By Brenda Shaffer
October 22, 2020
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia for apparently separate meetings in Washington this Friday to discuss the ongoing fighting between their two countries. The meetings provide an opportunity for Washington to assess the conflict’s potential destabilization of Iran, which has recently faced significant protests by its Azerbaijani minority in support of Baku.
In the last week, most of the fighting has concentrated in areas that border Iran. Azerbaijan has recaptured territories that Armenia had occupied since their 1992–1994 war. Most of the international border with Iran has returned to the control of Azerbaijani troops, creating a new strategic reality for Iran. The Iranian press has openly reported Tehran’s concerns that the change at the border will have a negative impact on Iran’s security.
Iran is a multiethnic state in which 50 percent of its population is composed of non-Persian minorities. The largest ethnic minority in Iran is the Azerbaijanis, who comprise approximately a third of Iran’s population. Most of Iran’s Azerbaijanis live in provinces – East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Ardebil – that border Armenia and Azerbaijan and the current battles.
On Sunday, Iranian Azerbaijanis demonstrated in several Iranian cities where they form the majority, including Tabriz and Urmiya, to demand that Iran stop transiting supplies to Armenia. These protests occurred despite the regime’s recent arrest of hundreds of activists and Tehran’s deployment of security forces, especially in Tabriz, in an attempt to limit the scope of the unrest.
In parallel, hundreds of Iranian Azerbaijanis on Sunday gathered along the border adjacent to newly recaptured territories to cheer on Azerbaijani soldiers. The emotionally intense scenes recalled the December 1989–January 1990 period when the two Azerbaijani communities met for the first time in nearly a century amid the Soviet collapse.
These developments come as Iran faces a large protest movement of its own. Since November 2017, barring a lull due to COVID-19, the Islamic Republic in Iran has experienced an unprecedented wave of demonstrations, with protestors challenging the existence of the regime. If the neighboring conflict continues to galvanize ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, it could accelerate the anti-regime movement. In fact, Iranian Azerbaijanis are planning new demonstrations and anti-regime activity.
Prior to the onset of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992, Iran shared a long border with the newly born Republic of Azerbaijan and a smaller one with Armenia. As a result of Armenia’s seizure of close to 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory in the first phase of the war from 1992 to 1994, Armenia’s troops had until this week inhabited most of the border with Iran, having expelled the ethnic Azerbaijani population from the bordering regions. This was a beneficial situation for Tehran, which preferred to minimize the common border and direct interaction between its own Azerbaijanis and those in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Iran managed well with the Armenian occupation authorities, pursuing common energy projects and other forms of cooperation. Iran’s preference for a long border with Armenia is illustrated by Tehran’s adamant opposition to the U.S. State Department’s “Goble Plan” in 1992, which suggested granting Armenia a land corridor to Nagorno-Karabakh, in parallel to granting a land corridor through Armenian territory to Azerbaijan’s exclave, Nakhchevan.
Friday’s meetings signal Washington’s willingness to play a role in the unfolding developments in the South Caucasus. In assessing its policies toward the conflict, Washington should take into consideration that the conflict’s outcomes are highly influenced by regional powers – Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In the case of Iran, the conflict also has important implications for Iran’s domestic stability and national security, and this should be a factor in Washington’s policy toward the conflict.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies