting in the years since, including, most recently, earlier this summer. Four days into the hostilities, realizing that the usual quick end was not in the offing, Tehran suddenly shifted its diplomatic rhetoric from an emphasis on its neutrality and willingness to mediate between Yerevan and Baku to claims that it has sided with the Azerbaijanis.

On Oct. 1, the political representatives of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in four of the country’s northwestern provinces with significant ethnic Azeri populations released a joint statement in support of Azerbaijan. The statement declared that “there is no doubt” that the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. Yet the statement happened to be issued just as reports revealed that Tehran had opened up its airspace for Russian military supplies destined for Armenia. Protests broke out not only in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan but also in Tehran, with such chants as “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours.”

The mere mention of the possibility of Iran acting as a conduit for arms for Armenia was bound to be explosive news, and it was destined to be swiftly denied by Tehran. This is exactly what happened. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign-policy advisor to Khamenei, all reiterated the position that Armenia should leave the Azerbaijani territory it has occupied since 1994. More recklessly, a leading pro-regime grand ayatollah, Hossein Nouri Hamedani, framed the conflict in religious terms: “Nagorno-Karabakh is part of the Islamic world and should return to the Islamic country and must be liberated.”

The popular momentum behind fully siding with Baku has been so great that Tehran has not even allowed Azerbaijan’s close partnership with Israel to get in the way. Azerbaijan, one of four Shiite Muslim-majority countries in the world (together with Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain), also happens to have close economic, military, and intelligence ties with Israel, Tehran’s regional archfoe. But that has been a reality for some two decades, and the Iranians have learned to adapt to it.

Simply put, Iran is not in a position to act in opposition to its own Azeri minority. Unlike in the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was just opening room for Iranian Azeris to reconnect with their brethren to the north, who had been under Russian/Soviet rule since the early 1800s, the ethnic Iranian Azeri community is today far more aware of the dynamics behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and far more passionately behind Baku. This poses a serious concern for Tehran. Iran is, after all, a multiethnic country, and Tehran is ill prepared to handle an uprising among other aggrieved minorities sparked by the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

Already, periodic skirmishes with militant ethnic groups are a reality of life in the country. In the southeast, on the border with Pakistan, the ethnic Baloch Sunni jihadi group Jaish al-Adl, with its reported ties to al Qaeda, continues to target Iranian security forces. Ongoing anti-Tehran militancy is also part of life in Iran’s western Kurdish regions on the border with Iraq.

While it is an exaggeration to portray Iran as a powder keg ready to blow, it would be equally misleading to claim that unrest among ethnic minorities is not a driver behind Tehran’s sudden rhetorical shift in support of Baku.

Tehran’s shift could become more pronounced and material depending on the trajectory of this round of conflict. While Tehran has maintained friendly relations with Yerevan since Armenia’s independence in 1991, it has also experienced a notable expansion in relations with Baku in recent years, including rising trade, tourism, military-to-military cooperation, and even the possibility of Iranian arms exports to Azerbaijan.

Also at play in Iran’s calculations will be Turkey, the third-party actor in this conflict that Tehran watches the most intently. Tehran has accused Ankara of fueling the conflict by urging Azerbaijan to first attempt to recapture as much of its occupied territory as possible before agreeing to a cease-fire and diplomatic talks. However, while Iran is still tangled up with Turkey in Syria—where Iran supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad while Turkey backs the opposition—Tehran won’t want to escalate tensions over Armenia and Azerbaijan too far.

Two key issues drive Tehran’s thinking here. First, Turkey—which many Iranian commentators see as hellbent on establishing its guardianship of all Turkic peoples—is easily able to hit back at Iran. Ankara could seek to incite pockets of the large ethnic (Turkic) Azeri population in Iran against Tehran’s policies.

Second, despite the lingering suspicion between the two powers, Turkey is an important neighbor and trading partner for Iran. Thanks to its isolation, Tehran does not want to see Ankara join its (already long) list of open adversaries. No matter how carefully the Iranians play their cards in this latest conflict in the South Caucasus, the simple reality is that Tehran holds a much weaker hand in the region now than it did in the early 1990s.

Today, no one really considers Iranian mediation as a serious proposition. Tehran, thanks to its ongoing standoff with Washington and preoccupation with conflicts in the Arab world, has rarely been this beholden to Moscow—or wary of escalating with Turkey—in the South Caucasus. As Iran sits back and anxiously watches Russia and Turkey act as the two major foreign drivers behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, it will above all want to see a quick end to this latest round of fighting, which, if broadened, could drag Iran into a new regional war it can hardly afford.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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