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October 14, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9588

Russian Experts Discuss Current Azerbaijan-Iran Tensions And Possibility Of War

October 14, 2021
Iran, Russia, South Caucasus | Special Dispatch No. 9588

In his welcoming remarks to the new Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered his view on the focus of their talks' agenda "The focus of today’s negotiations will be the need for a full renewal of the Iranian nuclear program agreement without any exemptions or additions. We would like to discuss how this process can be expedited. Other topics on our agenda include our interaction in Syria and other regions of the Middle East and North Africa and, importantly, ways to restore normal relations in the Persian Gulf zone.[1] The Iranian FM, however, had another topic on his mind, namely the recent tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan. The Iranian minister stated that Baku's military maneuvers, in which other foreign states have participated, were a provocation, and that Tehran would not tolerate "a border change in the Caucasus region."

"We are gravely concerned about the presence of terrorists and Zionists in this region," said the minister. [2]  An Iranian journalist pressed Lavrov on the issue in a joint press conference following the meeting: "The latest developments in the Caucasus clearly show that some regimes in that region are trying to strengthen their relations, to sow discord and to deliver a blow to Iran’s vital interests. On the other hand, as it conducts trilateral exercises with Turkey and Pakistan, Azerbaijan is setting the stage for the presence of foreign states in the Caspian Sea region. This runs counter to the obligations that these countries have assumed with regard to the Caspian Sea. Russia's position on this matter is not very clear. What does Russia think can be done to settle this issue and how does it approach this matter?[3] Lavrov answered by proposing a 3+3 group of major powers Turkey, Russia and Iran and the smaller Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and claimed receptivity to the idea by all the parties.

Meanwhile, in the region itself, Iran and Azerbaijan were exchanging more than rhetoric. Turkish and Azerbaijani troops held joint exercises in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region called Unshakable Brotherhood-2021.[4]  Iran responded close to the same area with the "Conquerors of Khaybar" maneuvers recalling Muhammad's victory over the Jews of Khaybar in 629. The name was chosen to underline Iran's charge that Israel's presence in Azerbaijan was the real cause of the tensions. Russia obviously hopes matters will simmer down, as it has been engaged in the diplomatic acrobatics of riding the Turkish and Iranian horses simultaneously while playing the peacemaker and peace enforcer between Azerbaijan and Armenia including supplying a Russian peace keeping force. Should hostilities erupt between Baku and Tehran Russia would find it extremely difficult to keep all the diplomatic balls in the air and could itself get dragged into the fighting. Russian specialists agreed that the reasons for conflict were deep seated but disagreed over whether a serious risk of war existed.

A review of expert opinion on the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan follows below:


Sergey Lavrov with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

Causes Of Tension

Iranian Disappointment With The Results Of The War Between Azerbaijan And Armenia

Nikita Smagin an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and a TASS correspondent in Tehran believes that Iran feels shortchanged by the result of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia: "For the almost the entire history of the Karabakh conflict, Iran has tried to maintain an equidistant position from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The country didn't openly support either of the warring parties and cooperated with both states. During the last war in Karabakh, Tehran adhered to a similar course, i.e. the country played the role of a detached observer, that simultaneously tries to pursue its own security interests. Subsequently, when Azerbaijan emerged victorious from the conflict, Iran was displeased with this, since Iran was content with the preexisting regional status quo before the war.

The situation is changing now, and Iran is displeased with the new developments. Iran's authorities hoped that if they upheld a neutral position and provided rhetorical support to Azerbaijan at the end of the war (i.e. merely to congratulate the country), then Azerbaijan would reward this position and would agree to the concessions proposed by Iran. First of all, this concerned the 'Syrian terrorists' (in Iran the term refers to Syrian militants that were deployed by Turkey in Karabakh in the autumn of 2020, as well as the Israeli forces present on Azerbaijani territory).

Today the situation is such that Azerbaijan is not making concessions on these issues, especially regarding Israel. Furthermore, Iran is still concerned about the situation around Karabakh and prospects of further escalation there."[5] Smagin believes that Iranian concern about Israel is genuine because it believes that Azerbaijan is being used as a reconnaissance base by Israel and therefore Baku's willingness to curb Israel is a key to alleviating tensions. Smagin agrees that Iran is also gravely concerned about growing Turkish influence, but it prefers to soft peddle the issue to avoid inflaming it further.

The independent military analyst Pavel Felgengauer connects Iran's sensitivity to the Israeli presence in Azerbaijan to the nuclear issue. If Israel were to decide on a unilateral strike against the Iranian nuclear program, the attack would be coordinated by Israelis present in Azerbaijan.

For Vladimir Sazhin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies the issue is Turkey. "Iran is truly concerned about the strengthening of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus. That is why the country conducted military exercises at the former Soviet border for the first time since the collapse of the USSR." New transport corridors running through Armenian territory, along the border with Iran, will further strengthen Turkish influence in the Caucasus. Turkey will thereby gain access to the Caspian Sea and to the ethnically Turkish Central Asian republics." In other words, a Great Turan is being created" that will be detrimental to for Iran economically and politically-.

"Back in the day practically the entire Caucasus was part of Persia. However, after the last Karabakh war Iran was excluded from the South Caucasus. The Islamic Republic believes that it was excluded from solving regional problems," concluded Sazhin.[6]


Vladimir Sazhin (Source: Globalaffairs.ru)

Military Expert Sivkov: War Is Likely Since Iran Covets Azerbaijan Lands To Rectify Historic Wrong

Doctor of military sciences, Konstantin Sivkov believes that the prospects of conflict between Iranian on one side and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other, is very likely. According to Sivkov, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran's ruling elites' gaze was riveted on Azerbaijan lands (in particular Nakhchivan), that Iran ceded to Russia under the Turkmenchay peace treaty between the Russian Empire and Persia. "Back then, Azerbaijan did not yet exist. Today there is no Russian Empire. Therefore, according to Tehran, the treaty is no longer in effect, which in turn means that the Nakhchivan region and the whole of South Azerbaijan belong to Iran," explained Sivkov.

Sivkov also noted that the Azeri population of Iran exceeds the Azerbaijanis residing in Azerbaijan three-fold. This buttresses Tehran's claim to these lands. The issue of Iranian irredenta surfaced during the recent tension. Iranian deputy Ahmadi Biges claimed that "if Ankara and Baku continue their actions, we will return Karabakh and Nakhchivan under the authority of their rightful historical owner - Iran." A member of the parliamentary committee on national security, Mahmoud Ahmadi Begash threatened that " if the Turkish venture continues and the Republic of Azerbaijan will exhibit a strange behavior Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh will return under Iran's rule."[7] Sivkov believes that the US will be elated should war erupt. "Most likely, they will support Turkey. However, this will occur not due to [American] love for this country, but out of hatred towards Iran. On the one hand, Russia doesn't need such a war, but on the other, using a smart approach Moscow could settle the conflict and strengthen its status as a peacemaker in the international arena," advised Sivkov.[8]


Konstantin Sivkov (Source: Eadaily.com)

Why War Is Unlikely

In contrast to Sivkov, the consensus opinion was that war was unlikely, barring according to Smagin, an unforeseen border clash resulting from troop concentrations on both sides of the border.[9] First, as Felgengauer predicts a war involving Iran and Azerbaijan alone would not be a cakewalk for either side. Secondly, such a conflict will suck in other countries. According to Felgengauer, Iran will supply arms to Armenia, which will enter the conflict on Iran's side. In turn, Turkey will immediately side with Azerbaijan, and may receive assistance from the US. "Russia will be drawn into the conflict too, because Russian border guards are now deployed on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border."[10]

The historian and Middle East expert Issa Dzhavadov believes that not only the murky military prospects but also the economic damage that an Iran-Azerbaijan will entail as well as the questionable backing of the countries' populations will act as a deterrent to war.

"One should bear in mind that apart from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are also Iran's most important economic partners that allow the latter use of their transport system for exporting Iranian products. Armenia and Iran are linked by two roads: one is partly under the control of the Azerbaijani army, while the other is undergoing repairs. The route through the Armenian-Georgian border is also rather arduous, as the roads have a poor transport capacity due to the rough terrain. In this regard, the routes that pass through Turkey and Azerbaijan are quite stable and allow Iranian goods to reach Russia and Europe. The same is true for Azerbaijan. Deterioration of relations with Iran would be fraught with economic losses, since Iranian roads not only allow supplying Nakhichevan, but also serve as a link the Middle East and Central Asian republics.

It would be detriment for Azerbaijan, which recently went through a bitter war, to enter into a new conflict, as new losses would undermine the rating of the current authorities and exacerbate the social and economic situation in the country.

Similarly, Iran, which is engaged in a confrontation with Turkey (in Syria and Iraq) and with Saudi Arabia (in Yemen), that is engaged in a proxy war with Israel, and has to retain some forces on the border with Afghanistan, won't be able to act effectively on several directions. Additionally, Pakistan could also take the side of Baku. Another conflict involving Iran and its proxies would increase international pressure and will be detrimental to the country's economy.

However, the economy is not the only sphere where the two countries can assert pressure on each other. From 20% and 40% of Iran's population are Azeris, many of whom share an ideological connection with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ethnic Azeris are firmly integrated in Iran's political and military circles. Thus, in the case of a confrontation Iran's national security, could suffer, if key officials, due to their ethnicity, won't pursue the country's interests.

Iran could similarly influence Azerbaijan's conservative Shi'ite communities, which demonstrate a high level of protest potential and sympathy for the Iranian model of statehood. Such actions could lead to conflict with secular authorities of Azerbaijan, as well as clashes with the Sunni community.

Therefore, neither Azerbaijan nor Iran will be able to engage in direct offensive, as they are highly interdependent economy and politics-wise. The current events will, however, severely damage the Iran's reputation in Azerbaijan and will be detrimental to the country's 'soft power' in Azerbaijan."

Russia Loses Out Both Ways

Even if war does not erupt, Dzhavadov believes that Russia, as a result of the tension will lose influence in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, as both countries will gravitate towards protectors, who fully espouse their cause: "Regarding Azerbaijan, one can expect in the near future a strengthening of police control over the activities of Shi'ite religious organizations, the closure of Iranian foundations and a ban on preaching for people, who were educated in Iran. In addition, Iran's aggressive rhetoric will facilitate Ilham Aliyev's rapprochement towards Turkey, which will be unbeneficial for Russia that maintains a significant influence in the South Caucasus.

Wherein, in the eyes of the Armenian public, Iran's not always rational but rather theatrical actions will distinguish it from the Kremlin's constructive stance towards peace in the region. This, consequently, will prompt Yerevan to cooperate more closely with Tehran, to the detriment of Moscow's interests."[11]


Issa Dzhavadov (Source: Caliber.az)

 

[1] Mid.ru, October 6, 2021

[2] Kommersant.ru, October 6,2021

[3] Mid.ru, October 6, 2021.

[4] Dailysabah.com, October 6, 2021.

[5] Eadaily.com, October 4, 2021

[6] Vz.ru, October 6, 2021.

[7] Vz.ru, October 6, 2021.

[8] Vz.ru, October 6, 2021.

[9] Eadaily.com, October 4, 2021.

[10] Vz.ru, October 6, 2021.

[11] Vz.ru, October 7, 2021.

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