Analytical Brief n. 4, December 2020

War between Armenia and Azerbaijan that erupted on September 27, 2020, caused a great deal of alarm among Iranian politicians and foreign policy experts. The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR or Artsakh) is located in close proximity to the Iranian border and the armed conflict there could imperil the security of the Iranian border provinces. At the same time, there is a growing fear in Iran that the destabilization of the situation in the conflict zone will prompt the Azerbaijan leadership to decide on a military presence of foreign forces, namely Turkey and Israel, on its soil. Hundreds of military advisers from Turkey have already joined the Azerbaijani armed forces. Even more dangerous for Tehran will be the arrival of Israeli military advisers and creation of Israeli military bases in Transcaucasia.

Iran and Armenia

Relations between Iran and Armenia can be can be defined as strategic partnership. Certain factors affected the development of close collaboration between the two countries. These factors are: Armenian relative geographical isolation and its proximity to Iran, Armenian dependence on energy imports influential Armenian diaspora in Iran. In the early 1990s, Iranian diplomacy played a significant role in stopping the Karabakh armed conflict and in lifting the Armenia economic blockade. On May 7, 1992, leaders of Iran, Azerbaijan Armenia signed a cease-fire agreement. Iranian leadership sought to use the Karabakh conflict to strengthen its role in the international arena and establish itself as an important regional player.

Since then Iran and Armenia have developed important economic ties. At the end of 2008, Iran started to supply supply Armenia with natural gas via the Tabriz-Meghri-Kajaran-Ararat gas pipeline. Its capacity is around to 2.6 billion cubic meters per year. Armenia pays for gas by supplying electricity to Iran. The total cost of the project is $250 million. Two modern highways linking Iran and Armenia were built. On the top, two countries agreed to build a railway. The railway project bill is $1.8 billion, out of which $1.4 billion will be covered by Iran, and the rest – by the Russian state operator Russian Railways (РЖД).

Iran and Azerbaijan

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are of more complex nature, punctuated with mistrust and suspicion. Positive factors that affect Iranian-Azerbaijani relations include common historical memory (the Northern Azerbaijan incorporation into the Safavid and Qajar states), the presence of 20 million Azerbaijanis in Iran, common religion (Shiite Islam). Negative factors include Azeri fears of Islamic expansion supported by Tehran, and Baku's ties to the United States and Israel.

During the 1990s-2000s bilateral relations between Iran and Azerbaijan were somewhat tense. Serious discontent among the Iranian political leadership was caused by Baku's decision, in 1994, to change the route of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Initially, it was planned to along the Iranian, not Georgian territory (this route is economically more profitable). The change of plan was a result of US pressure on Azerbaijan. Similarly, in November 1994 Azerbaijan agreed to sell a 25% stake in the Azerbaijan International Operating Company to the National Iranian Oil Company, but a few months later, under US pressure, the Iranian company was excluded from the deal.

Despite the political friction between Tehran and Baku, Iran has always sought to maximize trade and economic relations between the two countries. To date, the total trade turnover between Iran and Azerbaijan amounts to 550 million dollars, which is significantly higher than the trade turnover between Iran and Armenia (300 million dollars). Iranian-Azerbaijani relations had a positive turn in March 2018 when Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani visited Baku.

Iran and Turkey

Iranian leadership seeks to develop relations with Turkey, considering it as a situational ally in bypassing the economic blockade of Iran. Two countries engage in active trade and economic relations. They also cooperated in Syria during the Astana Peacekeeping Process. Iran and Turkey have common enemies: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At the same time, Iran's capabilities to curb Turkish influence in the region, in particular, in Azerbaijan are limited. The region of paramount importance for Iran is not the Transcaucasia, but the Middle East; all resources have been channeled there over the past ten years. At the same time, Azeri principal ally in the region is Turkey and not Iran.

Iranian experts on the Karabakh conflict

Many Iranian experts commenting on the Karabakh conflict do not hide their distrust and even hostility towards Azerbaijan. Mohammad Hussein Namdar, professor at Tabatabai University, and expert in international relations, writing on the Iranian Diplomacy website (Diplomacy Irani). notes that there is constant anti-Iranian propaganda in the Azeri media. Baku accuses Iran of defending Armenian interests to the detriment of Azerbaijani and recalls that Iran provided support to the young Azeri state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The expert accuses Azerbaijan of establishing a strategic partnership with Iran's adversaries – the United States and Israel.

Wali Kuzegar Kaleji, an expert at the Institute for Strategic Policy Studies of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the CIS and the South Caucasus (the institute operates under the patronage of the Iranian Foreign Ministry and largely reflects the official point of view), in his analysis of the new Karabakh war, points that the war directly affect Iran’s security. The new conflict demonstrates the use of highly sophisticated weapons systems, like combat drones, missiles, combat jets. Several missiles and downed drones fell on Iranian territory, in the provinces of Ardabil and East Azerbaijan, clearly posing a direct threat to Iran.

Another issue causing serious concern in Iran is information about the transfer by Turkey of Syrian Free Army combatants, in particular the Sultan Murad Brigade, to Nagorno-Karabakh. All of them, according to the author, are implicated in terrorist activities and war crimes. If they gain a foothold in the territory of Azerbaijan, their may get involved in anti-Iranian provocations or attempts to spread Salafism in the region.

Wali Kuzagar Kaleji briefly recalls the history of attempts by Iran to reconcile the warring parties in Karabakh. According to Kaleji, Iran had always advocated a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iranian diplomacy got actively engaged in finding a solution to the conflict. On May 7 1992, with the mediation of the Islamic Republic of Iran Azerbaijan and Armenia signed ceasefire agreement. Unfortunately, Iran was then excluded from diplomatic negotiations on the settlement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994 Iran was deliberately not invited to the OSCE Minsk Group for the settlement of the Karabakh crisis (the three main participants in the Minsk Group are Russia, the United States and France). The Iranian expert wonders why the IRI, whose security directly depends on the events in Karabakh, was not invited to the group, but representatives of distant Finland and Italy were brought in. In this regard, Kaleji proposes to change the format of peacekeeping activities in Karabakh by creating a 3 + 2 mechanism (Armenia and Azerbaijan + Russia, Iran and Turkey). The author points that cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey has yielded good results in Syria, where the parties managed to end the civil war. The author also suggests that Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, should engage in direct talks with Yerevan, Baku, Moscow and Ankara to resolve the Karabakh problem. It worth noting that on November 1-3, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi visited Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia during a blitz tour. During the talks A. Aragchi announced the Iranian peace initiative to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated that Iran is calling for a long-term and lasting solution. He suggested that the Minsk Group approach should be abandoned and the new 3 + 2 framework (Turkey, Iran and Russia plus Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the possible involvement of Georgia) should be created. Zarif also called for "the liberation of all occupied territories", that is, the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan on the basis of broad autonomy. ​


The war in Nagorno-Karabakh has caused serious concern among the Iranian political elite. Iranian leadership fears three challenges:

  1. the growing influence of Turkey and Israel in Azerbaijan as its political allies and main weapons suppliers;
  2. the presence of the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, which Iran had previously fought against in Syria;
  3. the possible instability in Iranian Azerbaijan, where part of the population may sympathize with Baku. Although today Azerbaijan does not have any tools to influence the situation in Iranian Azerbaijan, the prolonged continuation of the Karabakh conflict, combined with an unfavorable economic conditions, could provoke a surge in nationalist sentiments.

Following the Moscow-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran had no options but to take a position of an uneasy observer, watching the growing influence of Turkey in the region. However, the Karabakh conflict is far from over and Iran may still be able to advance its agenda and demonstrate its indispensability and leadership in the region.