Aftermath of recent shelling during a military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert October 7, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

October 07, 2020

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict challenges Iran

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh challenges the Iranian regime because of the sensitive role played by Iran’s Azeri community. Iranian Azeris have taken to the streets to *protest Iran’s tacit support for Armenia over the years and to call for Iran to support Azerbaijan in its effort to regain control of the disputed territory. Supreme Leader representatives in regions along the northwestern border voiced support for Azerbaijan soon after the protest. Iran’s government spokesman has also *called for Armenia to cede Nagorno-Karabakh.

The regime is unlikely to align with Azerbaijan in this conflict, however, because of important policy tensions between Tehran and Baku. Therefore, if the conflict continues at a high level, agitation in the Azeri population, even at the highest echelons of the regime, may rise and protests by ethnic Azeris may resume and expand.

Realpolitik drives the Iranian regime toward Armenia and Russia in this conflict. Regime hardliners *see Azerbaijan as an *Israeli partner, and Azerbaijan has openly acknowledged Israel’s material support for its military in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Russia *supports Armenia and maintains permanent military bases there. Russia finished large-scale annual military exercises in Armenia two days before Azerbaijani forces attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, in fact. Russian media has helped fuel anti-Azerbaijani sentiment in Tehran: A Russian media outlet speculated that Israel had launched a drone from Azerbaijani airspace to attack an Iranian nuclear site in July. The Iranian and Russian foreign ministers *spoke on the phone *twice in recent days. Iranian leaders need continued Russian participation in the sensitive alliance in Syria and Russia’s support in the UN, even after the US tried and failed to trigger snapback sanctions on Iran.

Turkish-supported foreign fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could pose a cross-border terror threat to Iran. Turkey reportedly has sent Syrian mercenaries to the front lines in the Caucasus—likely some of the mercenaries who had been fighting against Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Turkey has been repeatedly accused of employing extremist Salafi-jihadi fighters in Syria and Libya. This move by Ankara could look to Tehran like an effort to open another front of the Syria conflict on Iran’s frontiers, making a rapprochement with Turkey’s ally in Baku distasteful.

Azeri nationalism in Iran poses a unique challenge as the regime faces a persisting threat of anti-regime protests. Azeris are not a marginalized community in Iran like Iranian Arabs, Baluchis, or Baha’i. Azeris make up a quarter of the population and are deeply assimilated into the regime, including the clerical establishment. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself of Azeri descent. Azeri nationalism has not generally driven protests in Iran. The sparse pro-Azeri protest chants that occurred in Azeri-majority areas during the 2017–18 Dey protests were noteworthy because they happened at all. Azeri nationalism has not been a significant challenge to the regime.

Growing Azeri nationalism could pose a significant and unexpected challenge to the regime as its security forces brace for nationwide unrest. But the regime is unlikely to reorient geopolitically to satisfy its ethnic Azeris. A protracted crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh may therefore pose yet another challenge to continued stability of the Islamic Republic.