As the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region intensifies after a Russia-brokered truce failed to hold, Iran’s bordering province – East Azerbaijan – continues to be hit by missiles. Evidently, the missiles hitting villages in the province are being fired from the Azerbaijan side. On October 15, Iranian state media quoting Ali Emiri, the governor of Khudaferin district in the East Azerbaijan province, reported 10 projectiles hit two villages in the district. A civilian was injured when rockets hit a house. “The security of our citizens living in border regions is the red line for our armed forces,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement. Iran has repeatedly warned that it will not remain indifferent if the warring parties do not hold back from violating its sovereign territory. Iran’s northwestern border areas have been intermittently hit by mortar fire and rockets since the hostilities erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 27.
Within a fortnight, Iran shot down a second unmanned aircraft in its airspace over the province of East Azerbaijan. These incidents are unusual as Iran does not perceive significant security threats to this frontier. More worrying for the IRGC is the fact that while the first intrusion was by a Turkish-made drone, the second was by an Israeli drone. The Iranian military carefully shot it down with an anti-aircraft gun instead of a missile to retrieve the hostile object with as little damage as possible. The debris might be beneficial to Iran for reverse-engineering purposes.
Since early October, Iran has not only deployed its troops to its frontier with Azerbaijan and Armenia but it has also been accused of supplying weapons to the Armenian side in Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran has refuted the accusations made by the Azeri president and the video shared as proof. Nonetheless, Iran allows Russia to use its airspace to supply arms to Yerevan.
In light of the destruction inflicted on Armenia’s military by Azerbaijan and the protests against Iran’s persistent backing of Armenia’s position on the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Rouhani government has tried to pursue a new balanced/pragmatic approach to resolve the conflict. This approach was evident in the statement of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif when speaking to Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. Voicing Iran’s readiness to contribute to peace and a sustainable solution to the conflict within the framework of the Iran-Turkey-Russia regional initiative as a complement to the OSCE Minsk Group mechanism, Zarif said, “A regional initiative developed by Iran, Russia and Turkey can complement the activities of the Minsk Process to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.” However, neither the supreme leader himself, his office, nor the IRGC have endorsed this new balanced/pragmatic approach by the Iranian government. The supreme leader has been rather silent on the issue whereas the IRGC has merely protested against some missiles landing in East Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could not have come at a worse time for Iran. Its most trouble-free border has suddenly become extremely vulnerable. Being home to an ethnic Azeri population that exceeds the population of Azerbaijan itself, Iran’s fear of political upheaval and separatist rebellion seems more real than ever before. Added to this is Azerbaijan’s strong strategic ties to Israel, which remains one of its top suppliers of potent weapons. Thus, Iran has much to worry about. Even if Iran effectively reverses its approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Israel-Azerbaijan ties are not diminishing and neither is the animosity between Baku and Yerevan.
In the wake of Azerbaijan reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh, its border with Armenia will shrink to 42 kilometers. Iran has benefitted from Yerevan’s access to the global economy and has funneled in precious dollars and technology while also providing her with food and other vital supplies. Until the signing of the JCPOA, Armenia and Iran had been holding talks to engage in military cooperation. However, there was no significant development due to Armenia’s fear of being blacklisted by the United States and pressure from Russia, which not only supplies her arms but also has a military base in the capital.
Whether Azerbaijan liberates Nagorno-Karabakh or a new ceasefire effort succeeds, Iran’s northwestern border will remain volatile. From Baku’s perspective, the likelihood of guerrilla warfare in the liberated parts of Nagorno-Karabakh will make it wary of Iran’s border.
From Iran’s perspective, the deployment of air defense systems, artillery and armored brigades is inevitable. With military posts facing each other amid mutual distrust, Iran will also have to face and address discontent within its own Azeri population living in the remote border regions. The existing Iranian routes and smuggling networks with Armenia-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh may convert to inward supply lines into the province of East Azerbaijan and beyond.
In the short term, Iran will seek an agreement and the implementation of a ceasefire which does not involve European or western powers. Hence, it will tag along with Moscow and Ankara for securing an early truce. Armenia rejects Turkey’s mediation in the conflict or any peace effort initiated by Ankara but the weaker party rarely gets its demands met.
Considering Iran’s proven mettle in raising mercenary militias, the prospects in Azerbaijan do not seem encouraging. With Israeli and Turkish eyes in the sky and the Azeri military on the border, raising a Hezbollah-style militia is nearly impossible. It seems more plausible that the erstwhile dissenters among Iran’s Azeri population will become more active and troublesome.
The Azeri president has always promoted nationalistic sentiments to prevent the Shiite majority from shifting away from Baku and subscribing to Iran’s narrative of Shiite brotherhood. The recent war has further amplified nationalist fervor while clearly exposing Iran’s relationship with the enemy.