Armenia – Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan, October 1, 2019. (Supplied)

By Brenda Shaffer

September 12, 2020

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Iran’s stable northern boundary suddenly became a shared border with five states: land borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, and maritime borders with Kazakhstan and Russia. Tehran viewed this momentous change as a source of several new security challenges. Among these were maritime delimitation in the Caspian Sea and the establishment of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, two states that shared ethnic ties with large numbers of Iranian citizens.

Consequently, Tehran did not view the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of six new states populated by Muslim‑majorities in the Caspian region as an opportunity to expand its influence and “export the revolution.” Rather, Tehran’s position was defensive: protecting against this new potential source of threats. The officially‑sponsored Tehran Times, wrote in late December 1991 that the first ground for concern from the point of view in Tehran is the lack of political stability in the newly independent republics. The unstable conditions in those republics could be serious causes of insecurity along the lengthy borders (over 2,000 kilometers) Iran shares with those countries. Already foreign hands can be felt at work in those republics, [e]specially in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan republics, with the ultimate objective of brewing discord among the Iranian Azeris and Turkmen by instigating ethnic and nationalistic sentiments.

During the period of the Soviet collapse, all‑out war emerged between two of Iran’s new neighbors: Armenia and Azerbaijan, which created a critical security and political challenge for Tehran. This was not some faraway conflict like those in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon; this war was taking place directly on Iran’s borders, and at times created refugee flows into Iran. Thus, Iran’s own national security and domestic stability was seen to be directly threatened by the conflict. The danger was especially sensitive since over one third of the population of Iran is ethnic‑Azerbaijani; the regions of northwest Iran that are contiguous to the conflict zone—East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Ardebil—are populated primarily by ethnic‑Azerbaijanis, many of whom share family ties with co‑ethnics in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

While the ruling regime in Iran formally asserts that its foreign policy is based on Islamic solidarity, Tehran almost always puts pragmatic interests above ideology in instances where Islamic solidarity conflicts with primary geopolitical interests. In the specific case of the war between two of its northern neighbors, the clash between ideological and pragmatic considerations was unmistakable: Christian‑populated Armenia had invaded Shia majority Azerbaijan (the only majority‑Shia former Soviet republic), captured close to 20 percent of its territory, and turned almost one million Azerbaijani Shia into refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

However, the devastation created by the war and occupation in Azerbaijan in the early years of the conflict served a main Iranian policy goal by dimming the new country’s attraction to Iran’s Azerbaijani minority. Thus, Tehran adopted a policy in support of Yerevan in the war with Azerbaijan and has continued to engage in close cooperation with Armenia until the present day.

In January 2008, Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran’s then‑Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for the former Soviet region (he now serves as chief of staff to the country’s president) wrote the following about how Iran had approached the Armenia‑Azerbaijan conflict during the early war period:

Iran was in the neighborhood of the environment of the conflict. Karabakh is situated only 40 km distance from its borders. At that time, this possibility raised that the boundaries of conflict extended to the beyond of Karabakh. Since then, Iran’s consideration was based on security perceptions. […] Iran could not be indifferent to the developments occurring along its borders, security changes of the borders and their impact on Iran’s internal developments.

Tehran’s policy tilt toward Armenia—for reasons of security, as Vaezi made clear—was predicated on the assumption that Iran’s domestic Azerbaijani community would not mount significant opposition to this policy. For most of the period since the emergence of the Armenia‑Azerbaijan conflict, Tehran’s bet had paid off.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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.