The recent war between two neighbors to the north of Iran has left the Islamic Republic in a problematic position. If the current status quo remains, Azerbaijan will be able to exert increasing influence across the border into Iran.
December 16, 2020 – Ali Mozaffari James Barry –
Articles and comments
On November 10, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement that ended a six-week war over territory claimed by both sides.
The war resulted in a clear victory for Azerbaijan.
Under the deal brokered by Russia, most of the territory captured by Armenia in the previous war of the 1990s was returned to Azerbaijan on November 25.
The original source of the conflict, the Armenian enclave of Karabakh, has been handed over to Russia peacekeepers. As of this writing, its future remains to be determined.
The three regional powers
The biggest regional winners were Russia, which negotiated the deal, and Turkey, which provided Azerbaijan with material and rhetorical support.
At the same time, the third regional player, Iran, has not fared so well.
Iranian public opinion is generally in favor of Azerbaijan. Iranian political, military and religious leaders have cultivated or accommodated (including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) community support for Azerbaijan through statements in favor of Baku.
Despite this, Azerbaijan’s victory harms Iran for three reasons.
First, Iran’s main enemy – Israel – is a key military ally and material supplier for Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, Israel has used Azerbaijani territory for start surveillance and, according to Iran’s claims, murder scientists and senior officials involved in Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, Israel is said to be reviving the late Azerbaijani Sitalchay military air base as a springboard for possible future strikes against the Islamic Republic.
Following the war, Azerbaijan reestablished control of its entire border with Iran. The conflict also allowed observers to witness the power of Israeli drones, known as drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).
Second, the war strengthened the position of Iran’s regional rivals in Moscow and Ankara while weakening Armenia, one of the few neighboring countries with which the Islamic Republic has enjoyed traditionally positive relations. While Iran officially remained neutral throughout the Karabakh conflict, post-1994 status quo it is perhaps the country that has profited the most from all the regional powers. Iran’s narrow border with Armenia has also been compromised, as Russian peacekeepers created a corridor connecting Azerbaijan to its enclave of Nakhichevan across the south of the country. In addition, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Foreign Ministry were surprised by Turkey’s transport of Syrian rebels as mercenaries to Azerbaijan.
Third, Azerbaijani ultra-nationalism, which has been historically supported by Turkey and Russia, is a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. Iran is home to a large Azeri-speaking population, which forms a majority in four Iranian provinces: Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Zanjan. A form of Azeri nationalism rooted in Pan-Turkism (which seeks to unify Turkish language speakers) and Soviet-era nationality politics calls these Iranian provinces “South Azerbaijan.” A marginal but increasingly vocal movement has been working for decades to “unite” these provinces with the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The Aliyev regime, which started with the father of the current president, has rarely nurtured this extreme form of nationalism in an overt manner. Instead, the government focused on reclaiming the territory of Armenia (or “West Azerbaijan”). Despite this, the Azerbaijani government did not seek to suppress this type of nationalism. With the defeat of Armenia and the emergence of a closer relationship with Turkey (which had been more distant since the mid-1990s), it appears that Azerbaijan’s cautious rhetoric is changing on the question of “South Azerbaijan”.
For example, Ilham Aliyev recently discussed the cultural heritage of the 11th century “ Khoda-Afarin Bridges ”, controlled by Armenia from 1993 to October 18, 2020.
These bridges cross the Aras River, which connects the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran.
As a result, the structures were used as nostalgic symbols of unity for the Azerbaijani people in the north and south of the Aras. Of course, this development is of particular concern to Iran.
While recent attention has largely focused on the potential destruction, vandalism and erasure of Armenian heritage in the territory now controlled by Azerbaijan, the two Khoda-Afarin bridges represent the other side of Azerbaijani ambitions and of the use of heritage in the region.
Bridges are known colloquially as the Wailing Bridges (Pol-ha-ye Hasrat or Xudafǝrin Hasrat Körpülǝri), which is a politically charged term. In Azerbaijani nationalism, bridges are seen as an emotional symbol representing the break-up of a “greater” Azerbaijan at the hands of the two “colonizing” powers of Russia and Iran.
The bridge plays an important role in the story of the Independence Museum of Azerbaijan (MIA), where his image is displayed alongside various Iranian buildings. This includes the Sheik Safi ed-Din Ardebili Shrine, which is a World Heritage Site. The image effectively builds and extends Azeri nationalist memory beyond its borders and into Iran, bringing with it an implicit territorial claim over the four Iranian provinces.
At the start of the war, President Ilham Aliyev told President Hassan Rouhani that he wanted the border reopen immediately.
In response, Rouhani appeared rather indifferent. The leader told Aliyev that he did not want the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to become a regional war.
Rohani specifically raised the issue of missiles landing on Iranian territory. However, it is clear that the President still remembers the pro-Azerbaijani protests which erupted among Iranian Azeris at the start of the war. On the sidelines of these demonstrations were radical nationalists opposed to the Iranian regime, who chanted “Armenians, Persians, Kurds – all enemies of Azerbaijan”.
Overall, it appears that Iran’s concern for ethnic nationalism in Iranian Azerbaijan is growing increasingly serious.
In recent years, a number of Iranian officials of Azeri descent have appealed to ethnic nationalism in order to bolster their popularity and win votes. Despite the Disapproval of the Supreme Leader, this group includes an Azeri faction of the Iranian Majlis.
In its most extreme form, this growing trend has also included the scapegoating and ridicule of other ethnic groups. The most common targets are Iranians Kurds
who also live in the area, as well as Armenians.
Such official support for this type of nationalism poses risks to Iran’s internal cohesion. Overall, this is both welcomed by Iran’s neighbors (Azerbaijan and Turkey) and encouraged by its adversaries (Israel and the United States).
In addition to Aliyev’s phone conversation with Rouhani, the Azerbaijani president paid a symbolic visit to the Khoda-Afarin bridges on November 17 in military uniform alongside his wife (and vice president) Mehriban Aliyeva. Both were photographed by Iranian snipers over the border.
Iranian official voices have been muffled on the issue. Nonetheless, bridges are a central part of a potentially aggressive and expansionist Azeri nationalism that is today supported by military power and technology.
Armed heritage of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has a history of “militarizing” heritage and not just against their traditional enemy, Armenia.
In particular, the country has used UNESCO to attempt to claim heritage shared with its neighbors as its own. Baku also prevented the international organization from condemning its destruction of Armenian heritage.
For example, in 2013 Azerbaijan tried to play sports Chogan (which is similar to polo) declared part of its intangible heritage. This drew immediate opposition from Iran, with the game eventually becoming an official part. Iranian cultural heritage in 2017.
This incident was only part of a series of disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan over heritage. These arguments also included the removal of Persian inscriptions from the mausoleum of Nezami Ganjavi in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. Iran has called this act of cultural erasure and an attempt to recast Nezami as an Azerbaijani poet, in the same way Turkey attempted to do with the poet Rumi.
What destination now?
Where does all this leave the Islamic Republic? With much of its energy and funds exhausted in the fighting in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Tehran has grown weak on its home front. The hope that the status quo would continue in Armenia and Azerbaijan meant that Iran was caught off guard for the recent war.
Ethnic divisions in Iran that were initially ignored or encouraged by factions within the Islamic Republic are growing louder and louder. With its main enemy defeated, Azerbaijan has already shown interest in supporting ethno-nationalist claims in Iran. This has only further encouraged activists within Iran’s large Azeri community.
Culture and heritage were one of the first open fronts in this conflict and it is likely that they will continue to play a key role in the near future. Far from being benign, these questions are part of a strategy used by Azerbaijan to claim its legitimacy over areas formerly held by Armenia. A similar strategy could be pursued against Iran and it is clear that this may have already started with the Khoda-Afarin Bridges.
Ali Mozaffari is Senior Fellow of the Australian Research Council at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University (DE170100104) and written on cultural policy and heritage in West Asia.
James barry is a researcher at the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University which studies ethnic and religious identity in Iran and the Caucasus.
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Azerbaijan, Iran, Israel, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian foreign policy, South Caucasus