Tensions with Azerbaijan show Iran’s loss of influence in the Caucasus | Nikola Mikovic

One year after the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, another conflict is brewing in the Caucasus. This time, tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have increased after Bakus arrested Iranian truck drivers and conducted joint military exercises with Turkey and Pakistan. While a full-scale confrontation between the two nations remains unlikely, the flare-up shows the deep underlying tensions in the region. Iran lost influence in last year’s conflict, while its archenemy Israel and rival power Turkey strengthened their positions. The complex ethnic makeup, abundance of energy resources and a crossroads of expanding global trade routes mean that the struggle for supremacy in the Caucasus will continue.

On October 1, Iran conducted massive military exercises on its northern border with Azerbaijan. Thousands of soldiers, dozens of tanks, artillery pieces and helicopters were involved in the largest exercises since the 1990s. Azerbaijan responded by flexing its military muscles with its ally Turkey. The Caucasus nation has also deployed anti-aircraft systems near the capital Baku, which is not surprising as Mohammad Bagheri, the military commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian chief of staff, said that “if the conflict escalates, the IRGC will attack Azerbaijan” . with 4,000 missiles that will completely destroy Baku. ”In addition, the chief of the IRGC Armed Forces in Tabriz, Colonel Hossein Pursmail, said that“ the repetition of the Israeli threats against Iran by the mouth of the Republic of Azerbaijan is not only in Baku’s interests, but also poses a threat ”. to its existence. “

Indeed, during the Nagorno Karaba war in 2020, Israel played a very important role in providing Azerbaijan with sophisticated weapons, including so-called kamikaze drones. However, the Jewish state and the energy-rich former Soviet republic have been strategic partners for many years. Tehran is now accusing Baku of hosting Turkey-backed Syrian fighters on its territory, although some reports suggest they were there during the 44-day war. But why has Iran been silent about these concerns for more than a year?

After the war last year, the Islamic Republic in the Caucasus lost much of its influence and Turkey significantly improved its position. Pakistan was also able to expand its reputation in the region. In September, troops from Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan held military exercises near Baku despite protests from Tehran. More importantly, as a result of the conflict in 2020, Azerbaijan captured most of Nagorno Karbach and the surrounding regions, which means that the transport routes from Iran to Armenia now pass through Azerbaijan rather than the area more than controlled by ethnic Armenians became two decades. In other words, there is a new geopolitical reality in the Caucasus and Iran has many reasons to be concerned.

However, that does not mean that the Islamic Republic is ready to attack its northern neighbor. After the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signed the Shusha Declaration in June, the two countries became close military allies. According to the document, the parties committed to jointly respond to military threats. The Iranian leadership is well aware that Baku is not on its own. A war on Azerbaijan would also mean a war on Turkey, and it is almost certain that Pakistan and Israel would provide military aid to the Caucasus nation. Hence, Tehran is unlikely to embark on such a risky adventure.

Although there have been rumors that the Islamic Republic might send its troops to Armenia to prevent Turkey and Azerbaijan from taking southern parts of the country, such an option does not seem very likely. Armenia is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization and is heavily dependent on Moscow. Russia’s peacekeeping forces have been stationed in Berg-Karbach since November 2020, and the last thing the Kremlin needs is another conflict in its zone of influence.

For Iran, however, the southern Armenian province of Syunik, which the Azerbaijanis call Zangezur, is a weak point. This strategically important region separates the main area of ​​Azerbaijan from its isolated exclave – the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Given that Baku and Yerevan have gradually started to normalize their relations, it is a matter of time before the two nations build a land corridor that will connect Baku not only to Nakhchivan but also to Turkey. The Nakhchivan Corridor would become part of a global trade route from China to Europe through the Caspian Sea, bypassing Iran. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic partially funded the construction of an international transportation corridor known as the North-South Project, which runs from Russia to Iran via Azerbaijan and connects to India by sea. A serious dispute with Baku would endanger the construction of the corridor.

Iran’s options are therefore rather limited. In theory, Tehran could take a risk and wage war against Azerbaijan, but in that case millions of Azerbaijanis living in Iran could support a guerrilla war against the Islamic Republic. Azerbaijan’s victory in the 44-day war against Armenia sparked growing national pride among Iranian Azerbaijanis, which means Tehran must think twice before opening a confrontation with its northern neighbor.

Indeed, there have been signs of de-escalation as the arrested Iranian truck drivers have now been released and the countries’ foreign ministers promised to resolve differences through dialogue.

One thing is certain. A possible war in the energy-rich Caucasus region would lead to even higher gas prices on the world market.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work mainly focuses on the foreign policy of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with a special focus on energy and “pipeline policy”.

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