One of the ways through which the enemies of Iran attempt to discredit its Islamic credentials is by “exposing” its relations with Armenia. The narrative goes as follows: if Iran is truly an Islamic state, why does it not provide all the required assistance to Azerbaijan to liberate occupied Karabakh from Armenian nationalists? Why does Iran have non-hostile relations with Armenia? On a superficial level, this primitive storyline “makes sense” since about 20% of Iran’s population are ethnic Azeris and they have always played a key role in the development of the Iranian State. The ethnic Azeri leadership of Iran includes leaders like Shah Ismail Khatai, Shahid Mustafa Chamran, Rahim Safavi and the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Azeris are probably the best accommodated and the most integrated ethnic minority in today’s Islamic Iran. Therefore, it is natural to question Iran’s relations with Armenia.
In order to understand the parameters of Iran-Armenia relations, the policies of the ruling regime in Azerbaijan toward Islamic Iran must be briefly examined. Ever since 1992, when Abulfaz Elchibey became the President of Azerbaijan, the attitude of Azerbaijan’s government toward Islamic Iran has been hostile and irrational. The officials in Baku have been consistently formulating policies on how to fragment Iran, or as they called it, “unify Azerbaijan” by annexing Tabriz. While a great deal of exertion and attention was focused on these “policy formulations,” an effective resistance plan to liberate the occupied region of Karabakh from Armenian nationalists failed to develop.
Instead of attempting to secure as much support as possible from neighboring countries, the regime in Baku was constantly working to undermine relations between Moscow and Tehran. After Elchibey cleared the path for his boss, the KGB General Geidar Aliyev, to usurp power in Azerbaijan, the policy toward Iran while remaining unchanged, became slightly more refined. Unlike Elchibey, Aliyev did not openly proclaim that Azerbaijan should break up Iran. Instead he let the “independent” media publicize myths about Iranian participation in the occupation of Karabakh. Aliyev also signed several strategic economic, political and military deals with the US and Israel in order to preserve his clan in power. In addition to this, up until 2003, Pan-Turkism that openly called for partition of Iran was made a quasi-official state ideology. In order to divert people’s bitterness over the loss of Karabakh toward something “great” but ultimately, unrealistic.
It seems Iran lost patience in cooperating with the regime in Baku, after Tehran sent its own troops into the Fizuli region of Azerbaijan on September 2, 1992. In so doing, Iran organized a safety corridor for Azeris escaping the massacres of Armenian nationalists and later assisted in the arrival of 1,300 volunteers from Afghanistan to fight for Azerbaijan. The lack of reciprocity on behalf of Baku to Iran’s friendly gestures forced Tehran to slightly readjust its approach toward the conflict in Karabakh.
Tehran began exerting pressure on the Azeri regime by developing economic ties with Armenia. It appears that Iran assumed its non-hostile relations with Armenia would make the people in Azerbaijan hold Aliyev’s regime accountable for deteriorating ties with Tehran which could have been of great assistance in liberating Karabakh. However, Iran miscalculated the effect this approach would have on the regime in Baku. By the time Karabakh was surrendered to Armenia, the regime in Baku completely cut out Azeri people from the decision-making process in the country’s affairs. Therefore, Iran’s calculated leverage against Aliyev’s regime — public opinion — was no longer relevant or available.
From 1995 onward the Islamic government of Iran avoided alteration of the status quo in the South Caucasus because it had to face challenges of greater strategic importance. However, the process of Islamic revival in Azerbaijan over the past five years is forcing Iran to pay greater attention to its neighbors in the north. In 2009, Tehran canceled visa requirements for Azeri citizens traveling to Iran. Also, the fact that the US offered to train the terrorist group of Abdul-Malik Rigi in Kyrgyzstan shows that Iran can no longer afford to ignore the region of the former Soviet Union.
It is clear that due to the great challenge Islamic Iran represents to US hegemony, Tehran is forced to avoid steps that could be used against it by a powerful bloc of states; therefore, Iran exercises great caution. This discretion, seen in Iran’s policy formulation, is dictated by the Islamic principle which prioritizes the survival and defense of the Islamic government above all other Islamic precepts. However, too much caution has also created setbacks for Iran in the region.
Currently Iran is breaking the US-imposed isolation by building a sophisticated network of commercial, social, and political ties with as many states as possible worldwide. Iran’s only condition for the establishment of commercial, social and political ties with other countries is that they accept the Islamic system of governance in Iran and not threaten Islamic Iran’s interests. These include respect for its territorial sovereignty and integrity and no obstacles in Iran’s non-aggressive promotion of Islam as a solution to the global economic, social and political injustices that plague the world today. This is a formula upon which Islamic Iran constructs its relations with Armenia and other states. If the Aliyev regime was to consider the security dilemmas which it imposes on Islamic Iran by being a strategic ally of the US and Israel in the region, Iran would have built close ties with Azerbaijan long ago. Taking into consideration the historic and cultural ties with Iran as well as adherence of most Azeris to the Shi‘i school of jurisprudence, Iran is a natural strategic partner for Azerbaijan. However, since the Aliyev regime prefers the comfort of power and wealth over state interests, Iran’s policies towards Azerbaijan are severely constrained.
There are no legitimate reasons why Iran should not have ties with Armenia. Such ties are economically driven and do not represent a threat to Azerbaijani statehood. Regardless of the level of trade between Iran and Armenia, it would be unwise to assume that once the current shaky ceasefire in Karabakh collapses, Iran would actively side with Armenia. This would create tensions within Iran and damage Iran’s Islamic credibility that took three painful decades to build. Iran would never side with Armenia at a strategic level because it would undermine its soft-power appeal, which is its main asset in building relations with other Muslim societies and countries.
However, at some point Iran will have to make some crucial strategic choices once the current regime in Baku collapses and/or the war reignites in Karabakh again. In order to make the right choices, Islamic Iran would need to possess a much stronger and much more active socio-political platform within Azerbaijan and Armenia. How Iran will accomplish this is yet to be seen.