December 9, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1611

Iran's Defeat In The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War – Part III: Iran's Weakness vs. Azerbaijan And Turkey Is Revealed

December 9, 2021 | By A. Savyon and M. Manzour*
Iran, Turkey, South Caucasus | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1611


Iran's show of strength in the October 2, 2021 "Conquerors of Khaybar" exercise at its border with Azerbaijan and its threats to play the ethnic card to stir up the Shi'ite populations in neighboring countries against their regimes failed to improve its damaged geopolitical standing, Iran turned to the diplomatic track, with the aim of regaining control of its free access to Armenia, which in turn gives it access to Europe.

In recent weeks, Iran has tried various diplomatic channels – direct Iran-Azerbaijan talks, appealing to Russia for support for its position – Russia is, per the Azerbaijan-Armenia ceasefire agreement at the end of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the guarantor of freedom of transport at the border crossings – and attempting to strategically upgrade Iran-Turkey relations in order to secure Iranian interests in the Caucasus. It has also turned to resolving the crisis as part of the regional 3+3, which comprises Russia, Turkey, and Iran vs Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. But to date none of these channels has yielded the result that Iran desires.

These diplomatic efforts, that followed the failure of Iran's military pressure, reveal Iran's profound weakness after Armenia's defeat in the war and Azerbaijan's creation of facts on the ground.

This report, the third in a series, will review Iran's diplomatic moves to regain its control of the route to Armenia.[1] It should be noted that Iranian spokesmen are attributing the Azerbaijan-Turkey move blocking this route at the Iran-Azerbaijan border to an Israeli scheme aimed at harming Iran, and they are repeatedly warning Azerbaijan not to allow Israel to operate on its soil.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei Recommends Not Allowing Foreign Forces Into The Region

Iran's weakened position in the Caucasus crisis was another opportunity for Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to promote the Iranian regime's position on resolving the crises in the region and to advise Azerbaijan and other countries to act in the region and, together with Iran, act also against the Western forces that he claims are plotting to exploit the region's countries. In his speech at the October 3, 2021 commencement of an officers' course at military universities, he called on Azerbaijan not to trust other countries with anything concerning its security – hinting at Israel – since this foreign presence is, he said, "destructive and warmongering." Warning Azerbaijan not to scheme against Iran together with Israel, since Azerbaijan will ultimately fall into the pit that it itself dug, Khamenei explained to the Iranians that "the way to a resolution of this situation is rational action accompanied by might." However, also in his statements he in effect acknowledged Iran's weakness on the ground and the restriction of its military forces. The following are the main points of Khamenei's speech:

"The countries that think that they can meet their security needs by relying on others must know that they will be slapped by these [others] soon... We must remember that the presence of foreign militaries in our region, including the American army, is destructive and warmongering. Everyone must try to make the militaries independent and reliant upon their peoples, and to create unity between the armies of the [neighboring] countries and other armies in the region. The good of this region rests on this.  

Khamenei. Source:, October 3, 2021.

"We must not allow foreign militaries to come from thousands of kilometers away and interfere in these countries, maintain a military presence, and interfere in militaries that have no connection with their nation in order to satisfy their own national interests. The armies of the nations of this region can control this region [perfectly well]. Do not allow others to enter [the region].

"These events, that are taking place in our northwest, among some neighboring countries, are things that must be resolved by the same rationale. Of course, our country and our armed forces are acting rationally. In all issues, the method is a rational one – might combined with rationality – and it would be good if others would act rationally in order not to allow the region to get into trouble. Those who have dug pits for their brothers were the first to fall into a pit themselves.''[2] 

The Tasnim news agency, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), interpreted Khamenei's statements in a cartoon published October 5, 2021. The cartoon depicted, in the first frame (on the right) a "Zionist" – Israel – urging an Azerbaijani laborer  digging a pit with a Star of David, i.e. Israel: "Together we can stop Iran's progress!" The second frame shows the Zionist fleeing and Iran arriving to extricate the Azerbaijani shouting "Help!" from the bottom of the pit. The text below the cartoon states: "He who digs a pit remains in the pit / A slap awaits those who skimp on security."[3]

Iranian Army Ground Forces Commander Kioumars Heydari: "Truck Traffic From Azerbaijan To Iran And From There To Turkey Or Nakhchivan, Or From Iran To Azerbaijan And Armenia, Must Be Conducted In Absolute Security And Peace"

Iranian Army ground forces commander Kioumars Heydari, who directed the October 2021 Conquerors of Khaybar military exercise at the border with Azerbaijan, complained about Armenia's weakness vis-à-vis Azerbaijan. However, beyond saying that "Iran will not allow disruption on its borders," he, like Khamenei, merely recommended to Azerbaijan that it respect the security and economic routes that existed before the war. Heydari said on October 1, 2021 that the military exercise was aimed at warning Iran's enemies and at "delivering a message of brotherhood and peace to its neighbors." Following are the main points of his statements:

"In the past 200 years, Iran has never been aggressive [towards other countries], has not coveted its neighbors' territory, and has only defended itself. During the long period of Nagorno-Karabakh's occupation by Armenia, we have always emphasized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and we never recognized the [Armenian] occupation...

"Four to five exercises [were conducted] in the past month [September 2021] on Iran's northern border, and even now our neighbor [Azerbaijan] is conducting an exercise near our borders in Turkey. These processes are continuing.

Iranian Army ground forces commander Heydari (Source: ISNA, October 1, 2021)

"We have an undesirable actor in this region who came from elsewhere and is disrupting security in the region – and it is the illegitimate Zionist regime. Our sensitivity to this border has increased since this regime arrived [at our borders]. Its activity here is being thoroughly monitored...

"Iran is very sensitive to changes in the official borders of countries in the region, and considers it unacceptable. All the legal borders must be preserved. One country's weakness in preserving its borders does not justify the disruption of [the status quo] at the borders caused by the foreign aid another country receives. Iran will not allow this. There was a time of war in this region, and now it is a time of security and rebuilding. Our country's history and our behavior towards our neighbors in this region is excellent proof of stability and security.

"Truck traffic from Azerbaijan to Iran and from there to Turkey or Nakhchivan, or from Iran to Azerbaijan and Armenia, must be conducted in absolute security and peace. In this context, the countries are expected to pay attention to their own responsibility – that is, to respect security and economic routes and energy transport, and to stay away from media games."[4]

Kayhan: We Will Not Allow The Caucasus To Be Turned Into A Crisis Region

On October 2, 2021, Kayhan explained the Iran-Azerbaijan tension in terms of a U.S.-Israel-Turkey-Azerbaijan plot against Iran because of the latter's successes and because of the resistance axis's success in the region against the U.S. However, Kayhan too acknowledged Iran's weakened situation in the region and rejected the possibility that Iran would launch a war in the Caucasus that would lead to a multi-side regional war. It stated that Iran was entitled to respond to the plots of its enemies, but that it is "naturally starting negotiations to resolve the issue with friendship among neighbors." The following are the main points of the article:

"There is still time to thwart the conspiracy that is afoot. Here are several tips on the subject: America, the Zionist regime, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the West in general are seeking to respond in the northern areas of Iran to the great achievement of Iran and the resistance front, in which the criminal Zionist regime refers to Azerbaijan as the 'Lebanon of Israel' – meaning that there is a 'Lebanese resistance' that thwarted the Israeli plot in the past 40 years and became a great crisis for this regime. Why are the fronts headed by America, the Zionist regime, Turkey, and Azerbaijan talking about launching a pan-Turanism movement here? Because for more than 40 years, a mighty religious movement [i.e. Iran's Islamic Revolution] has disrupted the deeds of the colonialists [the U.S.] and the criminals [Israel]. It is abundantly clear that although the enemy is diligent, it is in a state of passivity.

"Will this plot succeed? The answer is that there is a serious medicine to prevent it from actualization... There are people here who mistakenly say that the Syunik agreement with Nagorno-Karabakh is between the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Iran cannot oppose it. They acknowledge that its execution is causing damage to Iran's regional status, but this damage is occurring naturally and does not legitimize opposition on Iran's part. [But] this is not an agreement between two countries over a disputed region. It is an agreement about the creation of a region to undermine the security, political, and economic status of a third country [Iran].

"While the Americans recognized the military and political defeat in Afghanistan, they speak explicitly about continuing the model of proxy wars in order to compensate for their defeat [there]. Very quickly it became clear that they had signaled to Azerbaijan to attack and to Armenia to act with tolerance and accept the post-war situation. Nevertheless, after 44 days of the Karabakh war, they said that they support the Azerbaijan-Armenia agreements, which means that they were behind this war. Simultaneously, the Azerbaijan government announced its widespread use of Israeli attack drones in the war, and the Armenian army said that these drones were the main reason for their many casualties in the war – which means that this was an American-Israeli war. Everyone knows that the Pashinyan government in Yerevan is Christian and identified with the West, but, interestingly enough, in this war America and Israel destroyed the forces and facilities of a Western Christian country [Armenia] and supported a Muslim country [Azerbaijan]! Does this not show their hypocrisy?...

"The Americans wanted a proxy [Azerbaijan-Armenia] war that they could instigate. As far as America is concerned, the 'ethnic' element should be stressed and should be turned into a winning weapon against the anti-American revolutionary uprising [like the one in Iran]. The Americans have for some time focused on the racist model, and in this region on pan-Turanism, and see it as a 'possible solution,' or, more precisely, as 'the last arrow [in their quiver].' Therefore, taking into account the prominent role played by this trend in the developments in the north [of Iran] and in its center in the Caucasus, and with the intent of manifesting anti-Iranism and anti-Islamism through the conduct of the authorities in these countries, we are standing before a 'somewhat difficult' proxy war. When Ilham Aliyev talks openly in a media interview about the extensive presence of Israeli forces and equipment in the Caucasus, and a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, he is actually unveiling a proxy war.

"Another point that presents an aspect of a proxy war in the developments at Iran's northwestern border and at the same time expresses its dimensions and scope is the Saudi operations. The Saudis explicitly announced that they are launching a television network [broadcasting] 24 hours a day for the Turkish-speaking region of the Caucasus, to be called 'Turk National.' Why is the Saudi regime trying to launch a TV network in the Caucasus? The residents of the region are neither Arabs nor Sunnis, and it would make [more] sense to reach out to a Sunni or Arab country [with a TV network]. At the same time, it is clear that this decision cannot be implemented without the consent and cooperation of the governments in the region.

"Naturally, Iran cannot remain silent and avert its eyes from the dimensions and ramifications of the operations being carried out at its borders. Iran must respond, but how? There is no doubt that the military dispute and Iran's being dragged into the war arena is a known policy of the American front. On the other hand, we know that what is planned for the Caucasus is not an ordinary military war, and certainly not a regional and multiparty war. We are not, therefore, talking about a military war in this sense, [but] about operations that interfere with the peace in this region and the interests of the powers around it [i.e. Iran].

"Is it not true that the Azerbaijan government said that Israeli drones and forces were involved in the last Azerbaijan-Armenia war? Aren't the Israelis explicitly treating Azerbaijan like 'Israel's Lebanon?' Excellent! Because we are talking about the emergence of a clear security threat against Iran, [and Iran] has the right to thwart the plot against it and to stand against it without coordinating with any place or person. The Israelis understand the nature of the conflict with Iran quite well. It is interesting that a few days ago, the Zionist Mossad wrote: 'Iran might want to respond to Azerbaijan over the Israeli attacks in Syria.' The [Israeli] regime is attacking regions in Syria on the false claim that Syria has become a base for Iranian forces. This Israeli institute is wondering whether Iran has a problem with attacking a base in Azerbaijan at which there may be an Israeli force.

"Of course, Iran knows very well how to take advantage of the developments to the detriment of its enemies. Iran is naturally starting negotiations to resolve the issue with friendship among neighbors on both sides of its northwestern border. America, Turkey, and the Zionist regime have failed in all their fitna [plot] that they waged [against Iran] in the past two decades, from which they emerged shamefaced. They are inciting [against Iran] but do not have the strength to tolerate and wage a war. [The enemy's plot] could face failure due to Iran's operations if [the U.S. and its allies] do not set aside their scheming [against Iran]."[5]

Iran's Diplomatic Efforts With Azerbaijan

Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: "We Are Very Sensitive To Geopolitical Issues... Changes To The Region's Borders Are Unacceptable To Us"

Speaking to a domestic audience and in contacts with allies of Iran, that is, Armenia, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian maintained a defiant stance vis-à-vis Azerbaijan, blaming the crisis between the two countries on the claim that Azerbaijan has allowed Israeli forces to enter its territory to resist Iran. However, as the crisis continued, Iran was in need of a solution, and Abdollahian adopted a more moderate, practical stance toward Azerbaijan, launching talks with Russia and Turkey in an effort to advance Iranian regional interests.

Abdollahian said on an Iranian news program on TV on October 2, 2021 that the Conquerors of Khaybar exercise at the Azerbaijan border, taking place that day, was intended as a message to Zionists and terrorists:

"We have expressed our concerns to Azerbaijan's authorities via diplomatic channels, on the political, military, and security levels. We informed them that our support of the liberation of the occupied areas [Nagorno-Karabakh] is a separate issue, and that we are taking note of the growing relations between the two countries, but that we can never tolerate [the presence of] the false Zionist regime near our borders, nor its provocative actions. We will not tolerate geopolitical change in the region, nor a change to its borders...

"We in the government of [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi hope to develop cooperation with our neighbors. We understand the situation in Azerbaijan, and can see the foreign interventions in that country fairly clearly, including the games and dirty hands of the Zionists and some terrorist groups. Our concern is that in the near future, these will cause problems for Azerbaijan as well. The current exercise was carried out in face of the actions of the Zionists and terrorists in the region, and [it served] as a message to the Zionists and terrorists.

Iranian Foreign Minister Abdollahian (Source: ISNA, October 2, 2021)

"I told the Azerbaijani ambassador during a meeting on September 30, 2021 that we understand the danger posed by the presence of the Zionists and terrorists in their territory, both to them and to neighboring countries, and that we expect these statements [an apparent reference to the Azerbaijani president's claim that Iranian trucks had illegally entered the Nagorno-Karabakh region before it was liberated from Armenian occupation last year] to be rectified by Azerbaijani authorities... We are very sensitive to geopolitical issues and explicitly told Azerbaijan that Iran is closely following these movements. Changes to the region's borders are unacceptable to us..."[6]

Foreign Minister Abdollahian: "The Situation In The Caucasus Is Crucial, And The Presence Of The Zionists And Terrorists In Part Of This Region Greatly Concerns Us"

During a joint press conference following the meeting between Foreign Minister Abdollahian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov on October 4, 2021, Abdollahian said that Iran is concerned about the crisis in the Caucasus, and about the presence of the Zionist regime and terrorist groups in the area. He emphasized that the countries of the region should solve the problems of the regions themselves:

"The situation in the Caucasus is crucial, and the presence of the Zionists and terrorists in part of this region greatly concerns us. We will not allow any foreign intervention to influence our relations with our neighbors, including Azerbaijan. Considering the current situation, our region will not tolerate any new excessive [demands]. The problems of the region should be solved by the countries of the region without foreign intervention."[7]

To view an interview with Abdollahian on this subject, click here or below:

Foreign Minister Abdollahian: "Iran Insists That All The Countries Of The Region Should Advance Toward Dialogue"

After leaving Russia on October 6, 2021, Foreign Minister Abdollahian continued to claim, at a press conference, that the presence of the Zionist regime and terrorists near Iran's borders was causing difficulties for Azerbaijan and Armenia, and that the countries of the region should launch talks without foreign interference:

"The movement of foreigners, Zionists, and terrorists in the southern Caucasus has caused difficulties to our good neighbors in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the language used by some authorities and media in this region has advanced the interests of the region's enemies. In the interest of neighborliness, Iran would like to emphasize that all the countries of the region should advance toward dialogue in order to solve any problems or possible misunderstandings, and that everyone should benefit from the safety and stability of this region. The geopolitics and geography of the Caucasus region should not be damaged by foreign intervention..."[8]

Foreign Minister Abdollahian: "Iran And Azerbaijan Must Prevent Mutual Misunderstandings... Tehran Expects A Resolution To The Issue Of [Iranian] Truck Traffic"

Speaking with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov on October 13, 2021, Abdollahian said: "Tehran and Baku have a longstanding relationship. The two countries must prevent misunderstandings between the them, and ought to steer relations in a positive and productive direction, as soon as possible. Tehran expects a resolution to the issue of [Iranian] truck traffic. Tehran and Baku have enemies who should not be given the chance to sabotage relations between the two countries. Concerns should be dispelled through dialogue and cooperation."

Bayramov replied: "Maintaining relations with friendly countries is at the top of Azerbaijan's priorities. Problems should be solved through dialogue, in a calm and collegial atmosphere." He proposed that the two countries' customs authorities discuss solutions to the problem of the passage of Iranian goods, and emphasized Azerbaijan's release of two Iranian truck drivers, who had apparently been detained.[9]

In another discussion between the two, which took place on October 23, 2021, Abdollahian praised Azerbaijan for releasing the two Iranian drivers, calling it a constructive move that could pave the way to resolving any misunderstandings between the two countries. He called for further positive measures and for facilitating Iranian truck traffic on the Azerbaijan border, as well as for adopting a positive attitude about the future of the two countries. Abdollahian then called for the prompt activation of the two countries' joint economic committee, saying that "Tehran is determined to develop and deepen its bilateral relations with Baku as much as possible." Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov welcomed the positive steps taken by the two countries to resolve their misunderstandings, and called the release of the two Iranian drivers and the directives issued by Iranian authorities regarding border traffic a message from both sides that the misunderstandings had been resolved.[10]

Iran's Diplomatic Efforts For Gains In The Caucasus In The Regional Framework With Russia, And For Upgrading Its Relations With Turkey

In his November 6, 2021 conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister Abdollahian expressed support for "regional negotiations in the structure of the 3+3 (Russia, Turkey, and Iran vs. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), and other agreed-upon formats for resolving the issue of the Caucasus and developing regional cooperation."[11]

After attempting to recruit Russia in restoring the situation on the ground to the status quo ante, Abdollahian was forced to turn to Iran's Turkish rival itself. At a November 15, 2021 joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, he announced the launch of diplomatic talks for a roadmap for long-term cooperation between Tehran and Ankara. Abdollahian said: "We are devoting special attention to this historic and deep relationship between these two countries by developing our cooperation. We will also consider the issues of tripartite and multi-side cooperation, taking into account the current capabilities. There is great consensus between Iran and Turkey on regional issues, and we have shared common views on these issues during the talks today. We have discussed an intensification of cooperation between these two countries in areas such as energy, transport, and transportation.[12]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Abdollahian at press conference. (Source: ISNA, November 15, 2021)

Iranian President Raisi, who met with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu on November 16, sought to recruit Turkey to upgrade bilateral cooperation for the region and to draw up a roadmap. This came in the guise of Iran's desire for gains in the Caucasus for the joint fight against the foreign presence in the region and the fight against terrorism.

Raisi said: "Iran and Turkey must be ready to upgrade their relations from the current level to comprehensive cooperation, by completing the roadmap for intensifying cooperation that is on the agenda of both countries. Regional cooperation between these two countries must become international cooperation, and this type of interaction can be effective in global equations, taking into account the important status of both countries. The presence of foreigners causes insecurity and tension among the nations and governments in the region. Likewise, the 20-year presence of America in Afghanistan has brought nothing but murder, bloodshed, and destruction, and it has become clear that Afghanistan's problems can be resolved by the country's residents, with help from their neighbors...

"The fight against terrorism and organized crime can be a focus of cooperation between Tehran and Ankara, and Iran is ready to step up cooperation in this sphere. Iran has a deep, longstanding religious and spiritual connection with Azerbaijan and Turkey, beyond its neighborly relations, and we must not allow some foreign movements to harm these relations."

Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu responded: "We are seeking to establish and strengthen the cooperation with Iran in order to step up the stability and trade relations in the southern Caucasus." He called for cooperation with Iran in the fight against terrorism and to establish stability and peace in the region.[13]

Iran Supports Turkish President Erdoğan's Proposal To Establish A Regional 3+3 Apparatus In The Southern Caucasus

Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Mohammad Farazmand announced, in an article published November 23, 2021 by Turkey's Anadolu news agency, that Tehran supports Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's November 2020 proposal to establish a 3+3 apparatus for the southern Caucasus region. The following are the main points of Farazmand's statements:

"Tehran supports President Erdoğan's proposal to establish a cooperation apparatus in the southern Caucasus, with the participation of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia as the three countries in the region, and with the presence of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, in a 3+3 format...

"A 3+3 initiative is exactly in line with the principles and foundations of Iran's foreign policy – that is, the region's problems being solved by the countries of the region, reducing regional tensions, developing cooperation, and creating a strong region via synergy of the capabilities of the countries in the region.

"[Iran's] Raisi government has declared that the neighbors are at the head of Iran's foreign policy, and has confirmed these principles and agreed repeatedly to a 3+3 initiative (or 2+3 until Georgia is ready to join this group).

"It should be noted that also during the 2020 war between Iran's two northern neighbors, [Iran's] then-deputy foreign minister [Abbas Araghchi] went to Baku and Yerevan, as well as to Moscow and Ankara, to present a similar proposal to establish an apparatus to monitor the tensions in the Caucasus, to solve disputes fairly and peacefully in order to end the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, and to establish a viable peace...

"Without a doubt, establishing peace, stability, an end to 30 years of tensions in the strategic region of the southern Caucasus, and the opening of opportunities for growth, trade, investment, and transportation will benefit every country in the region...

"The great advantage of this initiative is that none of the eligible countries are excluded. It should be noted that the three neighbors in the Caucasus – that is, Iran, Turkey, and Russia – have already had successful experience in reducing tensions and controlling bloodshed in Syria."[14]


* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; M. Manzour is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[2], October 3, 2021.

[3] Tasnim (Iran), October 5, 2021.

[4] ISNA (Iran), October 1, 2021.

[5] Kayhan (Iran), October 2, 2021.

[6] ISNA (Iran) October 2, 2021.

[7] ISNA (Iran) October 4, 2021.

[8] ISNA (Iran) October 6, 2021.

[9] ISNA (Iran) October 13, 2021.

[10] ISNA (Iran) October 23, 2021.

[11] ISNA (Iran), November 6, 2021.

[12] ISNA  (Iran), November 15, 2021.

[13], November 15, 2021.

[14] ISNA, Iran November 23, 2021.

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