The Caucasus front is "simmering"
Since early 2022, the attention of the international community has been focused on the developments in Ukraine on the one hand and the rising tensions along the West-China axis on the other hand. Nevertheless, besides these hot spots there are other active fronts that leave little room for complacency, and which are of great interest to diplomats and analysts. One of them is the Caucasus Front.
Two years after the Second Karabakh War, the tensions in Armenian-Azerbaijan relations are taking on a greater international dimension. In the new era, the rising tensions are of particular concern to the Islamic Republic of Iran which is gradually reclaiming its place in the region.
Iran has been experiencing significant internal upheaval in recent months. Many segments of the society are currently demanding the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. Despite internal unrest, Iran's political and military leadership is now actively involved in the Karabakh dispute and is showing its intention to project Iranian influence in a territory that Tehran views as having unique historical, cultural, and economic ties to Iran.
By moving closer to Armenia, the Islamic Republic is now confronting Azerbaijan, which is covertly supported by significant players such as Turkey, Israel and the West. In this context, the region is getting closer to a potential global conflagration because of the lack of understanding on the Baku-Tehran axis.
From the warnings to the war scenarios at the Aras River region
We can better comprehend the seriousness of the situation in the Caucasus by taking a quick glance at the previous two months. During this period, Tehran has been warning Baku of the repercussions of its choices and actions.
"We will surely not accept chaos on our borders" Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's international affairs advisor, warned at the beginning of last month. "A tiny event in the region will prompt the presence and intervention of other countries." The former foreign minister of Iran also cautioned Baku, stating that "when the recognized borders are violated by one nation against another, tensions in that region rise and a war eventually breaks out. The United States and the Zionist regime are present in this fight under the guise of negotiating a cease-fire, which is the first effect of this conflict." The counselor to Khamenei added that "With these kinds of developments, even a minor border incident in this sensitive area will cause the presence and intervention of other countries, and this could turn into a center of tension and crisis."
In a similar vein, a few days later the Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, reiterated Tehran's stance that the Islamic Republic will not put up with regional states engaging in "military conflict." Specifically, the Major General said that Tehran encourages both the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve their differences through dialogue.
The above statement coincided with a new Iranian military exercise on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, when an artificial floating bridge was deployed over the Aras River. During this development, Iran's President Ibrahim Raisi explained to the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, that Teheran will not be using force against Azerbaijan "No borders will be altered without the approval of the Islamic Republic. We will retaliate violently if this happens." In Baku, Iran's recent actions and messages have been interpreted as an attempt to block the planned corridor between Azerbaijan and the autonomous Nakhchivan region, based on the cease-fire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which state that Yerevan would permit the establishment of a corridor between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan through Armenian territory.
Iranian MP Mohammad Safaei, who claimed that the drills in the Aras Reiver were a response to Israel's influence in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Central Asia, verified Baku's suspicions around the end of October. The MP claimed that Israel's presence in Azerbaijan was "an attempt by Zionists to lessen the influence of the Islamic Republic in Central Asia". He also emphasized that Iran will oppose any alteration to the South Caucasus region's international borders.
Razi Abasbeyli's analysis in the Azerbaijani newspaper "Hurriyyet" sheds light on Baku’s worries. According to Abasbeyli, who has been analyzing the most recent developments in the Baku-Tehran axis, "the mullahs who for 30 years refused to conduct military training in the areas bordering the Azerbaijani lands which were under Armenian occupation, have recently gathered their damaged equipment and are allegedly conducting military training on our border". This is because "The liberation of Azerbaijan's occupied areas has been resisted by the Fars-mullah administration for two years".
The Azeri author claims that "Awakening has started in South Azerbaijan," adding that "Persian mullahs don't realize that times have changed. The South Azerbaijani Turks are now seeking freedom throughout Iran. Iran's economy is seriously collapsing. People disapprove of the cruel and outdated governance." For Abasbeyli, Iran and Armenia share similarities because "Armenians destroyed the lands they controlled for 30 years. They demolished Karabakh's ecosystem and natural riches besides its cities and cultural heritage. The Fars-mullah government feels the same way about South Azerbaijan."
Signs of escalation
Iran is clearly sending a message to Azerbaijan with its most recent official statements and military actions in the border region. Teheran is stating unequivocally that it will not take a passive stance in front of the modifications of the regional status quo. It also shows significant concern over the rise of the Islamic Republic's competitors in the Azerbaijan soil. Iran's indignation at these developments in recent weeks has triggered an escalation of tension in Tehran-Baku relations.
The Azerbaijani State Security Service announced at the beginning of November that it had detained a group of Azerbaijani individuals who had been trained and sponsored by Iran's intelligence service to work against Azerbaijani national security. The illegal armed group was allegedly created undercover by Iran's special intelligence service through the propagation of "radical-extremist religious notions". To receive finance and get military training, the members of the organization known as the "Muslim Unity Movement" traveled to Iran and Syria. The Azerbaijani State Security Service said that one suspect was detained while "attempting a terrorist attack" in another nation.
The above development was followed by a new statement of the Ministry of Information and Intelligence of Iran, which announced on November 7 that the coordinator of the terrorist act committed in the mosque in Shiraz was an Azerbaijani citizen. The ministry accused Azerbaijan of organizing the terrorist attack in the Shiraz city mosque on October 26, in which at least 13 people were killed. This was the first time that Tehran accused Baku of organizing a terrorist attack on Iranian territory.
The intensification of diplomatic relations between Armenia and the Islamic Republic went hand in hand with the allegations that are being traded on the Tehran-Baku axis. Insisting that "no boundary can be changed in the Caucasus area without the agreement of the Islamic Republic" Iranian authorities met with Armenian officials and hosted the Prime Minister of Armenia in Tehran. In a phone chat with his Azeri counterpart, Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, also stressed Iran's adamant rejection of any foreign presence in the South Caucasus region.
Also, in recent weeks, Armenia and Iran have agreed to open new consulates in each other’s country. In detail, during a recent visit to Armenia, the Iranian Foreign Minister opened a new Iranian Consulate General in Kapan. In 2023, Armenia will follow Iran’s step and open a new Consulate General in Tabriz, the heart of Iran's East Azerbaijan province. For political activist Ahmet Obali, founder of GünAzTV in Azerbaijan, "the opening of an Armenian consulate in southern Azerbaijan will not be welcomed by Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijan will respond appropriately. Azerbaijan should create conditions for opening foreign consulates in cities bordering Iran. When the Israeli consulate opens in Bilasuvar, when the American consulate opens in Lankaran, when the Turkish consulate opens in Zangilan, we will treat Iran the same way.”
*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece.