Ankara, Turkey – Armenia and Azerbaijan relations between the two former Soviet republics, Western Asian countries, have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military occupied or Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions.
Four UN Security Council resolutions and two from the UN General Assembly, as well as international organizations, demand the “immediate complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces” from the occupied Azerbaijani territory.
Iran seems to be quietly backing Armenia in the conflict. Renewed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh are already a geopolitical flashpoint between Russia, which supports Armenia, and Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan.
But what role does Iran, a Shia-Muslim majority country like Azerbaijan, which neighbours both countries, have? Experts with a close eye on the conflict think Iran is secretly backing Armenia, a Christian-majority country. Iran has officially called on both sides to cease clashes, offering mediation between the two countries.
Iran appears to be closer to Armenia in its relations with both countries.There are several factors for Iran’s implicit support of Armenia, ranging from Iran’s political alliance with Russia, to Iran’s trade ties with Armenia. But among other reasons, the changing political nature of Iran’s Azeri Turkish population plays an important role in Iran’s close connections to Armenia.
Increasing Turkish nationalism among the Azeri Turks in Iran has been seen as a serious political problem by Iran. Connections and relations between the country’s north where a sizable Azeri Turkish population lives and Azerbaijan have been an important factor in Iran’s political problems with Azerbaijan.
Azeri Turks consider that Iran’s Turkish-origin population, which includes Turkmen, Qashgais and other Turkish-speaking groups, might amount to nearly 40 percent. Many Azeri Turks call Iran’s north as southern Azerbaijan, where nearly 25 million Azeri Turks live according to different estimates. Some Azeri Turk nationalists and intellectuals have long defined both northern and southern parts as culturally and socially identical, arguing that they should be joined under a political union.
In Iran, due to the enormous Turkish population, there has historically been a political fear that two Azerbaijans, Baku [the capital of northern Azerbaijan] and Tabriz [the capital of southern Azerbaijan] might join at some point. On the other hand, in Azeri Turkish political memory and foreign policy, the idea of Greater Azerbaijan has always been an important factor.
For centuries, Iran and Azerbaijan had been ruled by Turkish-origin states, from the Seljuks to the Safavids, and eventually the Qajars. During the rule of the Qajars in the 19th century, after losing some crucial battles to the Russians, the Shia-Turkish dynasty ceded some crucial parts of its territories to the Russians – the Aras, or Araxes River, became the border line between the two states, dividing current territories effectively.
While the northern part of Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union as the Azerbaijan Republic after the communist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the southern part stayed under the Qajars. They were replaced by the Persian-origin Pahlavi dynasty, the founding family of current Iran, in the early 20th century.
The political argument of Greater Azerbaijan has long been a threat for the Iranian establishment, which has used its support of Armenia as a counter-measure to minimise Azeri aspirations in Iran and across the region.
Iran’s traditional Armenia policy has long been a balancing act against both Azerbaijan and Turkey across southern Caucasia. As a result, behind-the-scenes, Iran backs Armenia.
While Iran has a Shia majority and Azeris are overwhelmingly Shia, Azeris speak a Turkish dialect, which is very close to Turkey’s Turkish, and have established close connections with Turkey since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union.
Also, national awareness among Iran’s Azeri Turks has increasingly become more evident as globalism has enabled the country’s Turkish-origin population to connect their brethren living in other neighboring countries including Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Iran’s other motivations. However, aside from increasing Turkish nationalism in Azerbaijan, there are also other political reasons for Iran’s support of Armenia.
Reasons like land disputes between the two countries Iran and Azerbaijan, increasing nationalism among Azeri Turks, issues regarding how to share natural sources of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan’s close relations with Israel, which is an archenemy of Iran across the Western Asia and a political desire to balance Turkey-Azerbaijan relations occasionally lead to some tensions and crisis between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Iran’s low-profile Armenian policy, which is officially a mediating position between the two countries, might significantly change should the existing political status quo be altered by the clashes in the occupied Karabakh region, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
We need to pay attention to what Iran would do if the political status quo changes. According to recent reports, Azerbaijan appears to have an upper hand in the Karabakh region, gaining some crucial territories during recent clashes.
There is a weak possibility that Iran will militarily intervene in the conflict. But if there is a clear development in favor of Azerbaijan, it could be said that some political groups in Iran would have serious discomfort about that. But there is a little possibility that Iran would reveal that discomfort in its official policy.
About 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory – including Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions – has been under illegal Armenian occupation for nearly three decades. A cease-fire, however, was agreed to in 1994.
Turkey, meanwhile, has supported Azerbaijan’s right to self-defense and demanded the withdrawal of Armenia’s occupying forces. Armenia-Iran relations and their implications for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia and Iran maintain a deep relation from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although is not a natural relation, the rivalry between Iran and Turkey and its implications for Azerbaijan, caused this “strategic alliance” between Armenia and Iran.
From 1991 up today, Iran has tried to undermine the independence of Azerbaijan in different ways. For instance, repressing the Azeri minority living in Northern Iran, obstructing Western pipeline projects, violating the Azerbaijani airspace or supporting Armenia in the Nagorno – Karabakh conflict.
The Armenian-Iran cooperation is a very striking issue taking into account that Armenia is a Christian country and Iran is a Muslim one. Indeed Azeri population follows the same Faith than Iran, the Shiite one. There is some explanation to this strange situation.
First of all, we cannot forget that Azerbaijan, following the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk model, is a European country which supports all the Western initiative in the region, let’s say, the Partnership for Peace, the BTC or the GUAM and TANAP. Iran considers the United States as the Big Satan and Israel the little Satan. For this reason, the pro-western foreign policy implemented by Azerbaijan from 1991, has complicated the always difficult Azerbaijani-Iranian relation.
Secondly, everybody knows that Azeris are ethnically a Turkish people. Besides, During the first period of independence 1918-1921 Azerbaijan became one of the most important Turan (Turkish Union) supporters. Later, especially during the Elchibey period, Azerbaijan rejected the Islamic model proposed by the Khomeinism and, by the contrary, they adopted the the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk model, more secularized and closer to the Western World.
Thirdly, the Turkmenchay Treaty divided Azerbaijan in two areas. The North one belonged to the Tsrarist Empire (Russia) and the South one became part of the Persian Empire (Iran). For this reason, nowadays there is a big population of Azeri Turks living in Northern Iran, especially in Tabriz. This “minority”, around 30 millions, exerted a big pressure on Iran in order not be assimilated as Persians. They want to maintain their traditions, their languages, their culture.
Despite religious and ideological differences, relations between Armenia and Iran remain cordial and Armenia and Iran are strategic partners in the region. Speakers of Turkish languages, most notably Azerbaijani Turks, which is by far the second-most spoken language in the country, but also the Turkmen, and the Qashqai Turks peoples, comprise a substantial minority 20%.
Nevertheless, Iran considers that this population could be a threat for the regime, taking into account that Azeri Turks participated in most of Revolutions occurred in Iran.
These three issues are the main arguments of Iran to undermine the independence and the development of the Republic of Azerbaijan. One of most important issues for Azerbaijan is the enclave of Nagorno – Karabakh. This mountain has seen the most important intellectuals be born, especially Shusha, which is considered the cradle of the modern culture of Azerbaijan. Thus, Iran has supported Armenia in the following ways.
Firstly, Iran has supplied weapons to Armenia in order to help the Karabachis, (Armenian population from Nagorno – Karabakh) in their fight against the Azeri population living in the enclave.
Secondly, Iran is the only energy supplier of Armenia. When Azerbaijan and Turkey isolated Armenia, Iran sent aid to them allowing them to survive. During the war (1992-1994) Armenia was provided with cylinder gas, and kerosene stoves from Iran. Armenia survived to the Turkish blockage thanks to the Iranian aid. For this reason, We can say that Iran is not a neutral mediator in the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Thirdly, during the Soviet period the Caucasus worked as a system. Armenia hold most of the industries, Azerbaijan supplied the energy and Georgia was a tourist and agriculture center. When the Soviet Union fell down, the economic relations of the Caucasus changed dramatically. Georgia suffered a terrible economic crisis, Azerbaijan started to export oil and gas and Armenia established a close relation with Iran. Nowadays, Iran is the third trading partner of Armenia only after Russia and Germany. Iran tries to weak Azerbaijan strengthening Armenia with economic aid and cooperation.
Fourthly, Azerbaijan is one of the most important oil producer of the World. Besides, Azerbaijan does not belong the OPEC and this fact makes it more attractive for foreign investors. Azerbaijan is one of the most important Iran’s competitor in the energy field. For this reason, Iran keeps some disputes with Azerbaijan for the control of oil fields in the Caspian Sea.
As a result, Iran systematically organizes and finances ethnic-religious conflicts and separatist movements in West Asia and paves the way for instability through proxy wars. Iran is geopolitically the most trickiest and untrusted country in the Western Asia. Western Asia—or simply West Asia—is the westernmost subregion of Asia. It includes Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Mesopotamia, the Levant region, the island of Cyprus, the Sinai Peninsula, and Transcaucasia (partly).
The region is considered to be separated from Africa by the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt, and separated from Europe by the waterways of the Turkish Straits and the watershed of the Greater Caucasus. Central Asia lies to its northeast, while South Asia lies to its east. Eight seas surround the region (clockwise): the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.
20 countries are located fully or partly in Western Asia, out of which 13 are part of the Arab world. The most populous countries in Western Asia are Iran, Turkey (partly in Southeast Europe), Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The total population of Western Asia is estimated to be 400 million in 2025.