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Overview of the Iran-Azerbaijan Confrontation and the Regional Balance of Power

Clarification of regional power rivalries, foreign policy ambitions and branching of alliances in the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict

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Jon Kofas
Jon Kofas
Retired university professor, lecturer, speaker, and published author, covering global issues, international relations, and diplomatic affairs

IRAN: Iran, one of the first countries to recognize the Republic of Azerbaijan after its independence from the USSR in October 1991, is accumulating troops along the northwestern borders. This is a warning against the presence of Israeli-backed jihadist and Turkish elements potentially threatening the national sovereignty of Iran.

From the Iranian perspective, Azerbaijan is an encirclement and containment tool. To the extent that it is home to Israeli military personnel and Sunni jihadists, the Iranian authorities now regard Azerbaijan as a threat. Furthermore, considering its cordial relationship with the United States and the European Union, Azerbaijan represents an extended military-action bridge against Iran.

Recent news surrounding the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict

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On 1 October, the Iranian army held massive military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan. On 3 October 2021, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that Israel’s military presence in the Republic of Azerbaijan constituted a security threat for Iran. He issued this statement while concentrating troops along the northwest border.

Tehran sent its military presence to announce to Azerbaijan that the country is preparing for war with the intention to stop the advancement of the double threat. On one hand, the Erdogan’s-inspired pan-Turkic movement seems to be encouraging separatists. On the other hand, a larger Israeli-Western coalition applies its “strategy of containment.”

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While Iranian officials have avoided direct references to Turkey by focusing on Israel’s involvement in the mounting tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, Khamenei criticized Turkey’s role alongside that of Israel. At the public forum, it was hinted that Azerbaijan’s Turkish-Israeli support undermines Iran in addition to the implication that the United States supports both Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Background of the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict

The Iran-Azerbaijan conflict is very complicated as there are many countries and ethnic groups involved. Besides the conflicting goals of the players, the players themselves suffer internal polarization regarding actions in the zone. 

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The power struggle for influence in the Transcaucasus region and the regional balance of power are at the core of the problem. Starting with the ongoing dispute between the US and Russia, both playing a behind-the-scenes role at all times, China is also leaning towards, although maintaining a more distant stance. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a time when the United States and Western Europe rushed to integrate the area economically, politically, and militarily, many of the former Soviet republics maintain the same intentions that started during the 1990s.

Historical implications of the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict

Azerbaijan, a Turkish country that enjoys cordial relations with the Erdogan regime in Ankara, prevailed over Baku in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia. The foreign militia and Israeli weapons helped Azerbaijan to prevail, thus alarming the Tehran government that supported Armenia.

The November 2020 peace agreement, drawn up after Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to join the Russo-Turkish peacekeeping forces, was a victory for Azerbaijan. However, it indirectly benefited Moscow and Turkey geopolitically and economically. China couldn’t be happier with the deal too, as peace will help the country expand its own economic integration in the Caucasus region.

Suspecting Erdogan’s regional reach as part of his ambition to revive the former glory of the Ottoman Empire, the Kremlin has been walking a tightrope in the regional balance of power between Iran and Turkey. After Armenia suffered a setback in the conflict, Azerbaijan is now tilting the balance of power in Turkey’s favor. This position indirectly benefits the West, which is a logical concern for both Russia and Iran. 

Azerbaijan foreign policy on Iran

After Azerbaijan admitted in April 2021 that Israel provided military equipment and personnel, and logistical assistance during the war, Iran’s suspicions of Azerbaijan as a threat materialized. For some time, any foreign and defense policy of Azerbaijan, along with that of Israel, has been seen as an extension of the US foreign policy threat.

Azerbaijan was one of the first countries to recognize the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018 and supported the pan-Turkish separatists. This validated the Iranian thesis that the strategic objective comes from a forefront US-Israeli plot with Turkey to undermine Iran’s regional role. 

With a population of 83 million people, Tehran is very sensitive to Azerbaijan’s support for separatists as there are at least 10 million ethnic Azeris in Iran. In addition to the Israeli role in Azerbaijan, the Sunni jihadists included Turkish, Pakistani, and Afghan Kurdish elements. For Iranians, Azerbaijan appeared to have some disturbing similarities to regime change operations in Syria during the decade of the 2010s.

US-Azerbaijan relations

Crude oil is Azerbaijan’s largest export to the US, a sector in which the US has more than 200 companies engaged in exploration. In 2018, Azerbaijan immediately accepted President Trump’s new sanctions against Iran by suspending the oil and gas trade. In return, Azerbaijan imports aircraft and heavy machinery from the United States, solidifying the economic integration that worries Iran.

As vice president in 2016, Biden and his current CIA director, Bill Burns, met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to discuss “US national security issues.” The meeting raised concerns in Iran, as the United States declared Azerbaijan to be a key strategic ally. 

After his election, President Biden has continued Trump’s policy of containment of Iran. Using Azerbaijan as a proxy, the US argues that the Caspian region is in the “US national security interest,” a slogan that Tehran translates as a scheme to undermine Iran.

To clarify the facts, there are Senate Democrats concerned that Azerbaijan is seriously undermining Armenia in an effort to pressure Iran. After the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 resulted in the defeat of Armenia, the United States relied on Azerbaijan’s support in the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bound by a possible collaboration contract, the latter shared intelligence and provided its airspace for US operations.

Regional implications of the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict

Despite regional pressures not to pursue Euro-Atlantic economic, political, and military integration, Azerbaijan continues to cooperate with NATO, the EU, the US, and Israel. A new $35 billion gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe is an example of policy turned into action at a time when Azerbaijan is doing its best to limit trade with Iran. Although the US has praised Azerbaijan for its fight against terrorism, Iran argues that the neighboring nation is home to Sunni jihadist terrorists, a threat to Iran that is predominantly Shia.

Position of the US regarding the conflict

Amid lengthy nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran, the Biden administration is more committed than Trump’s to strengthening ties with Azerbaijan. Biden has been urging US companies to invest directly as well as subcontractors and joint ventures in public works, industrial enterprises and agro-business.

Azerbaijan acts as an intermediary with Central Asia, as the United States wants to make progress to counter China. The Americans will have a role in the entire rail system to connect Turkey with Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

China has many geopolitical advantages, and Western policymakers are trying to decouple their supply chains from China. With its sights set on both China and Iran, the US has played a part in the agreement between Azerbaijan, a key energy hub, and Turkmenistan, a country devastated by a severe economic crisis, to build an undersea field as part of greater East-West integration. The plan behind this is to focus on energy supply and build a transport corridor between Europe and Asia.

Answer of Iran on other countries’ foreign policies 

Because the development for closer ties between Azerbaijan and the West is not limited to economic integration but has a strong geopolitical dimension to them, after February 2019, Iran adopted an even tougher defensive posture.

Azerbaijan sent a delegation to the US-led conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, in solidarity with the US and Israel. To further complicate matters, Azerbaijan supported Turkey’s military operations in Northern Syria intended to counter Iranian influence, with Russia siding with Iran. Iran insists that Azerbaijan’s military ties with Israel and Turkish nationalists are rooting for separatists inside Iran to weaken the country. Independent international organizations have confirmed that from 2016 to 2019, Azerbaijan has secured 825 million in Israeli weapons, a clear indication of Azerbaijan’s military dependence on Israel.

Is an international military conflict brewing?

Backed by the US, Israel and Turkey are on the same page about weakening Iran, Russia, and China as those stand on Tehran’s side. 

In retaliation, Saied Reza Ameli, Director of the UNESCO Chair in Cyberspace and Culture and the Cyberspace Policy Research Center, and secretary and member of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, stated: “Since Azerbaijan and Turkey did not respect Iran’s rights as a neighbor, we ask the Supreme National Security Council to allow the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to demonstrate just one-half of Iran’s power on this side of the border and to tell them, ‘Do not play with the lion’s tail.'”

Saied Rea Ameli made the statement after Azerbaijan arrested two Iranian truck drivers and imposed a “road tax” on Iranian trucks transporting goods and fuel to Armenia on Azerbaijan roads. Like other Iranian officials, Ameli has accused Israel of coming to Azerbaijan to conspire against Iran.

On October 2, Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, told a conference that they were not sure of the United States’ commitment to the region and that they were concerned about “an imminent cold war” between Washington and Beijing. The UAE has strong ties to both countries, and Gargash added: “Afghanistan is definitely a test and, to be honest, it is a very worrying test.”

After the 2016 severance of ties over the nuclear pact between Washington and Tehran, on October 3, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud confirmed that Saudi Arabia held its first round of Direct talks with the new government of Iran on September 21, adding that “These discussions are still in the exploratory phase.”

Where is this crisis headed?

After Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia, the US, Israel, and Turkey would not oppose a conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan. Everyone realizes that Iran would easily defeat Azerbaijan, but the war would present even greater opportunities for the West, Israel, and Turkey to make further inroads in the Trans-Caucasus region. For their part, neither Moscow nor Beijing want trouble in the region and would prefer to cool down tempers through diplomacy. While Russia clearly has the strategic advantage at the regional level and still enjoys influence on Erdogan and may also fear the growing influence of the West, it does not seem to care about a weaker Iran, at least not openly for now.

Conclusion

As for China, whose role is primarily global economic integration, nothing is gained from a conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran. In addition, backchannels in both Moscow and Beijing could control regional friction if necessary.

Considering that the US is fiercely competing with the EU in the area and has provoked and overtaken France in some cases, the exuberant enthusiasm of the EU for a conflict in which the gains are out of proportion to the losses is much questioned.

The common thread with both the UAE and Saudi overtures to Iran is the uncertainty about the US, after the US left Afghanistan, but also the reality that the “military solutions” which the US indirectly pursued through Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey have been unsuccessful and backfire. Diplomacy is seen as the best option for leverage by the Gulf states to the extent that the road to rapprochement will somehow lead to alleviating tensions in the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict and what is yet to be seen.

Ultimately, in the event of war between Azerbaijan and Iran, the US-Iran nuclear deal will be dead, and that is a loss that Biden should consider at all costs as the Europeans, Russia, and China will blame the US for not reaching a deal.

[UPDATE] 5 October 2021: We’ve updated the featured image with the correct map. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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    Retired university professor, lecturer, speaker, and published author, covering global issues, international relations, and diplomatic affairs

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