Tehran and Baku on a collision course
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Iranians support the Armenians in the conflict against the Azeris over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan dreams of an enlargement by including the Azerbaijani-majority province in Iran. In contrast, the Islamic Republic wants more influence in the South Caucasus.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have never been easy, and have gone through several phases over the past 30 years. The strong Azerbaijani pressure in the south after the 44-day war in 2020 is causing increasingly tense reactions among the Iranians.

Iran is a country with a very rigid system, which knows its aims well and how to achieve them, and when to take risks, always maintaining the memory of its ancient imperial past.

Zerkalo.az underlines the reflections of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on the politics of Iran, a country not directly involved in the conflict, but very interested in its consequences.

The Shah of Persia had turned Tehran into the leading actor in the entire Middle East, with a strong army and an active security service, the Savak, created with the help of the Mossad and the CIA, and with aspirations to have nuclear reactors. In the 1970s, Iran was far superior to all other states in the region, including Turkey.

Iranian ambitions have not disappeared under the ayatollahs' regime either, restarting with atomic programmes and the further development of the military, this time with the support of the USSR and then Russia, and now also China. Should the regime change again, under the pressure of the recent protests, Iran's geopolitical plans would not change much, not even with a liberal government.

Strategies would perhaps change, but the Azeris are convinced that the relationship with their country would not improve. It was the same in the days of the Shah, though the son and husband of two Azerbaijani women, when one was punished for even a few words in the Azerbaijani language uttered in the street.

Many Azeris have always filled the ranks of the Iranian army, even if not in command posts. One of the reasons for the mistrust towards the Azerbaijani 'provincials' was also religious: Iran always considered itself the leader of traditionalist Islam, while it regarded Azerbaijan as a den of radical extremists.

Azerbaijanis then played an important role in the overthrow of the Shah's secular regime, together with local communists and the most intransigent ayatollahs. Even today, a large part of Iran's Islamic clergy is made up of Azeris, who are also present in the ruling party and the army; Ayatollah Khamenei himself has openly admitted several times that he is of Azeri origin.

The Azeris of Iran have always been a Turkic-speaking component of the Persian people, and have experienced phases of mixed fortunes, only becoming completely marginalised during the Pahlavi dynasty. To better defend themselves, they have always opposed any form of Azerbaijani nationalism within Iran, thus remaining quite separate from their brothers in the Caucasus area.

In the post-Soviet Caucasus, these precarious ancient balances have been called into question, and the Karabakh conflict, which also pits Azerbaijanis against Armenians, has in the background precisely the historical competition with Iran. In Tehran, they look with growing concern at the growth of the Turanian people throughout the region, even as far as Central Asia, although they do not speak openly about it, and they suspect that the Israelis are even behind it.

For these reasons, Iran supports Armenia, which, however, has been the losing party in the conflict. In the continuing tensions between Yerevan and Baku, Tehran nevertheless continues to play the Armenian card. The clash with the Azeris also underlines the religious aspect of the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, which the Azeris foment in Iran against the regime.

The Azeris are looking beyond Karabakh, dreaming of expanding into a larger 'Southern Azerbaijan' to be created in the area most populated by Iranian Azeris, who are also deeply entrenched in the local economy and politics. Iran, on the other hand, seeks to regain a dominant role in the South Caucasus as well, and it is hoped that the confrontation will not degenerate into a devastating conflict, given the current instability in the entire region.