Iran’s Azerbaijani population are expressing their anger at the authorities by posting videos and photos on social media. The reason for their discontent is the recent visit to Iran by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The Iranian leadership gave him a warm welcome, but even more provocative were comments made during the Armenian PM’s meeting with members of the Armenian community. At the meeting in a sports hall in Tehran, an enormous banner was fixed along one wall saying in Armenian “Karabakh belongs to Armenia”. This refers to the Azerbaijani territory of Mountainous Karabakh, occupied by Armenian forces since a bitter war between the two countries in the early 1990s.
The banner in particular sparked public anger among Iranian Azerbaijanis, who are the largest ethnic minority in the country at around 23 million, according to various estimates. On Friday, at a football match between Tractor of Tabriz, the main Azerbaijani city in Iran, and Sepahan, Tractor supporters condemned the regime’s close ties with Armenia and chanted slogans against Iran’s duplicitous stance on the Karabakh conflict. They unfurled banners and waved Azerbaijan’s national flag in a gesture of solidarity.
Protests were voiced in the Azerbaijan Republic too, with a demonstration on Saturday outside the Iranian embassy in Baku. Interestingly, Nikol Pashinyan’s visit occurred a day after the 27th anniversary of the Khojali massacre, when over six hundred Azerbaijani civilians fleeing their homes in Mountainous Karabakh were killed by Armenian forces.
Iran’s Azerbaijani population are being targeted by the state’s harsh crackdown on minority rights in the country. Although Azerbaijanis are the second main ethnic group after Persians, they are not allowed to have schools in the Azerbaijani language, unlike the Armenians in Iran. Racist caricatures by several Tehran based magazines against Azerbaijanis met with protests in 2006. Marginalized like most other ethnic minorities in Iran, Azerbaijanis have a growing sense of national identity. Tractor FC has long been one focus of that identity.
Nikol Pashinyan met Iran’s top leaders on 27th February. During his meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leaders expressed the importance of solid relations with Armenia. Ali Khamenei said that strengthening ties between Iran and Armenia would serve the common interests of both countries. And on his Twitter account he tweeted that Iran has never had a problem with Armenia. During the meeting Khamenei also said that US officials such as John Bolton do not understand the nature of Iranian-Armenian relations. This was a response to the US national security adviser’s visit to the region last October, when John Bolton told Nikol Pashinyan that it was a priority for the Trump administration to put maximum economic pressure on Iran and that the Armenian-Iranian border would be a significant issue.
Certainly, the Iranian officials were keen to welcome the Armenian prime minister in order to highlight the level of mutually strong relations between the two countries. Both Iran and Armenia share a common interest in maintaining economic, trade and political relations because of two factors: both countries are facing economic isolation in the neighbourhood and both want to have strong leverage against Azerbaijan. Today, some politicians in Iran describe the Republic of Azerbaijan as Northern Iran, a term they do not use for Armenia or Georgia which were also part of the Qajar State of Iran in the 19th century.
STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES OF IRANIAN-ARMENIAN RELATIONS: CONTAINING AZERBAIJAN
Ironically, despite claiming to be the guardian of all Shias in the world, the Iranian regime has always had tense relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan. This is in contrast to the regime’s good relations with Armenia, which have not been affected by Armenia’s occupation of Mountainous Karabakh since 1994. Back in 1994 Iran was in a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the division of the Caspian Sea, and opposed American energy projects in Azerbaijan. Tehran has also been active in plotting terror attacks inside Azerbaijan against foreign embassies or individuals. In 2012, Azerbaijan arrested two of its own nationals who were plotting, with Iranian backing, to attack the Israeli ambassador in Baku. The Iranian regime not only ideologically grooms Azerbaijan’s radical Shias, but also there are reports that while supposedly studying in Qom, many students from Azerbaijan received military training and became IRGC assets. Taking into consideration that Iran uses many satellite terror organizations in the Middle East as tools to project its political influence, it is no surprise that Tehran should be trying to create similar groups within Azerbaijan.
Perhaps what is most important to Tehran is to use their relations with Armenia as leverage in order to contain Azerbaijan and prevent it from giving any kind of support to Iranian Azerbaijani political movements in northern Iran. Iran uses two different ways to prevent Azerbaijan becoming a host country for Iranian Azerbaijani political activists in exile: first, by the establishment of good relations with Armenia, and second, by spreading its radical ideology in Azerbaijan. The Baku authorities have agreed not to allow several Iranian Azerbaijani exiles to visit the country based on Iranian concerns.
Iran does not want Azerbaijan to have strong multilateral diplomatic relations with the US and Israel. A major Iranian concern has always been the possible emergence of an American or Israeli military presence in Azerbaijan. This certainly played a crucial role in Iran’s backtracking from its previous territorial claims in the Caspian against Azerbaijan during the Aktau Convention.
Through its religious emissaries, IRGC commanders, and official propaganda Iran has always criticized Azerbaijan for maintaining good relations with Israel. Iran’s concern at Israel’s close relations with Azerbaijan is heightened by the strong and secretive nature of those ties. The presence of Iranian regime representatives in Azeri-populated provinces of Iran during Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Baku in 2016 were a clear sign of Tehran’s anxiety at the deepening ties between Israel and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is Israel’s chief oil supplier and biggest consumer of the products of the Israeli defence industry. Years ago, international media outlets speculated that Jerusalem wanted to establish secret military sites and use Azerbaijani territories in intelligence gathering against Iran. Iranian officials even accused Azerbaijan of providing its territories to be used in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in 2012. Iran sees Israeli-Azerbaijani cooperation as a risk to its security and accuses the Azerbaijani government of allowing Israel to carry on intelligence gathering from Azerbaijan.
Overall, Azerbaijan will have to deepen its ties with Israel in the long term. Israel has proven to be a close strategic partner of Azerbaijan in many ways, especially security cooperation. Israel has always been supportive of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and of increasing its defensive capabilities. The purchase of 5 billion dollars’ worth of Israeli military equipment is a clear sign of it. Supporting the Azerbaijanis in Iran should be prioritized by Israel and Azerbaijan in order to contain Iran’s malign activities in the region. The Azerbaijani government should be willing to engage in the Israeli-Saudi led alliance against the Iranian regime in order to protect their national interests.