By Luke Coffey*
During a parade in Baku in December 2020 marking Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited an Azerbaijani poem that caught Iran’s attention.
The poem, titled “Gulustan”, speaks of the sadness resulting from the fact that the Aras River separates the ethnically Azerbaijani people of the Republic of Azerbaijan from those of Iran.
The line of the poem that particularly angered Tehran was: “They parted the Aras River and filled it with stones and rods. I will not be separated from you. They separated us by force.
This line suggests to some that all ethnic Azerbaijanis will be reunited one day.
Although the poem was written in 1959, it deals with an issue dating back to 1828. At that time, the Treaty of Turkmenchay between Imperial Russia and Persia, which ended the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828) , created a border between the powers along the Aras River. Today, Azerbaijanis are considered the second largest ethnic group in Iran.
In recent years, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have remained cordial on the surface but strained behind the scenes. They had maritime boundary disputes in the Caspian Sea. Iran’s intimate relationship with Azerbaijan’s longtime adversary Armenia has always concerned Baku. Meanwhile, Iran is wary of close bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.
However, two recent issues have further complicated Azerbaijani and Iranian relations.
Last week, Iran conducted an unprecedented military exercise along its northern border with Azerbaijan. These military maneuvers were different from previous exercises for several reasons.
First, they were accompanied by a shrewd courier operation from Tehran. For example, Iranian state television aired a music video, apparently produced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which included footage of the military exercise. The lyrics of the song that was used warned Israel not to “stray too far from your path, don’t dig your own grave with your own hands”, while warning Azerbaijan that “whoever looks at Iran in the bad sense must be destroyed. ”
Second, and perhaps more consequential, much of the training exercise included the rehearsal of a military assault on the Aras River. For civilians, crossing a river is a simple matter of walking or driving over a bridge. But as Russia showed in Ukraine, building a temporary bridge under fire to support a military operation is no easy task. In fact, in the case of Russia’s attempts in Ukraine, it has often proven deadly.
Although most of the Aras River serves as the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, some small sections of the river lie entirely inside Iran. It was at one such location that the IRGC was filmed building a temporary pontoon bridge and rehearsing a military river crossing. It was clear to anyone watching the exercise that it was sending a message to Azerbaijan.
Another point of contention between Azerbaijan and Iran concerns the creation of the so-called Zangezur corridor. As part of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War, Armenia pledged to “guarantee the security of transport links” between Azerbaijan proper and its autonomous region of Nakhichevan, an enclave nestled between Iran, Armenia and Turkey.
Almost two years later, a transport corridor linking these two parts of Azerbaijan, via the Armenian province of Syunik, is no closer to reality.
Tehran doesn’t like the idea of the Zangezur Corridor for two reasons. First, the effect of such a transport link would be felt beyond the region in a way that is not in Iran’s interest. It would ultimately connect Turkey to the heart of the Eurasian landmass in Central Asia. Tehran is very aware that this transport route would be another with which Iran would be in competition.
Second, connecting Azerbaijan proper to its enclave of Nakhichevan through the Zangezur Corridor would reduce Iran’s influence in the region. Currently, Azerbaijan depends on access to Iranian airspace and territory to supply Nakhchivan. In addition to these transit rights, Azerbaijan also relies on Iran to supply natural gas to Nakhchivan. If Iran were no longer needed for these purposes, Azerbaijan would be in a better position to challenge it in the region. Tehran does not like this. Over the summer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted his concern over the creation of the Zangezur Corridor.
In response, Iran has become more involved on the ground in the region. For example, Tehran announced last week that it was opening a consulate in Kapan, a small town in Armenia close to where the Zangezur corridor would be. Visits by high-level government delegations between Armenia and Iran are commonplace.
The heightened tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran come at an interesting time in regional geopolitics. Civil unrest has rocked the latter for more than 40 days during sustained protests against the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini.
Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan are likely closer to a lasting peace agreement than they have been in recent memory. This could lead to the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey and provide a much-needed boost to the region’s economy.
It’s understandable that global policymakers are watching developments in Ukraine closely and keeping tabs on China and Taiwan – but they shouldn’t ignore what’s happening in the South Caucasus. The international community should put pressure on Iran not to become a disturber of peace in the region.
• Luke Coffey is a Principal Investigator at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey