While Western attention often focuses on Iran’s growing influence in the Levant, Iran’s connections to the old Soviet republics in the South Caucasus are also strategically significant and have become even more important as Iran seeks to build links with Russia and China.
But rising tensions with Azerbaijan are threatening those efforts as Azerbaijan strengthens ties with Iranian foe Israel, builds an alliance with Turkey, and seeks to reclaim more territory from Nagorno-Karabakh, a land-locked enclave largely inhabited by Armenians that is located inside Azerbaijan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have now fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union reanimated old disputes. The second war, in 2020, left Baku in control of one-third of the enclave. Iran, which has historically sided with Armenia, has had difficulty deciding how to react.
During the first Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1992 to 1994, the Islamic Republic tried to restore peace between its two neighbors by offering mediation. In May 1992, Iran brought both Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to Tehran for peace talks, but they failed after Armenia captured the city of Lachin. Iran’s pivot toward Armenia intensified after then Azerbaijani president Abulfaz Elchibey fomented anti-Iranian sentiment and endorsed the unification of his country with Iran’s Turkish-speaking ethnic Azeri regions.
By early 1993, Iran had saved landlocked Armenia from industrial and financial collapse by providing electricity and other supplies. Turkish sources claim that Iran also became Armenia’s leading arms supplier at the time. The war ended in a cease-fire that left Armenia in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts. The then prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, called Iran his nation’s lifesaver.
Iran-Azerbaijani relations further deteriorated after the war as Azerbaijan expanded ties with Israel and allowed a militant Iranian Azeri separatist movement to establish a headquarters in Baku. Iran retaliated with support for Islamist movements in Azerbaijan as well as closer ties to Armenia.
A second round of fighting in 2020 further complicated Tehran-Baku relations. Azerbaijani media started an online petition against Iranian and Russian support of Armenia, which triggered protests across Iran’s Azeri regions. Iranian officials tried to calm the situation by making statements supportive of Azeris on both sides of the border. For example, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, the representative of Iran’s supreme leader to East Azerbaijan province, referred to Nagorno-Karabakh as the “land of Islam” and said Iran prayed for its freedom as it does for the liberation of Jerusalem. When the war broke out, however, Iran remained Armenia’s primary outlet for trade with the rest of the world. Azerbaijani sources accused Iran of supporting Armenia by allowing the delivery of Russian arms to Armenia via Iranian territory, although Tehran denied the claims.
Source : Stimson