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Underlying origins of Iran's cantankerous posturing over the Zangazur Corridor

24 September 2022 16:30 (UTC+04:00)
Underlying origins of Iran's cantankerous posturing over the Zangazur Corridor

By Orkhan Amashov

Iran’s approach to Azerbaijan, since the latter regained its independence in 1991, has veered radically from friendly embraces to swaggering reprimands, being limited in flexibility and rooted largely in history. Over the past three decades, Tehran has superficially tried to achieve balance vis-à-vis the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, supporting Baku on paper, yet duplicitously lending significant material support to Yerevan, easing the encumbrances caused by its economic isolation and deliberately emboldening its standing against Azerbaijan.

Iran may be protective towards external “impurities”, more than stealthily sanctioned by its domestic authorities, but it can never be accused of failing to stick its head above the parapet. Operating off the grid in international affairs is not alien to it. Iran likes to be heard. It firmly believes it has a mission.

Shaky foundations

In 1991, Tehran saw newly-independent Azerbaijan emerge as a space in which to infiltrate its religious ideology with the hope that historic ties, based on cultural-religious commonalities, would prove conducive to the slow erosion of the secularism of its neighbour. Iran also has had reservations, bordering on potential existential fear, in view of its own sizable Azerbaijani minority.

In an attempt to manage the unwanted consequences of increased communication between the Azerbaijanis of the Islamic Republic and the population of the post-Soviet nation, Tehran tried to imbue a religious nature to the discourse, rooted in the Shia tradition, trying to lure the citizens of the newly-independent country into embracing a wider Iranian realm. Save for some marginal groups that remain present in Azerbaijan, this policy has largely failed to be of any substantial consequence.

Since the 1990s, Baku has charted a different course, much to the dismay of the ideologues of Tehran’s clerical regime, building on a robust “Azerbaijanism” that hinges on Turkic essentials, secularism, and later-incorporated multiculturalism. In its foreign relations, Azerbaijan has maintained overall balance, but forged a strong alliance with Türkiye and, much to the chagrin of Iran, developed close military-intelligence links with Israel.

Moment of import

The Second Karabakh War of 2020 was a sea-change moment in the geopolitical evolution of the South Caucasus, completely reversing the fortunes of Azerbaijan and Armenia, increasing Turkish clout, and also enabling Russia to fulfill its objective of placing its "peacekeepers" in Karabakh, albeit on a temporary basis.

For Iran, the post-war landscape presents a new reality with fresh challenges. Firstly, Azerbaijan regained control of the whole swath of its southern border with Iran, re-establishing the official demarcation line between the two states. This meant the loss of unrestricted Iranian access to the formerly occupied territories, thereby putting an end to the concomitant ill-gotten gains that had previously been voraciously enjoyed by Iranian businesses, with a likely ‘go-ahead’ of Tehran, making the best use of the ‘lawlessness” that emanated during the Armenian occupation.

Secondly, the Zangazur Corridor appeared on the horizon. This ambitious project, aiming to establish an overland passage that will unite the country’s mainland with its Nakhchivan exclave, is a subject in relation to which Armenia and Iran are utterly united. Yerevan’s extraterritoriality concerns hinge on the thought that such a connection going through its southernmost territory will be tantamount to an effective loss of sovereignty. Article 9 of the trilateral ceasefire declaration of November 2020 stipulates that the access should be unrestricted and unobstructed to ensure the unimpeded movement of persons, goods and cargo, with the Border Guard Services of the Russian Federal Security Services having a controlling element along the passage.

Iran, on the whole, is not officially against such a route, but it is firmly against what it calls “changing borders in the Caucasus’’, defining this as its “red line”. On 19 July, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, stated that “any effort to block the border” between his country and Armenia would be firmly opposed.

The same line was reiterated in the Iranian reaction to the recent 12-14 September escalation on the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, which resulted in some military gains for Baku in the undelimited zone of the intersection of the two states.

Further objections ensue

Then, of course, one has to dwell on a plethora of other considerations. The Zangazur Corridor gives Azerbaijan an augmented role in the East-West route, also benefitting other actors. Iran, for its part, might think it is being cheated out of the prize. As Stephen Blank, Senior Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently wrote in the National Interest, theoretically, “the easiest route of transport should be through Iran, however, given US sanctions and chronic underinvestment in Iranian railways, it is hard to see it as a secure or reliable option”.

There is also an unhealthy dose of conspiracy theory infiltrating the Iranian rhetoric. For instance, Ahmed Kazemi, an expert on Caucasus studies, who is not a government official, but believed to be linked to Iranian intelligence, in an interview with Pars Today, argued that the project, which he dubbed “the Turanian-NATO Corridor'', is the joint British-Israeli plot to undermine Tehran’s geopolitical interests and prepare the ground for NATO’s subtle expansion into the Caspian, nearing the Chinese realm of influence. His claim seems to have been heavily influenced by that which Adam Thompson, former British representative to NATO, allegedly stated regarding the implications of the Second Karabakh War.

There is also a view, peddled in the Iranian and Armenian media, that the war of 2020 had an ostensible aim of targeting Iran, with a view to curbing its influence. These all seem to ascribe an inflated import to Iran’s position in the grand scheme of things, marginalising the actual underpinning of the geopolitical triggers that led to the eruption of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the time.

Iran's surreptitious design

There is also another less visible aspect to the Iranian posturing, which points to the realm of Tehran-Yerevan military cooperation. Although Iran acknowledged the verdict of the Second Karabakh War and congratulated Baku on its victory between clenched teeth, there have been some indications that, in practice, it shares the sentiments of the warmongering party in Yerevan.

Robert Cutler, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, believes that Tehran “is trying harder than ever to assert itself overtly in the South Caucasus through the instrument of the Armenian military-industry complex”. The presence of Iranian military companies on Armenian soil has increased at an unprecedented rate, with laser-and-communications-system and drone manufacturers being the most involved. The enduring ties, linking the Kocharyan-Sargsyan remnants in the Armenian army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are also a factor to be reckoned with.

Tehran is also, albeit understandably, concerned about Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan. This is not a new pattern, but has assumed a heightened significance over the past few years. When George Deek, Israeli Ambassador in Baku, posted his photo on Twitter reading a book titled “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz” with the wording “I am learning so much about the Azerbaijani city of Tabriz… “ in July of this year, Iran felt enraged by this allegedly polemical act.

Abbas Mousavi, Iranian Ambassador to Baku, retorted with a warning in the jargon befitting the Islamic Republic’s known uncompromising anti-Israeli belligerence. “Apparently, the first evil Zionist is going to be buried by the zealous people of Tabriz, too. Never cross our red-line, ever!”, exclaimed the diplomat in none too diplomatic terms.

The deep causes of the acrimony lie far deeper, of course. The tight Tel-Aviv–Baku relations are based on mutual interests and their perpetuation into a wider geopolitical space. Azerbaijan has benefited from the purchase of cutting-edge Israeli weaponry to augment its defence capabilities. And, as the recent article published in “Breaking Defence” suggests, “in theory, Azerbaijani may offer up its airspace for Israeli jets to enter Iranian territory, if needed”. Baku, however, has been extremely careful so far to arrange its partnership with Israel in such a way that would not give rise to a substantial Iranian protestation.

As was stated earlier, the Zangazur Project is the focal point. It is a direct takeaway from the 10 November ceasefire deal that Armenia has still not fully implemented. The project has made its way into the practical dimension through the war, the consequences of which continue to befuddle a bemused Iran. Hence, any dispute between Baku and Tehran over the subject provides a common ground for Iran and Armenia to feel united in their grievances.

All in all, the true origin of Iranian angst is the agony of self-knowledge, if one may borrow from former British Prime Minister and now-late Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher’s epiphanic insight on the character of Germany. The contexts differ, indeed violently, but there is a linchpin rendering the appropriation legitimate. Modern Iran is tormented by the knowledge of the futility of its values and consequent international aspirations. Its governance system cannot be replicated in any advanced civilised society.

Azerbaijan will continue to steadfastly obviate the possibility of falling victim to its wrath. If enough Iranian influence is entrenched in Armenia, the latter will risk becoming a failed state (it currently has small hope of salvation), reminding some of the features of Lebanon.

The contemporary unrest in Iran shows, with uncanny honesty, that the Islamic Republic has nurtured little that is admirable and worthy of being interpolated into one’s own system of values.

Tehran may dismiss Azerbaijan and sometimes do so with impunity. Nevertheless, the shifting sands of the wider geopolitical landscape point to a different reality. History will judge as to who is better to learn from whom.


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