The diplomatic initiative that sought to address the ongoing disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which took place in Brussels at the end of August 2022, offered a strong promise of progress. However, by mid-September, the optimism was quickly crushed as the military crisis recommenced with Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia. The attack was reportedly the most severe one since the war in 2020 over Nagorno Karabakh. Neighbouring countries have in various ways been drawn into the conflict at various points in time. Russia has a defence pact with Armenia and sided with Armenia in this crisis. Turkey, a NATO member, (along with Israel) has had close security and military ties with Azerbaijan. Iran is seeking to position itself as a mediator in this conflict. Understandably, all neighbouring countries could potentially play a role in the future of this crisis. How is this crisis seen from Tehran? What are the potential consequences of the crisis for Iran?
Anxiety in Teheran
The ongoing crisis between the two countries, with which Iran shares land borders, has created anxiety in Tehran over its possible regional spill-over effect. In 2020, Former Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, held a phone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart, in which he reportedly expressed Iran’s willingness to take action for a mediation to end the crisis. Other than the threat for a regional spill-over, the role of Israel in this crisis is meaningful to Tehran. Israel’s military assistance to Baku is perceived by the Iranian government as an opportunity for Israel to collect military intelligence on Iran. Azerbaijan has been reportedly the biggest buyer of Israeli defence equipment. Considering the hostility between Iran and Israel, this is a major concern for Iran, which can turn into a serious threat should the conflict spread beyond Armenia into Iran. However, the likelihood for such spillovert seems to be low at this stage.
The most obvious impact of this crisis on Iran is the disturbance of the country’s transit routes. Azerbaijani threat in Syunik region would block Iran’s access to Armenia. Syunik is of high significance for connecting Iran to Europe via Armenia. Baku violated the trilateral agreement that was reached in November 2020 over protecting smooth transition via this region. In 2021, Azerbaijani forces effectively took control over the road that connects the Iranian border with Yerevan and arrested Iranian truckdrivers, claiming they have crossed the border illegally. This dispute has soured the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s policies vis-à-vis Armenia have also been perceived by Tehran as an attempt to portray Armenia as an unstable alternative route for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INST), to which Iran is a major country. The INST, a 7200 km multimodal transport route, is planned to link the Indian Ocean to the Caspian Sea via the Persian Gulf and to Russia and Northern Europe. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine were all planned to be a part of the initiative. Since the Russian war in Ukraine, this initiative has become very unlikely to materialise. For Iran, a country under sanction and isolation that is currently going through major internal turmoil and domestic uprising, maintaining secure ground transit routes is undoubtedly vital. Therefore, Tehran will remain wary of destabilising conflicts in neighbouring countries, particularly the one that involves Azerbaijan with strong military ties with Israel. At the same time, Tehran may attempt to play a mediating role between Azerbaijan and Armenia to secure transit access.
A vulnerable regime
The ongoing unrest in Iran that was prompted by the brutal killing of Kurdish Iranian young female, Mahsa Amini, will have long lasting impacts on Iran domestic and foreign policies. The recent protests have above all revealed the loss of legitimacy of the Iranian political system, which makes the regime vulnerable, both domestically and internationally. Nuclear negotiations have failed to conclude a deal and new sanctions are being imposed on Iranian individuals and organisations that have been involved in acts that violated human rights of the Iranian people. Iranian senior officials expressed concern over the ongoing crisis between Baku and Yerevan and have offered their support to finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict. The Iranian President, Raisi, has expressed Tehran’s view on this conflict in September: “the region cannot deal with another war”. Moreover, Iran’s recent drone and missile attacks on the Kurdish Region of Iraq and the Supreme Leader´s latest remarks about the regime´s enhanced perceived threat of Israel indicate a high degree of anxiety in Tehran over the neighbouring countries and Israel. Given the close security and military ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, Iran will be undoubtedly keener to see the Azerbaijani-Armenian crisis end.