War in the Caucasus: Iran, Azerbaijan and the Azeris
Most Azerbaijanis are 89% formally Shiite. In reality most are secular and only 6% actively practice their religion. Nor is Azerbaijan an Islamic republic, an Islamo-authoritarian regime like Iran, but a secular-authoritarian regime with the usual post-Soviet despots, first father Aliyev, now the son, so almost dynastic. So it is not about religious fundamentalists like in Shiite Iran. Raised atheist from Soviet times and secular, authoritarian and not democratic. But it is more interesting that 15.3 million Iranians have an Azerbaijani migration background, the Azeris, even the Supreme Spiritual Leader Khameini, is one.
Many of these Azeris are now demanding that Iran should intervene on the behalf of Azerbaijan, while the Iranian government is suppressing these forces and advocating a ceasefire and wants to act as a mediator. Also in the hope of finding a kind of Asthana solution with Russia and Turkey like in northern Syria. The Iranians are afraid that the US could support Azerbaijan and the Azeris in Iran in order to split off a West and East Azerbaijan from Iran. The question is to what extent such a Greater Azerbaijan would get support from the USA or the Azeris in Iran, especially since Trump chose Iran as an enemy alongside China and if Aserbaijian or the Azeris in Iran like such an option. There are also Baluchic forces in Pakistan and Iran who want to sperate and form a Greater Balutistan from both countries or just Kurds in Iran, who also advocate a Greater Kurdistan. But also many Baluch, Kurds and Azeris don´t like those ideas, but would rather have more democratic rights within an united Iran.
It is therefore surprising that the USA is campaigning for a ceasefire in the Caucasus and is not clearly behind Azerbaijan, especially since international law in the Nagorno-Karabakh case is on the side of Azerbaijan. Or does the West let Erdogan-Turkey act as a proxy, but the fact that the Minsk group from the USA, Russia and France is pleading for a ceasefire, while Erdogan loudly with the Azerbaijanis, demand that these 3 powers should stay out of it, speaks against this. Trump does not care about this conflict, maybe also fears a confrontation with Russia because of Armenia and the Armenians especially in the USA and France have an influential lobby. Especially since perhaps nobody wants to be held responsible for a new Armenian genocide.
Likewise, the question is to what extent the Iranian Azeris are integrated in Iran, to what extent they are religious, secular, nationalist, seperatist and would appear as a homogeneous bloc of 15.3 million potential subversives against Iran. Certainly, one option for the US in the dispute with the Islamic Republic could be to support part of the 15.3 million Azeris with Baluch, Kurds and other minorities and ethnic groups in order to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, in doing so they have to calculate with the nationalism of the Iranian democrats and opposition who want to maintain a secular and democratic or secular-authoritarian Iran as a territorially sovereign entity, and many Iranians with a migration background probably see themselves more than Iranians as Azeris, Baluchs or Kurds. When looking at domestic and foreign political loyalties, one should not roughly split into religion and ethnicity, but rather tend to analyze questions of identity according to David Precht’s book “Who am I and how many?”.
On the relationship between Iran and the war in the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan, Deutsche Welle writes:
“In the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran offered itself as a mediator. However, Tehran is by no means an uninvolved third party, especially when it comes to Azerbaijan.
The Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani Fasli was determined. Should the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan spill over into his country’s territory, his country will react. Fasli was referring to the launch of a missile from the combat area that fell in a village in the border region of northwestern Iran last week. The governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia had been told that they had to better control the fighting. If the situation does not improve, „we will take appropriate measures if necessary,“ said Fasli.
At the same time, the government in Tehran offers itself as a mediator in the conflict. „We call on both sides to exercise restraint, to end the conflict immediately and to resume negotiations,“ said the Iranian Foreign Office spokesman Said Chatibsadeh.
Above all, the government in Tehran wants to prevent the conflict from spilling over into Iranian society. Because in Iran there is both an Armenian and an Azerbaijani minority. With around 100,000 people, the Armenian is significantly smaller than that of the so-called „Azeri-Turks“, as the Iranian citizens with Azerbaijani roots are called. Their number is around 15 million, out of a total of 82 million people in Iran. This means that their number is also greater than that of Azerbaijani citizens. A total of around 10.3 million people live there.
Today the Azeris are one of the most influential ethnic groups in Iran. They control large parts of the Tehran bazaar, the country’s most important marketplace. The spiritual leader Ali Khamenei is also of Azerbaijani descent on his father’s side. Four of its representatives published a statement a few days ago, according to which there is “no doubt” that the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region belongs to Azerbaijan. President Hassan Rouhani informed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian that Armenia must make efforts to end the conflict.
Statements like these also reflect the internal balance of power in Iran. Unlike the Armenians, who attract little attention, many Azeris are openly on the side of their “Muslim brothers” in Azerbaijan. Last week they organized several large rallies in cities in western Iran. Among other things, the slogan „Death of Armenia“ could be heard there. According to Iranian media, security forces broke up these gatherings.
Relations between the two countries go back a long way. Parts of today’s Azerbaijan belonged to the Persian Empire until the 19th century. In 1828 this ceded the region around Baku to Russia. In 1991 Azerbaijan became independent in the course of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since then, the government in Tehran has been concerned about Baku’s influence on the Azeri minority in Iran. The fear is repeatedly expressed that Azerbaijan wants to smash Iran with the support of the USA in order to then incorporate the Iranian provinces of western and eastern Azerbaijan into its own territory. The government is also concerned about the close cooperation between Azerbaijan and the USA and Israel. Both countries consider Azerbaijan to be a key country in the South Caucasus, both militarily and economically.
The indirect involvement of Russia and Turkey in the war in its immediate neighborhood is also a headache for Tehran. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia stands by Armenia. Iran maintains a network of relationships that is as complex as it is fragile with both countries. In Syria, for example, he is on the side of the Assad regime together with Russia. Turkey in turn supports the Assad opponents. Iran and Turkey are linked by a more or less strong opposition to Israel. Both states expressed their rejection of the recently signed normalization agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They are also both on the side of the emirate of Qatar, which is facing a boycott led by Saudi Arabia.
Economic aspects also play an important role in Tehran’s relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has close ties with Turkey, particularly in the raw materials sector. In 2005, for example, the 1700-kilometer pipeline between Baku and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan went into operation. Even before sanctions were imposed, this line represented strong competition for Iranian oil exports. While these have shrunk, the government in Tehran has to watch as the Turkish-Azerbaijani trade relations are consolidated via the pipeline and, as a result, also those of the both countries to Europe. Because from Turkey, the oil arriving from Baku is shipped on to the European buyer countries. A dynamic has developed in this sector that Iran can only catch up with with great difficulty if the US sanctions are lifted at some point.