(October 12, 2020 / JNS) The recent attack on Azerbaijan’s residential areas in the territories occupied by Armenia for the last 26 years has quickly spiraled away from the central claims of Baku about its national sovereignty and territorial integrity into a geopolitical free-for-all, with multiple parties seeking to get in on the action in some capacity or else seeking to have the recognition of their own unrelated claims and narratives recognized by the international community. While much of the discussion has focused on the Armenia-Azerbaijan war as a proxy for territorial ambitions by Russia and Turkey, Iran’s role in supporting Armenia deserves wider attention, particularly in its potential effect on Israel’s interests in the region. Important to note is that this relationship has been bilateral. Armenia in the past has provided Iran with weapons, which were then used to kill American troops, according to WikiLeaks revelations of U.S. State Department cables.
Iran, on the other hand, backed Armenia on critical matters such as Armenia’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Iran’s interest in this matter is its concern over the areas in the Northwest of the country close to the conflict zone—East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Ardebil, which are peripheral areas populated mostly by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Iran itself is comprised mostly of non-ethnic Pars with the majority being Azerbaijanis. The rights of non-Persian nations in Iran have been challenged by Iran’s ethnocentric ideology and deliberate strategy of dividing and conquering its ethnically diverse population. As Brenda Schaffer explains, Iran will choose pragmatic geopolitical consideration over alleged principles of Islamic solidarity anytime. Azerbaijan, while priding itself on its Shi’a Muslim social identity, has turned away from the Khomeinist model Iran has tried to impose upon or sell to Shi’a populations in the Middle East with some success.
Azerbaijani society promoted religious reform through intellectual discourse even before the Soviet annexation, rejecting clerical dominance over the political life and refusing to be bound by ijtihad, Islamic legal precedent. Clericalism in Azerbaijan was finished by the early 20th century with secular intellectuals prevailing, and with nationalists providing a counterbalance to the religious movements. Indeed, Azerbaijan successfully and voluntarily managed to combine Sunni and Shi’a boards, promoted minority Sunni Muslims in the military ranks, and created joint mosques where worshippers of both backgrounds were accommodated. The Soviet Union disrupted vibrant and independent religious life inside the country, discrediting official institutions, and making it difficult to provide value and education to the public. Independent clerical groups that began to emerge accused the official bodies of collaborationism with the Soviets. Iran saw an opportunity to appeal to the vacuum of independent central religious currents through propaganda and outreach, though it faced staunch resistance from pan-Turkic leaders.
At the same time, in opposition to Soviet suppression of religion, revival movements grew and various countries, including Iran, have tried to import preachers and religion, focusing on the peripheral region. Under President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has cracked down on the proliferation of foreign-funded NGOs and mosques, instead providing generous state funding to all religious institutions, and further established a new Institute on Theology which would educate new imams according to the once-rich and flourishing tradition of independent Azerbaijani Shi’ism that had broad support before the Soviet disruption of intellectual and religious life.
For Iran, these moves to counter its exportation of the revolution provide an additional challenge in its ambition to spread influence and to gain control of the Caspian and energy resources, essentially colonizing the Caucasus the way Tehran has aspired to dominate and permeate the Middle East. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s resistance to the ideological outreach was a threat to the Islamic Republic internally, as its approach could be adopted by the Azerbaijani and other Turkic populations inside the country, causing a potential collapse of internal institutions. Therefore, despite Armenia portraying itself as a Christian haven in an appeal for Western support, it made sense for Iran to exploit long-standing tensions between the two countries that predate the Soviet Union inspired attacks and later invasion of U.N.-delineated border territories, in part to prevent Azerbaijan from gaining too much influence with the Iranian citizens and in part to block its regional maneuvers. Furthermore, Iran’s alliance with Russia—challenged by divergent interests in Syria and historic competition—is strengthened by cooperation over this issue, with Russia being the primary backer of Armenia’s incursions.
Iran’s agenda is multi-layered; not the least of it, pushing Azerbaijan closer to Turkey and damaging its independent image in the eyes of the Western countries would help Iran politically in undermining another pro-Western country that stands as a bulwark against Tehran’s influence, but also facilitate the goal of spreading Khomeinism in border areas and beyond, taking advantage of tumult and chaos. Iran, therefore, has been known to bring in physical reinforcements to aid Armenia, particularly prior to the earlier, apparently test attacks aimed at Azerbaijan’s energy-rich Tovuz region in the summer. Furthermore, despite staunch and vocal opposition to Turkey, Armenia has been working closely with Iran and Qatar—one of Turkey’s leading funders and ideological and political allies—on various energy and infrastructure projects.
Political alliances are as self-evident as questionable defense arrangements. An Armenian activist has taken part in the pro-Iran, pro-BDS radical self-styled feminist group “Code Pink,” decrying the alleged occupation of Judea and Samaria, while promoting Armenia’s occupation of the areas, which the media, ironically has titled “disputed.” This individual worked with the Armenia Tree Project promoting various projects in the occupied lands. In Lebanon, Armenian political groups have been known to join forces with the Iran-backed Hezbollah. These seemingly isolated events, in reality, contribute to an increasingly complex geopolitical reality directly threatening Israel, which is taking steps to prepare for another potential conflagration with Hezbollah. Not only is Israel now forced to consider the consequences of clashes between two countries it has diplomatic relationships with and considers allies, but the involvement of third parties, including Iran, is raising the question about its own security and potential for far greater destabilization in its proximity down the road.
Iran’s involvement threatens to attract radicalized militias into the sensitive Caucasus arena. While Armenia and Turkey are exchanging accusations of alleged intent to bring foreign fighters into the region, Iran has a history of actually attempting terrorist plots against Israeli targets in Baku in 2009 and 2012, which were foiled. The Armenian-Turkish sideshow is a welcome respite for Iran. Not only the complicated theater of war distracts from the issue of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity but it creates a window of opportunity for Iranian fighters to slither stealthily into the conflict. Iran’s encirclement strategy in Bahrain is working just as well in the Caucasus with a significant (and radicalized) Iranian population rooted in nearby Georgia. Armenia is also one of the favored tourist destination for Iranians, as well as a transit zone between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Needless to say, facilitating the passage to Azerbaijan and other areas through a friendly neighboring country is as much about economics as it is about security. For Israel, it means an increasingly spread-out presence of Iranian nationals and possibly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps contingent and other groups throughout the Caucasus. Given the triangular and increasingly close relationship between Jerusalem, Baku and Abu Dhabi further facilitated by the recent Abraham Accords—and creating a sort of security triangle between Eurasia and the Middle East—Iranian interventionism can pose a risk to this arrangement, weakening the political border areas among the countries.
Iran’s facilitation of Armenia’s aggression essentially weakens Azerbaijan as a strategic security partner for Israel; overwhelms the Caucasus with the same type of destabilizing activity that has already turned Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and parts of Yemen into no-go zones; and creates another regional sphere of influence for Tehran. That, in turn, means yet another potential front of instability that can create a zone of attacks against Israel. While Armenia is using Israel for various political reasons, the volume of economic, humanitarian and security cooperation with Azerbaijan cannot be overestimated, and neither can its role in addressing issues of mutual interest in the European Union, which Armenia does not provide. It is also the one friendly spot situated between Turkey, Iran and parts of the Arab world under heavy Iranian influence. Iran’s game plan here is not hard to foresee.
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She has written on geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli and international publications.
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