Military exercise by the IRGC near border point with Azerbaijan. (IRIB)

By Faramarz Davar

October 5, 2020

The conflict between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan has erupted into the bloodiest, most dangerous clash in decades, with heavy fighting breaking out in and near Nagorno-Karabakh since September 27. The territory being fought over is so close to Iran that people living on the border areas in Iran’s northwest cities can see the exchange of fire between the two countries. Some locals have even recorded videos of the fighting in recent days, occasionally putting their lives at risk since mortars fired by Armenia and Azerbaijan have hit Iranian cities several times, and even killed one Iranian.

So, over the years, what policy has the Islamic Republic adopted regarding the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

The conflict between the two countries is over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The inhabitants of this region are mainly Armenians, but during the Soviet era administration of the territory was transferred to the Republic of Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union came to an end, native inhabitants of the region launched a campaign to be considered part of Armenia.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, and as the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia declared independence, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue became a matter of identity, and the dispute over the territory led to a full-scale military war between the two countries. Eventually, Armenia gained control of large areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, and even declared it as an autonomous republic. The United Nations recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh region as belonging to the Republic of Azerbaijan and supports the claim that Armenia is currently occupying the territory.

Iran has very close relations with both countries. The Republic of Azerbaijan is mostly populated by Shia Muslims, and its cultural heritage is linked to Iran. Armenia also has deep cultural relations with Iran, and its people and Iranian Armenians have close ties.

Ever since the conflict erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran has ostensibly declared neutrality. However, in reality, it has supported the two sides in various ways.

Iran’s Changing Policy

In the first years of the conflict, which coincided with the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Iran, Iran provided military training and financial assistance to Azerbaijan.

Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his memoirs of 1993, “I called Foreign Minister [Ali Akbar Velayati] and said they could try to get Afghan fighters to cross into Azerbaijan. They needed weapons and ammunition and wanted to protect the area around the Khoda Afarin Dam from the Armenians. Mr. [Mohammad] Forouzandeh, [the Minister of Defense], announced that a $30 million arms and ammunition deal had been reached with the Azerbaijanis.”

Previously, the Islamic Republic had supported Armenia in its dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a policy that essentially contradicted its declared ideology of supporting Muslims, especially Shias. However, when Abulfaz Elchibey was president from 1992 to 1993, he had shown strong nationalist tendencies and expressed wishes to annex Azeri regions of Iran. So when he was overthrown in a coup, Iran was satisfied with the change of leader in Azerbaijan and Heydar Aliyev as Elchibey’s successor. Aliyev established very close relations with the Islamic Republic, and as Azerbaijan developed as an independent country, Iran updated its policy toward it, and began supporting it in its disputes against Armenia. During this period, Iran also provided military training to Azerbaijan.

Ali Abdol Alizadeh, governor of the Iranian province East Azerbaijan during Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, has given his own narrative of the advisory assistance given by Iran to Azerbaijan when it came to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: “At the time, a number of zealous youth of our country, who were also fighters in the war front, tried to help the Azeris. We organized some of these groups, but since we did not have the right to intervene in the war, we sent a few people to Azerbaijan as advisers. At that time, the war was completely over and the Azeris had been very successful.”

Mohsen Rezaee, who was commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at the time, questioned the then governor of East Azerbaijan’s decision to send fighters to the Republic of Azerbaijan, and demanded he return to the country and report to military institutions in Tehran. However, with the change in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan,

Rezaee was also personally involved in training Azerbaijan’s military. “I personally ordered that the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region be clarified and that the army of the Republic of Azerbaijan be equipped with appropriate military equipment and that necessary training be provided. Even at that time, I had issued orders for special military training of the Azerbaijani military forces.”

According to Mohsen Rezaee, “a large number of Iranians took part in the Karabakh war, and in addition to the wounded who were transported back to the country, a large number of Iranian martyrs in the war were also buried in Baku.”

In the early 1990s, the economy of oil-rich Azerbaijan was not healthy, which was exacerbated by conflict and war. According to Abdol Ali Zadeh, the then governor of East Azerbaijan, “One time, Heydar Aliyev called Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the middle of the night and said, ‘If you do not send us bread by the morning, we will not survive. That same night, the late Hashemi called me and told me about it. The next morning, our first shipment of bread arrived in Baku before noon, and the same day Mr. Heydar Aliyev called and thanked me.”

The Appearance of Neutrality

Recently, four of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s representatives in the northern provinces expressed support for Azerbaijan in its struggle with Armenia, stating that they acknowledged Nagorno-Karabakh was Azerbaijan territory. The officials were all from Azerbaijani-language speaking regions in Iran —  East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan — so this support was not surprising. “If it were not for the help of the Islamic Republic at the beginning of the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, the occupation would certainly have extended to Baku [the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan],” they said in a rare statement.

Mansour Haghighatpour, who was a member of parliament for Ardabil province in the ninth parliament from 2012 to 2016, said in 2013 that “the Islamic Republic of Iran used the best and most elegant form of its mission in this war. According to the fatwa of the Supreme Leader, who said that Nagorno-Karabakh is the land of Islam and that if anyone dies there he will be considered a martyr, we have been a supporter of the land and the people of Azerbaijan at all times.”

And yet, at the same time, Iran has followed a policy of supporting both Azerbaijan and Armenia, while its official policy has been one of neutrality, with Islamic Republic officials announcing they were willing to mediate between the two countries to bring an end to the war.

Greater rapprochement between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Israel has led to worry among Iranian officials about what this closer relationship between the two countries might mean for the region. Iran also needs its close relations with Russia to remain intact, and Russia has mainly sided with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. All of this and the fact that it has always had links with Armenia (as well as Azerbaijan) has prevented Iran from making its views on the conflict public. Instead, it continues to try to strike a balance, at least in appearance.

Iran has numerous economic and trade agreements with Armenia, and Iran is one of Armenia’s most important suppliers of energy. As military clashes began to escalate between the two countries at the end of September, videos were published showing Russian military vehicles being transported by Iranian trailers to Armenia, although Iran’s foreign ministry denied it had given Armenia any military aid.

This footage of Russian military aid to Armenia via Iran sparked protests in northwestern cities of Iran and in Tehran, with protesters chanting anti-Armenian slogans, which had been unprecedented in Iran. Former MP Ali Motahari,  known for speaking out on a range of issues, said: “I am also critical of Iran’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iran helped Azerbaijan in that war, but it also supported Armenia and the Azerbaijani people were angry.”

Ayatollah Khamenei’s leaning toward Azerbaijan has been evident, and certainly, from an ideological perspective, the Islamic Republic regime would want to support Azerbaijan because it is mainly Shia. In 1992 — early years of his leadership and early years of the Nagorno-Karabakh war   — Khamenei had said, “The Armenian government and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are oppressing the Muslims of this region.”

But Khamenei has not been consistent in his steadfast support on ideological grounds. After all, he did not have the same tenancy or push similar policies in later years to support China’s Uighur Muslims, and he in fact seems to ignore China’s systematic persecution of the Uighurs because Iran relies on China so heavily.

And given how much Iran needs Russia, its support for Armenia could be an attempt to keep that lifeline intact too.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.