As we speak, the protests in Iran continue. As a result, the mullahs are cracking down on all of the nation’s ethnic minorities, who often seek to secede and form independent states. One of the groups that has been fighting strongly against the mullahs is the South Azerbaijani community, which makes up approximately 40% of the Islamic republic’s population.
Due to the perceived threat posed by this community, the Iranians collaborate with Azerbaijan’s enemy Armenia in hopes of weakening secessionist sentiment in South Azerbaijan. Iran is trying to ease its isolation by using Armenia to bypass sanctions. It also takes a tough stance against Azerbaijan, because Azerbaijan’s success in containing Armenia has shut off Iranian access to Europe. By opposing Azerbaijan, the Iranian regime hopes to dash the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the South Azerbaijani community.
In the eyes of the Iranians, the results of the Second Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia—in which the Karabakh region was returned to Azerbaijani rule—could strengthen Azerbaijan’s position in the region and enhance Iranian Azerbaijanis’ desire for secession and unification with their homeland. The regime believes this would be a disaster for Iran.
Like Persian Iranians, South Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims, but are generally secular and speak Azerbaijani, which is a Turkic rather than an Indo-European language like Persian. The Azerbaijani language has been repressed in the Islamic republic, where it is illegal to educate Azerbaijani children in their mother tongue.
It is also critical to note that part of Azerbaijan is being illegally occupied by Iran, and Iranian Azerbaijanis know it. Historically, there was no division between North and South Azerbaijan. From the time of the third-century Sassanid Empire until the 18th century, both North and South Azerbaijan were part of the same nation. This only changed following the Russo-Iranian Wars of 1804-1813 and 1826-1828, after which Iranian and Russian colonists decided to cut Azerbaijan in half.
Iran ultimately gave what is today Azerbaijan to Russia under the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828. However, South Azerbaijan remained under Persian domination until 1945, when the area was declared independent at Soviet instigation. However, when Soviet forces withdrew, Iran conquered the region. The dream of an independent South Azerbaijan abruptly ended and thousands of Azerbaijanis were killed.
Iranian officials have stated that under no circumstances will they agree to the removal of transport lines connecting them with Armenia or to a third country’s obstruction of their access to the country. For this reason, Iran remains adamantly opposed to full Azerbaijani control over the Zangezur Corridor.
In addition, Azerbaijan’s strong relations with Turkey and Israel are of great concern to the Iranian regime, which feels threatened by the prospect of Israel forming an alliance of Turkic states against Iran. After Iran opened a consulate in Armenia’s Gafan region, Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Israel led to an increase in Iranian concern.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Russia’s support for Armenia diminished and Armenia became more dependent on Iran. This made Iran even more important to Armenia. In return, Armenia allowed Iran transit through the Azerbaijani lands Armenia occupied. Iran hoped to exploit this opportunity to evade Western sanctions and take part in international trade. At the same time, Iran supplied Armenia with 600 anti-tank missile systems and drones. Despite Iran’s earlier denial, this year an Iranian official stated that Armenia is one of the 22 countries that requested this kind of military aid.
The policy pursued by the Iranian political elite in the Caucasus is causing tension in relations with Azerbaijan and harms Iranian relations with Turkey. Considering that the Shusha Declaration signed by Turkey and Azerbaijan stipulates that both countries will conduct a joint military policy in case of attack by a third country, Iran’s policy harms Iran itself.
On the other hand, although Armenian officials praise Iran in order to get its support, Iran clearly sees that Armenia is beginning to follow a Western-oriented policy. By cooperating with Iran, Armenia knows it may lose the support of the West. As a result, Iran is trying to change the geopolitical situation in the region in its favor by continuing to play the role of “protector of Armenia.”
Ayoob Kara served as Israel’s Minister of Communications.