“Karabakh belongs to the Republic of Azerbaijan and it is part of Islam”, “Karabakh belongs to the Republic of Azerbaijan and must be returned to it”; these are just some of the comments made by Iranian Shiite clerics last year who are close to government institutions in the Iranian political system. They expressed these views at the height of the Karabakh war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Such an approach was put forward by the Iranian Shiite clerics at the thick of the Karabakh war, when Iran’s national interests demanded Iran to either adhere to neutrality or help Armenia, as Armenia has never been a security threat to Iran and is at the center of strategic cooperation between Iran and Russia and is a market for the export of Iranian products and has facilitated Iran’s access to Europe.
The result of Iran’s verbal support for Baku in the Karabakh war and leaving Armenia alone has now had serious consequences for Iran’s geopolitics and national security. The forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan have taken control of part of the road that takes Iranian drivers to Armenia and receive money under the heading of “tolls from foreign travelers” between $ 100 and higher. In order to humiliate Iranian passengers and drivers, Azerbaijani forces also force them to get out of cars, take their passports and take photos of them.
Interestingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran supported the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war while it has a secular and anti-Islamist government led by “Ilham Aliyev” despite having a majority Shiite population and has deep ties with Erdogan-led Islamist conservative government of justice and development in Turkey. This shows that the general policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan is based on cultural commonalities and ethnicity, and the two countries, Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan, speak of the “Turkish world” and call for the unification of the Turks of the world, especially in Iran and the Caucasus and Central Asia. Despite the influence of Turkish nationalism and pan-Turkism on the policy-making and decisions of Ankara and Baku, Iranian government has placed the ideology of revolutionary Shiite Islamism central to its foreign policy and marginalized Iranian nationalism since the victory of the revolution in 1979. Ruling clerics who dominate Iranian politics believe that religious beliefs and traditions should be the basis of foreign policy, as seen in their quotes on the Karabakh issue. This approach has marginalized the role of the Iranian Foreign Ministry in policy-making and decision-making in the field of foreign policy.
Also, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s focus on the Middle East to form Shiite militias, which are forces parallel to the government and official armies of other countries, including Lebanon and Iraq, makes Iran neglect the Caucasus and reduce the influence of that country in this area. That is why Turkey, as the main player in the recent developments, has increased its influence in that region. Iran also cannot use its common cultural and linguistic capacities with Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan, because it focuses on Islamism. Central Asian countries often have secular governments and are reluctant to approach Iran as long as it seeks to export its revolutionary-Islamic model.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic’s opposition to Israel has brought Israel closer to Iran’s neighbors, including the Iraqi Kurdistan region and the Republic of Azerbaijan. If Iran is stationed in Syria on the borders of Israel and sends troops to it, Israel also tries to gain leverage by investing in Iran’s neighboring countries to gather information and provoke ethnic differences between Iranian ethnic groups (including Kurds and Azeris) and the central government in Tehran. There has been pressure on Iran. That is why Israel, along with Turkey, helped Baku in its war with Yerevan by providing drones and military weapons, while Iran pursued a passive policy and did not provide significant assistance to Armenia.
Iran should be aware that pan-Turkism and its manifestation in the current foreign policy of Baku and Ankara is a serious threat to Iran’s national interests and national security in the long run. “If we want to liberate Karabakh, we must liberate Tabriz,” said Abulfaz Elchibey, the former president of Azerbaijan. He spoke about the unification of Azerbaijan with the “Azeris of Iran”. Even now, Erdogan recites a poem about the Aras River, which is a threat to Iran’s borders. Political decision-makers in Iran should not forget that Baku and Ankara have never been and are not friends of Iran. The two countries are Iran’s rivals at best, and the pan-Turkic ideology they propagate could be a serious long-term threat to Iran’s national security, given Iran’s significant Azeri population. The chanting of pan-Turkic slogans in the football matches of the Tabriz Tractor Sazi Team in Iranian stadiums should be a warning to high-level Iranian policy-makers. A return to Iranian nationalism and attention to the national interest is necessary for policymaking in Iran to strengthen the convergence among the ethnic groups living in Iran and to prevent them from diverging and moving away from the center.
*Nozhan Etezadosaltaneh is an author and political analyst. He has written a book entitled, ‘Islamic Parties and the laicist perspective of Turkey,’ as well as several articles about the Middle East and Iran in Iranian newspapers, including Shargh, Etemaad, Roozegar, and Bahar. He is a Political Philosophy’s Graduated (PhD) in institute for Social and Cultural Studies Ministry of Science, Research & Technology of Iran.