Iran's Strategic Priority in the Caucasus is Reviving the ‘Persian Empire’

12 January 2023 15:30:00 - Last updated: 16 January 2023 14:37:07

By Huda al-Husseini

The Mullah regime in Iran is facing a difficult conundrum. The Islamic Republic, which claims to support Islam and Muslims across the globe and to lead the Shiites in their struggle in preparation for the return of the disappeared Imam, the awaited Mahdi, is allied with a Christian country, Armenia, in its conflict with the Muslim, Shiite-majority Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Iran has been siding with Armenia since the conflict between the two countries began. This is despite the fact that Azeris make up approximately 25 percent of the population in Iran, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei among them. This is due to a set of complex historical and cultural factors that left the Azeri Iranians considered closer to Sunni Türkiye than Shiite Iran/Qom. Khamenei agrees with this view despite his ethnic background. He has isolated the Azeris throughout his time in power, not recognizing their language and rejecting their customs and traditions, just as he did with the Kurds, Turkmen, and other minorities.

Because of Azerbaijan’s history, culture, and religion, Iran has always seen Azerbaijan as a region that had been lost and should become part of Iran or at least fall within Iran’s sphere of influence, an aspiration it has for the entire South Caucasus. There are several parallels between its view of Azerbaijan and the way Russia sees Ukraine: a piece of the homeland that has lost its way but will “come home” one day.

For three decades, Iran was content with allowing Russia to impose its influence on the Caucasus, as well as the two manufactured frozen conflicts in Azerbaijan and Georgia. That was until the second Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. The double standards of Iran’s commitment to upholding the countries’ territorial integrity were evident throughout this time, as it overlooked Armenia’s occupation of one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory. Indeed, it supported this occupation de facto.

At the same time, Iran is highly sensitive to threats to its own territorial integrity. Iran’s support for Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory speaks to this. Thus, Iran and Russia want Azerbaijan and Ukraine to be weak and to prevent the restoration of these countries with alliances with Türkiye or the West. Armenia agrees and would also like to see a weak Azerbaijan. Iran shares Russia’s interest in perpetuating the unresolved frozen conflicts in the region, as both view frozen conflicts as a means for continuing to divide and rule, thereby preserving influence in the Caucasus.

After nearly three decades of being content with the reality on the ground, Iran has become more aggressive since Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in the Second Karabakh War in 2020.

Since its ally’s defeat, Iran has repeatedly threatened Azerbaijan with military action, conducting several military exercises near the border and issuing stark warnings. It has begun supplying Armenia, as well as Russia, with drones. It has trained and provided funding and intelligence to Islamic terrorist groups operating in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has been cracking down on extremist Shiite cells and expelling Iranian clerics since October 2021. It has detained nineteen members of the banned Muslim Unity Movement who had been trained by Iran in Syria to carry out terrorist attacks. They also smuggled prohibited radical religious literature into Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani security service also exposed WhatsApp groups run by Iranian citizens residing in Iran who were “implementing the orders of the Iranian secret services and spreading extremist religious ideas.” Their aim is to change the regime into a Shiite theocracy.

The Azerbaijani State Security Service has arrested five Azeri members of what it called an Iranian spy network. They had been recruited by Iranian intelligence services and made to collect intelligence on military exercises, facilities, and equipment, including Israeli and Turkish drones, as well as energy infrastructure and ports.

Additionally, the Iranians recruited a ship captain working for the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan’s (SOCAR) Caspian Sea Oil Fleet while he had been studying religion in the Iranian city of Qom. He gathered information about foreign companies operating in Azerbaijan, shared the schedules and locations of the Azerbaijani Navy’s military exercises in the Caspian Sea, and informed the Iranians about the goods delivered to offshore oil platforms.

We have seen a strengthing of the somewhat bizarre military alliance between two fundamentalist countries - one Shiite country (Iran), seeking to impose a Shiite theocracy in Azerbaijan and pull the country back into the Iranian sphere of influence, and the other a Christian (Armenia) country. This alliance has been enhanced in three ways. First, Armenia has been helping Iran and, more recently, Russia evade international sanctions. Second, it plays the role of an intermediary, facilitating the transfer of drones and missiles to Russia, which the Kremlin uses to attack Ukrainian targets. Third, Armenia supports Iran diplomatically in the United Nations and in other international organizations.

The escalation we are seeing from Iran today can be explained by the defeat of its close ally Armenia and the strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Türkiye, which can be seen in the Shusha Declaration of June 2021...

Iran, which has always viewed Azerbaijan as its “younger brother,” found that it had lost ground to Türkiye and that its neighbor had come under Turkish influence. For this reason, it seeks to confront Türkiye through a close alliance with Armenia and Russia, to which India could potentially be added.

Iran could not overlook the military aspect of the Shusha Declaration, which states that in the event of a threat or an act of aggression from a third state or states against their independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, the inviolability or security of their internationally recognized borders, Azerbaijan and Türkiye will hold joint consultations in order to eliminate this threat or acts of aggression.

The type of assistance is not specified because security threats can be quite diverse. Nonetheless, the Shusha Declaration clearly outlines a military dimension of the Azeri-Turkish strategic partnership.

Iran is particularly angry at what it sees as having lost a border with Armenia. Iran and Armenia have started working on an alternative route between north and south with India to replace the Zangezur Corridor, but neither country has the financial means to invest in such a massive project.

Although the Zangezur Corridor will create economic and trade opportunities for the South Caucasus and Iran, Tehran views it through the prism of geopolitics and believes that it will undermine its influence.

Iran is convinced that the Zangezur Corridor will weaken Iran’s influence, as it has been the primary link between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan. It would also lose its role as a bridge between Türkiye and Central Asia. Moreover, it will lose its significance as a trade route between East and West more generally. Finally, the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia is a member and with which Iran has agreed a free trade agreement, will become more isolated. Iran sees Armenia as its gateway to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, while it sees Türkiye as its rival for influence in Central Asia. The Zangezur Corridor would provide Türkiye with an alternative route to Central Asia that bypasses Iran.

In fact, Türkiye and Iran are competing with China, which has greater capacities, for influence in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the biggest loser is Russia.

Iran also sees Azerbaijan as a threat because of the latter’s strategic partnership with Israel, which Tehran has repeatedly said it wants erased from the map of the Middle East. Iran is convinced that Israel targeted high-ranking Iranian military personnel from Azerbaijani territory.

Since the first attack in late August, Iran has been supplying drones and missiles to Russia in an alliance forged through a shared hostility to the so-called “unipolar world order” and a mutual animosity for the West founded on xenophobia. Iran would benefit from both a Russian victory, which would be seen as a lethal blow to the “unipolar world order,” or a Russian defeat, as Iran could then replace it as the leading superpower.

Both Iran and Russia hinder peace and economic development in the South Caucasus. Neither Iran nor Russia wants the European Union to succeed in mediating a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran and Russia are also watching on with astonishment as Türkiye expands its influence. The latter’s successful diplomacy allowed the grain that had been blockaded in Ukraine to be exported, and it made massive arms sales to Ukraine during the war. Iran’s military support for Russia is an extension of its three-decade-old security policy, which combines xenophobic anti-Westernism with economic opportunism.

Going back to the Iranian position on Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia, Western diplomatic sources have said that Iran has taken its position because of Baku’s determination to build the Zangezur Corridor along the Azerbaijan-Armenia 43 km-long border, as Tehran believes the Corridor would threaten Iran’s only trade route to Europe through Armenia. Khamenei voiced this concern at the July 22 Tehran Summit that brought him together with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He stressed that the Islamic Republic would not accept any changes to its northern borders. According to the Supreme Leader, such changes would allow NATO access to reach the country, and this is what the United States, Israel and Britain are planning. After the summit, Khamenei realized that Iran’s northern borders were not a priority for the Russians and that Türkiye’s alliance with Azerbaijan against the Armenians had deep foundations.

This was made evident on December 14, when Erdogan met with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and the President of Turkmenistan Sardar Mammadov, and they discussed means for transporting gas to Europe.

Iran has sent IRBC 10,000 soldiers to its northern 700 km-long borders with Azerbaijan. It also carried out military exercises last October that involved building floating bridges and landing operations in an attempt to demonstrate that its military can cross the Aras River into Azerbaijani lands. For its part, Baku concluded a 220 million dollar defense arms deal with Israel, making Israel Azerbaijan’s second largest arms supplier. The two countries also signed a mutual defense treaty stipulating that an attack on either of them is an attack on both.

Western intelligence sources have claimed that Israel is launching explosive drones Iran’s way from Azerbaijan, including those that targeted the Natanz Nuclear Facility. The assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was also launched from Azerbaijan.

Regardless of the threats Iran is exposed to at home and those that come from its neighbors, the conundrum that is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s position on the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia exposed the regime’s lies. It has demonstrated the emptiness of its claims of supporting the Muslims and leading Shiites all over the world. It is the return of the Persian Empire, not the awaited Mahdi that Iran is after. The biggest losers are those who take their orders from this lying, twisted regime.