When Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war last fall, something unusual happened. It is coming to light only now.
Namely, on October 17, 2020 Azerbaijani armed forces liberated the town of Khudafarin on the Azerbaijan-Iran border from Armenian occupation and advanced along the Araz River towards the Khudafarin Dam, in order to reach the Armenian-occupied district of Zangilan via the shortest and safest route. They were expecting to see more Armenian troops on their way. What surprised them the most was seeing Iranian troops instead. Apparently, once the Armenia-Azerbaijan war started, Iran sent some detachments of its army across the Araz river into the sovereign and internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. In fact, it was an invasion of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory by Iran. Their job was to help Armenian troops and hamper the efforts of the Azerbaijani army. The Iranian troops installed concrete barricades on this critical road, claiming to protect the water dam on the river. Negotiations between Azerbaijani and Iranian commanders did not yield any results and therefore the Azerbaijani army, wasting several critical days, used an alternative, but difficult to pass road to reach the occupied Zangilan district, which allowed the Armenian troops to regroup and strengthen their defenses. Only after Azerbaijan threatened to publicize the Iranian military invasion, which would be received with anger by Iran’s 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis and the citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran agreed to silently withdraw its troops from the Azerbaijani territory.
In addition to direct military intervention, during the war, Iran was reportedly transmitting to Armenia the intelligence data on the movements of Azerbaijani army units, as these movements were easily tracked visually from the Iranian territory.
Moreover, during the war, there were many reports of Iranian assistance to Armenia. Images of Iranian trucks moving towards the Iran-Armenia border went viral on social media.
After the assistance from Iran to Armenia became public, ethnic Azerbaijanis went to streets in several Azerbaijani-populated cities of Iran to protest against it.
Some of the protesting Azerbaijanis were later arrested by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, tortured in prison and sentenced to long prison terms and floggings.
Iran was also facilitating the transfer of Russian weapons and equipment to Armenia via its land routes and airspace.
Even after the war, Iran did not stop sending supplies to Armenian forces based in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan officially protested against the illegal entry of Iranian trucks into its territory, but Iran simply ignored Azerbaijan’s objections. Then Azerbaijan started halting the Iranian trucks and charging them heavy duties. Two Iranian drivers were even arrested and taken to Baku.
And since a couple of weeks Iran has started amassing enormous amounts of military equipment and manpower on the border with Azerbaijan, under the pretext of war games. Almost every day Iranian leaders, from Supreme Leader to President to Foreign Minister to Revolutionary Guards commanders, threaten Azerbaijan.
So the question now is, why would the self-proclaimed protector of world’s Muslims, act in such a hostile way against its fellow majority-Muslim Shiite country — Azerbaijan? Why would Iran support the 30-year long illegal and brutal occupation and ethnic cleansing of 20 percent of Azerbaijan by Armenia, and try to stop Azerbaijan during last year’s 44-day war from liberating its sovereign territories from Armenian occupation?
The matter is that Islamic solidarity has never been a guiding principle for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Realpolitik and geopolitical interests have in fact guided Iran’s foreign policy for the last 42 years.
This Realpolitik-based foreign policy is on display now even more after the recent rise to power of hawkish forces in Iran. If earlier Iranian actions against Azerbaijan were carefully disguised and denied if needed, all the while claiming that Iran wanted good relations with Azerbaijan, now for the first time in decades Iranian actions coincide with Iranian words, i.e. the theocratic regime is finally showing its true colors.
So why has Iran become unusually aggressive against Azerbaijan?
A few reasons can be mentioned:
Reason Number One: Closure of Iranian Drug Trafficking Route
After Armenia, Iran is considered the second-biggest loser of Azerbaijan’s victory in the last year’s war. 132 kilometers of Azerbaijan-Iran border, which were under Armenian occupation for 30 years, are now under Azerbaijani control. The border was being used all these years for all sorts of illegal activities.
But most of all, the occupied territories of Azerbaijan were used for drug trafficking to Europe. It’s a well-known fact that the Revolutionary Guards of Iran are heavily involved in drug trafficking, and the Armenian-occupied territories were an easy transit route and safe passage for the transportation of Iranian drugs to Europe. By liberating these territories, Azerbaijan closed once and forever this easy transit route, which obviously angered the Revolutionary Guards, who are now hemorrhaging a lot of drug revenues. It is not a coincidence that a few days before the Revolutionary Guards announced last month the largest ever war games on the Azerbaijan border, Azerbaijani customs seized half a ton of heroin, with a street value of $80 million, that was being shipped from Iran to Europe.
Recently, an underground tunnel was discovered by Azerbaijan in the liberated Zangilan district. The tunnel was laid on the Iran-Azerbaijan border during the Armenian-occupation of Zangilan and used for undetected access to the occupied territories, in particular for drug trafficking purposes.
Reason Number Two: Zangezur Corridor
As per the trilateral statement signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia in November of 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan should work towards opening all transportation and communications, including the ones connecting mainland Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan region that pass through the Armenian territory of Syunik/Zangezur. Zangezur is the location of the Iran-Armenia border. Considering Iran’s complicated relations with nearly every single neighbor, Armenia has consistently provided an access for Iran to reach Europe and West Asia. Iran is concerned that with the establishment of the so-called Zangezur Corridor, Azerbaijan will no longer need to use the Iranian territory to reach its Nakhchivan region, hence there will be less dependence on Iran, and Iran will gradually be isolated and excluded from this crucial region and its alliance with Armenia will be undermined. Another Iranian concern is that its rival Turkey will be more connected via this corridor to Azerbaijan and across the Caspian Sea to other fellow Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia.
Reason Number Three: 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis of Iran
Iran’s north-western areas are heavily populated by indigenous ethnic Azerbaijanis, around 30 million of them. Approximately, 40 percent of Iran’s population are ethnic Azerbaijanis, which makes them the largest ethnic minority in Iran. This 30 million-strong minority are deprived of basic cultural rights. Iranian leaders are constantly concerned about any possibility of nationalistic insurgency among Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijanis.
A strong, secular and independent Azerbaijan has always been seen as a threat to Iran’s unity, although Azerbaijan has never raised any territorial claims against Iran and has never supported any separatism within Iran.
Reason Number Four: Azerbaijan-Israel Alliance
Since several weeks, Iranian leaders have not stopped accusing Azerbaijan of closely collaborating with “Zionist regime,” which is how they call the State of Israel.
Azerbaijan has indeed close ties to Israel. This relationship has never been a secret. Israel has an embassy in Baku, and Azerbaijan recently opened its first official office in Tel Aviv which is supposed to be transformed into a full embassy soon. Israel buys 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. In turn, Azerbaijan buys sophisticated military hardware from Israel. The two countries also collaborate in a variety of other areas from agriculture to renewable energy.
Since the 44-day war and Israeli solidarity with Azerbaijan, the relations between these two nations have become much stronger.
Azerbaijan’s response to Iranian accusations and threats was quite impressive and resolute. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan visited the liberated Jabrayil district on the Iranian border and posed with the Israeli Harop drone.
President Aliyev also expressed his strong discontent with Iranian official accusations of Israeli presence on its border, calling it slanderous. Also showing the independence of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and its freedom in choosing the nation’s friends, President Aliyev rejected the Iranian pressure regarding the Azerbaijan-Israel friendship and suggested Iran not to poke its nose into Azerbaijan’s affairs.
Another response from Azerbaijan was the closure of the office and mosque of Iranian Supreme Leader’s Special Representative in Baku. The said Special Representative, who was reportedly responsible for creating sleeper cells in Azerbaijan, had to leave the country in haste.
In conclusion, let me say the following: The 44-day war significantly changed the geopolitical reality in the South Caucasus. The whole region has changed. It has changed for the better. And this change is irreversible, no matter what Iran wants.
The sooner Iran can accept this reality, the better for Iran.