Growing Azerbaijan-Iran Tension in the Caucasus

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After the Second Karabakh War, a new status quo was formed in the Caucasus and the occupation in Karabakh, which was the biggest obstacle for establishing regional peace, came to an end. Consequently, the “Six Cooperation Platform” proposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, which envisages all regional states to act together, has demonstrated the sincerity of Ankara and Baku at the point of establishing regional stability. It has been observed that the Yerevan administration also responded to the positive messages, from the aforementioned capitals, in the same way. This has increased the expectations that normalization processes can be experienced on the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Armenia line. However, despite the inclusive aspect of the “Six Cooperation Platform”, which aims to prioritize the welfare of the peoples of the region and is expected to bring transportation and energy projects on the agenda, Iran’s attitude towards regional developments has led to a new instability and political tension in the Caucasus.

Tehran, stating that it perceives the “Three Brothers-2021 Exercise” organized by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan Special Forces, between 12-20 September 2021, as an action against itself, has developed an aggressive approach towards Baku. In this context, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Erdebil Representative, Sayyid Hasan Amili, made a statement, “Don’t play with the lion’s tail”, referring to Azerbaijan,[1] and, after the aforementioned statement, it was announced that Iran will carry out an military exercise called “Khyber Conquerors” on the Azerbaijani border.[2]

Although Tehran took this action with the claim to show that it is uncomfortable with the Three Brothers-2021 Exercise, it is obvious that the aforementioned exercise did not contain any message towards Iran. Therefore, Tehran’s approach to the issue is extremely far from rationality. For this reason, it can be stated that the main thing that Iran is uncomfortable with is the “Middle Line” in parallel with the changes in the Caspian geopolitics and the status quo formed in the region after the Second Karabakh War. In this sense, it is seen that the Tehran administration is not satisfied with the increasing influence of Ankara and Baku in the region and the positive-constructive role played by Islamabad here.

It should not be ignored that Iran’s decision to exercise is made at a time when the normalization messages on the Ankara-Yerevan line come to the fore. In this sense, Iran is in favor of Armenia’s maintaining its dependence on Tehran and Moscow, which is an effective escape route to eliminate the sanctions imposed on itself. Therefore, Iran finds the Yerevan administration’s efforts, to be involved in regional cooperation processes, contrary to its national interests.

Moreover, Iran’s decision to exercise is made after the “Customs Crisis” that is experienced on the Baku-Tehran line. As it is known, despite the warnings from Baku, Iranian trucks that “what it carries is unknown” continued to make illegal shipments to Khankendi over the Lachin Corridor, and finally, Ambassador of Iran to Azerbaijan, Seyid Abbas Mousavi was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. Thus, the Baku administration gave a note to Iran.[3] Making a statement on the subject, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said:[4]

“It is not the first time that Iranian trucks have gone to the Karabakh region illegally. We were expressing our displeasure to the Iranian side through various channels. But this process continued. After the war is over, the Lachin corridor is now under our control… Now, when we go to a foreign country, do we pay customs duty? We do. If they also use Azerbaijan’s lands, they should pay duty too.”

The issue of Iran’s non-payment of customs duty is not only about the illegal transit of the trucks to Khankendi. There are two other dimensions of the issue. The first is the possibility that Iran, dissatisfied with the new status quo in the region, will encourage Armenia and provoke normalization attempts with “what it’s inside is unclear” trucks at the point of actions that will cause regional instability. Secondly, the most critical point of the experienced process is that the Tehran administration does not want an alternative route to Iran regarding opening transportation and energy corridors. In other words, the main purpose of Tehran’s actions is to prevent the implementation of the Zangezur Corridor. As a matter of fact, Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Forces Commander General Kyumers Haydari’s statement that can be summarized as, “We will not allow our northwest borders to change.”[5], altough this statement contains the goal of Tehran, demonstrating Baku as an aggressor, these words showed that the main reason for Iran’s actions was the obstruction of the Zangezur Corridor.

Moreover, during these actions, Tehran revealed that Shia Islam, on which it bases its own identity, is just an instrumentalized rhetoric in foreign policy. Because the hints of war directed from Tehran to Azerbaijan, whose population is mostly Shiite, has revealed that both sectarian solidarity and Islamic brotherhood remain in the discourse. In fact, journalist Hossein Dalirian, who is known for his closeness to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), even went to the extremes by recommending to the Tehran administration that target 1000 critical points of Azerbaijan with 1000 missiles.[6] In this environment, Iran’s accusation of Azerbaijan, collaborating with Zionism,[7] is a concrete reflection of the discourse-action mismatch in Iranian foreign policy.

As can be seen, Iran finds the development of Caucasus-centered cooperation processes contrary to its interests and is uncomfortable with the increasing influence of Turkey and Azerbaijan in the region. For this reason, in the current conjuncture where normalization processes that can be experienced on the Ankara-Baku-Yerevan line are discussed, it has adopted an aggressive attitude towards Azerbaijan. It can be argued that Tehran is trying to limit Yerevan too, through the aforementioned strategy. This whole picture requires the following question to be asked: Doesn’t Iran, which asks for help from its neighbors and calls for regional cooperation whenever it gets stuck in order to eliminate the pressure of the USA and its allies, admit its insincerity by being cool towards the “Six Cooperation Platform”, from which it is not excluded, and the search for regional normalization?

[1] “Kafkaslar’da İran Gerilimi”, Yeni Şafak,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[2] “İran, Azerbaycan Sınırında Askeri Tatbikat Gerçekleştirecek”, TRT Haber,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[3] “Azerbaycan Tırlar Nedeniyle İran’a Nota Verdi”, TRT Haber,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[4] “Azerbaycan Cumhurbaşkanı Aliyev 2. Karabağ Savaş’nın 1. Yılında AA’ya Konuştu”, Anadolu Ajansı,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[5] “General Haydari: Sınırlarımızın Tehdit Edilmesine İzin Vermeyeceğiz”, Irna Türkçe,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[6] @HosseinDalirian, “این فقط یک فرض است! فرض کنید شعله‌ی جنگ روشن شود و با آذربایجان درگیر شویم؛ جمهوری اسلامی در یک روز میتواند با 1000موشک بالستیک، 1000نقطه کلیدی را با دقت چند متر هدف قرار دهد و این یعنی جنگ یک روزه تمام! اصلا 9نوبت به بقیه ادوات هم نمیرسد خیلی به هارت و پورت‌ها توجه نکنید، همین”, Twittter,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

[7] “Iran Holds Military Drill Near Azerbaijan Border due to ‘Zionist Presence’ There”, Times of Israel,, (Date of Accession: 01.10.2021).

Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN, 2014 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2017 yılında Giresun Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu ‘’Uluslararası Güç İlişkileri Bağlamında İkinci Dünya Savaşı Sonrası Hegemonik Mücadelelerin İncelenmesi’’ başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora derecesini ise 2021 yılında Trakya Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı‘nda hazırladığı “İmparatorluk Düşüncesinin İran Dış Politikasına Yansımaları ve Milliyetçilik” başlıklı teziyle alan Başaran’ın başlıca çalışma alanları Uluslararası ilişkiler kuramları, Amerikan dış politikası, İran araştırmaları ve Afganistan çalışmalarıdır. Başaran iyi derecede İngilizce ve temel düzeyde Farsça bilmektedir.