Why is Baku waging a “war of words” against Tehran?
BY Yeghia Tashjian
During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on July 19, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned against blocking the Armenian-Iranian border, stating, “If there is an effort to block the border between Iran and Armenia, the Islamic Republic will oppose it because this border has been a communication route for thousands of years.” After this warning, Turkish and Azerbaijani media started paying more attention to Iranian officials and launched a “war of words.”
In response to media provocations and threats toward Armenia launched by Azerbaijan, Iran facilitated the appointment of a Consulate General in Syunik to redraw its “red lines” in the South Caucasus. The following analysis will highlight the background of the recent tension between Baku and Tehran and analyze the advantages of opening a Consulate General in Syunik for both Armenia and Iran.
On August 26, 2022, Azerbaijan’s Caliber.az published an article titled, “The time has come: South Azerbaijan must secede from Iran: An appeal to brothers,” warning Iran not “to play with fire” and calling for Iranian Azeris to demand independence. The next day Haqqin.az, a website connected to Azerbaijan’s security services, published an article with the headline, “Southern Azerbaijan is striving for independence!” The anonymous author mentions that the Azerbaijani government “has enough mobilizing force to defend the rights of its compatriots” (in Southern Azerbaijan) and “enough resources to support a new wave of the national-liberation movement.” It is not surprising that Baku is venturing closer to openly promoting secessionist and pan-Turkic tendencies for Iran’s large ethnic Azeri minority, often with the backing of foreign actors.
Also unsurprisingly, whenever tension between Tehran and Baku rises, Israel takes advantage of the opportunity to fan the flames. On July 20, Israel’s ambassador to Baku George Deek tweeted a photo of himself reading the book “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz,” referring to the major city of northern Iran as an “ancient Azerbaijani city.” The tweet caused a massive social media reaction, where several Azerbaijanis and like-minded “Western experts” tweeted similar images, eliciting a harsh reaction from Iran’s ambassador to Baku, Abbas Mousavi. In response, several Azerbaijani media outlets republished an article posted in “Breaking Defense” that stated that Azerbaijan could offer up its airspace for Israeli jets to enter Iranian territory or send Israeli special units to Iran.
Such threats from the Azerbaijani side caused some Iranian officials and experts to raise questions about the future of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. Yeni Safak, a Turkish pro-government mouthpiece, published an article arguing that Iran has been “annoyed by the Zangezur Corridor.” The article quoted Abolfazl Zohravand, an Iranian official participating in the nuclear deal talks, stating that the corridor possesses a threat to Iran since it aims to cut off Iran from the Caucasus region. Zohravand added, “The Turks want to control the Zangezur, too…We cannot think of a strategic alliance or even a strategic partnership with Turkey.”
This was the first time a senior Iranian official publicly called Azerbaijan’s legitimacy into question, as Zohravand argued that the existence of Azerbaijan “is a terrible phenomenon and a potential threat to Iran.” He said that “not only Nakhichevan but whole Azerbaijan must be annexed to Iran since it had been part of Persia, otherwise it will be a cancerous cell in Iran’s head.” He also considered Yerevan as Tehran’s natural and historic ally in the region.
But why has Baku brought back the “Zangezur corridor” issue after signing a deal with Iran in March 2022 on constructing a transport route to Nakhichevan via Iran bypassing Armenia? In an interview with the Weekly, Dr. Ehsan Movahedian, professor of international relations at the ATU University in Tehran, said that the construction of the “Zangezur corridor” will create geopolitical and geo-economic challenges for Iran. Dr. Movahedian argues that “NATO’s Turanic corridor” aims to contain the rise of Russia, China and Iran in Eurasia. Economically, the route is also a direct threat to the North-South corridor and will replace the gas pipelines that Iran supplies to Nakhichevan with gas pipelines coming from Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Hence, Iran will lose its trade and energy transit role in the region. Dr. Movahedian also expressed concerns that the creation of this corridor will mobilize pan-Turkic aspirations not just in Northern Iran, but also will increase Turkey’s support and NATO’s penetration to the Northern Caucasus, Central Asia and even as far as the Xinjiang province of China. Hence, with this aim, NATO will clearly encircle the region, and with the help of Turkish and even Israeli operatives, will create ethnic and sectarian tensions
Another Iranian political expert, Mehfam Suleimanbeigi, mentions that Baku is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to announce its intentions to create a corridor in Syunik that would cut the Armenian-Iranian border. According to the Iranian expert, this “corridor” is dangerous for Iran as it will stand in the way of the strategic International North-South Transport corridor and will prevent Iran’s access to the Eurasian and European markets. It is worth mentioning that Armenia is the only Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member state that borders Iran. Thus, the Meghri Free Economic Zone can serve as an import-export hub for EAEU countries and Iran. It is within this context that we should analyze Iran’s recent step in appointing Abedin Varamin as Consul General in Syunik’s town of Kapan, which has antagonized Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities.
The Advantages of Opening a Consulate in Syunik for Iran
According to Iranian political analyst Mohsen Pakaein, by opening a Consulate General in Kapan, Iran sent the following messages to the region:
- For Iran, the post-war status in the South Caucasus “created good opportunities for economic cooperation, and Iran’s strong presence in the region can strengthen Iran’s trade with the Eurasian Economic Union.” Since Iran entered a preferential trade agreement with the EAEU in 2018, its trade with these countries is “expected to experience significant growth in the future.” Moreover, Armenia-Iran trade relations share around 15-percent of total trade between the EAEU and Iran. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), quoting the Rhythm Eurasia newspaper, reported that EAEU “can turn into a reliable trade partner of Iran, and that Moscow can provide Tehran with the opportunity to export its industrial products.” The Rhythm Eurasia also wrote that Yerevan played a crucial role when it came to lobbying in favor of Iranian ties with the EAEU. The two countries’ trade volume increased 25.2 percent in 2021, and both are aiming to reach their trade turnover of one billion USD. The analyst also mentioned that “Iran can play a special role in the development of Armenia and bolster its geopolitical stability.”
- Tehran is publicly arguing that the opening of the Consulate General in Kapan is not directed against a third country (Azerbaijan). Iran also had a Consulate General in Nakhichevan, where the main objective is to “pursue efforts to strengthen regional security and develop economic and cultural cooperation.” Hence, the aim is to promote regional peace and stability. According to Pakaein, “the symbolic message of the establishment of this Consulate general is that there is no longer going to be a war in the region or a country to be occupied.”
- As I have previously argued, Iran’s engagement with the South Caucasus is part of Tehran’s new government’s proactive foreign policy. This agenda aims to expand interactions, especially in economic fields, with neighboring countries. Therefore, strengthening relations with Armenia through the establishment of a Consulate General in Syunik can be defined in the framework of Iran’s neighborhood policy. Pakaein states that “economic interactions are the prelude to creating peace and security in different regions, and increase the level of economic interactions between neighbors, and prove the regional stability, security and peace.”
- Moreover, “due to the increasing importance of transit in regional and international relations,” this step can “strengthen the transit capacities of Tehran and Yerevan while reducing the problems of truck drivers.” Considering the near completion of the construction of the new Goris-Kapan road; Russian, Georgian and Indian cooperation to facilitate the International North-South Transit Corridor connecting the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea and Europe; and the activation of the Meghri Free Zone as a transit route between Iran and Armenia, Iran is aiming to expand its regional transit routes. Iran’s maritime routes in the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, the Indian Sea and the Caspian Sea can play a key role in the transit of goods from and to the landlocked countries of the region, such as Armenia.
- Pakaein does not mention the political background of Iran’s motive in Syunik. Tehran proposed this idea after the Azerbaijani side increased its aggressive rhetoric toward Syunik, while it continues to push for the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor” with the backing of Ankara. During the Tehran summit, Khamenei sent a clear warning to Turkey and Russia. Hence, Iran’s recent diplomatic step should also be viewed from this geopolitical angle, as Iran will try to contain Turkish expansion in the region by backing Armenia and preventing the establishment of any “corridor” that would block Iran’s border with Armenia.
Many statements by Iranian officials reveal this political motive. Ali Hosseini, head of the Transport Commission of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that Iran must maintain a balanced policy between Armenia and Azerbaijan by engaging in economic activities with both countries. He also stressed that Iran must enter into greater cooperation with the Republic of Azerbaijan, because most of Azerbaijan’s transit is through Iranian soil, and Iran’s Astara area bordering Azerbaijan is strategic to Russia. He also highlighted that the INSTC should be connected to the Rasht railway through the Astara border. The expert raised concern that the “Zangezur corridor” would undermine Iran’s strategic leverage over Nakhichevan, since Iran serves as a transit hub that connects Azerbaijan proper to Nakhichevan. Many Iranians also accuse Israel of backing Baku and Ankara in isolating Iran from the region. Dr. Movahedian argues that “if Israel seeks to use the territory of neighboring countries to harm Iran, the Islamic Republic will definitely show a reciprocal and proportional reaction. Because it has enough experience and power for this task and has already proved its seriousness by attacking the American military base in (Northern) Iraq and shooting down the American drone in the Persian Gulf.” Finally, Ali Ziyai, the director of the Iran Transportation Think Tank, said that the future will not forgive Iran if the “Zangezur corridor” is established.
With the construction of the “Zangezur corridor,” Iran will be deprived of the transit income of Turkey’s export goods to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and it will also lose the transit of Azerbaijan. Iran is concerned that in the future Turkey may see this as an opportunity to create some obstacles to the export of Iranian goods via Turkey, and with the loss of its border with Armenia, Iran’s trading routes with Europe and Eurasia will be at the mercy of Turkish and Azerbaijani trade routes. Hence, Ankara’s and Baku’s economic and political leverage over Tehran would increase, paving the way for pan-Turkic secessionist movements in northern Iran.
Despite the fact that the ninth clause of the November 9, 2020, trilateral statement mentions that Armenia will provide a route to connect Nakhichevan to the Republic of Azerbaijan for commercial reasons it doesn’t mention the word “corridor,” despite Baku’s claims that this clause justifies the “Zangezur Corridor.” Nowhere in this statement is there any mention of creating a corridor along the border of Armenia with Iran. By pushing the narrative of a “corridor,” Baku not only violates the trilateral statement, but clearly violates the territorial integrity of Armenia, threatening the territorial geography of the Armenian-Iranian border and paving the way for pan-Turkic aspirations in northern Iran.