With the rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan Denys Kolesnyk discussed with Fuad Shahbazov, an Azeri political analyst, the role of Iran and Turkey in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as relations between Azerbaijan and the Middle East. The interview took place a few days before the renewal of hostilities which led to a cease-fire and disarmament of separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Tensions are rising between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh recently. The Iranian military delegation visited Baku last week. What is the role of Iran in regional security from your country’s standpoint?
Iran has been an important regional actor since the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially concerning Azerbaijan. Iran’s main strategy towards Azerbaijan was strictly considered through the self-power strategy based on religion — Shia Islam — because Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority Muslim country. Given this fact, it some sort of enabled and opened more space for Iran’s making inroads into Azerbaijan society using strictly religious slogans, but in fact the Azerbaijan society which had been under the control of Soviet atheist propaganda and atheist agenda for more than seven decades in the early 1990s, Iran’s religious slogans did not yield any significant results, I would say. Because many Azerbaijanis, even the majority of Azerbaijanis were secular. I mean, culturally they were Muslims, but they were not practicing Muslims.
In the early 1990s, it was the first time after many decades Azerbaijan faced for the first time a growing number of attempts of trying to weaponise religion to be infiltrated into the deeper society.
But from the 2000s the situation gradually started to change when Ilham Aliyev came to power, one of his first efforts was to put a certain distance between Iran and Azerbaijan. He did it in a delicate, very diplomatic manner because at the beginning of the 2000s Azerbaijan was still economically not that much stable, while political stability was ensured. At that period Azerbaijan just started exporting oil to the West and the so-called “oil money” started flowing to the country and this coincides with Azerbaijan starting to keep its distance in relations with Iran. Teheran witnessed its declining influence in the mid-2000s because Türkiye became the main partner and ally of Azerbaijan, especially after Erdoğan ascended the Prime minister’s and then President’s office. Türkiye became a natural ally and strategic partner of Azerbaijan while Iran’s influence declined.
Of course, it made Iran more nervous, and more hostile towards Azerbaijan and some conservative wing party members in Iran, who are currently in power in Iran led by President Ebrahim Raisi, who is one of the closest allies of the current supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini, began actively criticizing Azerbaijan. They were also actively accusing Türkiye of expanding on Iran’s northern borders.
But with the arrival of President Rohani in power in Iran in 2013, Baku and Teheran managed to establish a pragmatic partnership. They put aside political disputes and started focusing on economic cooperation. Both countries launched regional interconnectivity projects, and infrastructure projects, for instance, the Astara–Rasht–Qazvin railway. This facilitated the trade that grew significantly. Besides, Iran became one of the stakeholders in certain oil fields in Azerbaijan.
And after Rouhani, we witnessed the deterioration of bilateral ties under Ebrahim Raisi in power in Iran. Raisi leads one of the most conservative political wings in Iran with open vocal criticism of Azerbaijan, Türkiye, and Israel of course.
And in terms of Nagorno-Karabakh, what is the stance of Iran?
Well, technically Iran supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. In the 1990s Iran even provided humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan because in that period Azerbaijan was politically and economically devastated. There was a civilian standoff in the country between different political groups.
Iran became the first country which provide humanitarian aid to Nakhchivan in the early 1990s. There was an event when Armenian forces, after taking control over Nagorno-Karabakh, attempted to move forward to Nakhchivan and take control of some districts of Nakhchivan. That was one of the rare moments when Iran issued an ultimatum to Yerevan. It was in early 1993 when Teheran issued an ultimatum and threatened Armenia with advancing Iranian troops and Armenia had to withdraw from there. That was one of the rare cases when Iran actively supported Azerbaijan and made clear anti-Armenian statements.
But what about now?
The discourse has changed because Azerbaijan started to rely on Türkiye and Israel extensively. That provoked the change of Iranian stance and Iran became rather pro-Armenian.
Iran established a strategic and comprehensive partnership with Armenia as a counterbalance towards the Azerbaijan-Türkiye and Azerbaijan-Israel partnership. But still, of course, the trade or economic partnership with Armenia is not that much significant because the numbers are not modest.
Worth noting, that there is a tiny part of the land that connects Armenia with Iran. Whereas when Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian occupation for three decades, Iran just figured that this status quo was perfectly matching its interests, so they were interested in maintaining it.
Their official narrative was that they were supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but in fact, they were perfectly fine with preserving the status quo because Nagorno-Karabakh territory bordered Iran, but Azerbaijan had de facto control over it, which gave Iran more space to arrange illegal activities such as drug and arms smuggling because that territory was barely populated and there was nobody to watch the border. And it lasted for three decades.
And when the Second Karabakh War started, Iran was absent from the process. They were bystanders, which revealed the fact that Iran has no real tool or mechanism to influence the Azerbaijani government. No leverage to change Baku’s policies, to stop the war or to shift the foreign policy priorities.
But the diplomatic confrontations rained. There was even a terrorist attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. There were frequent attempts to breach the border. There were even unidentified armed people trying to enter the Azerbaijani territory with weapons and drugs from Iran. That even led to a heavy fire exchange last year.
As we were talking about Iran you mentioned Türkiye. The relations between Azerbaijan and Türkiye can be characterized “as one nation, two states”. I wonder, may the re-election of Erdoğan introduce any changes to this approach positive or a negative way? And how do you expect the bilateral relations to evolve in the next few years between Azerbaijan and Türkiye?
Well, the Azerbaijani state media were actively promoting Erdoğan. Baku hoped that Erdoğan would get reelected. The relations with Ankara became more strategic, they became more in-depth in terms of economy, in terms of security and defence, in terms of culture and education, therefore everybody hoped in Azerbaijan that this would continue under Erdoğan.
The public opinion in Azerbaijan was that the final peace with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh could be achieved only if Erdoğan stayed in power for the next five years because the socialist opposition in Türkiye has quite a different stance on Azerbaijan from the current ruling AKP government.
While the AKP government is more pro-Islamist and pro-Turkish, the Republican People’s Party is more leaning towards socialism or, let’s say, freedom of people for self-determination and so on. During the election campaign, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the Republican People’s Party, made several statements which angered Azerbaijani people, even at the level of state officials.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu mentioned that his country should stay away from the Nagorno-Karabakh issue because it’s strictly an internal problem for Azerbaijan. He also proposed that Türkiye must have deeper relations with Iran rather than Azerbaijan because Iran is a more important and rational actor.
Unlike the opposition, Erdoğan’s campaign was based on the idea of reunification of Türkiye with Caucasus and Central Asia. This perfectly describes the general image of Erdoğan’s pan-Turkish narrative, that all Turkish-speaking countries must unite culturally and linguistically.
Of course, Erdoğan’s re-election was greeted with cheer in Azerbaijan. The population believed that within the next five years, Azerbaijan has more chances to finalize the peace process and ensure the final peace treaty is signed with Armenia the borders are opened and everyone is happy.
Türkiye is the leading regional power and a key partner for your country, but what are other important partners of Azerbaijan in the Middle East and what are the main domains of cooperation?
Since 2020, after the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan asserted its multilateral diplomacy. Baku started building individual partnerships with different regional states, starting from Central Asia, the Gulf states, and even some North African countries.
Azerbaijan launched a reconstruction process in Nagorno-Karabakh, where in some cases entire cities and settlements were fully destroyed. Baku started looking for potential investors. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the government is largely investing in wind and solar power stations, the green energy so to speak.
With this regard, the Saudi Arabia State Fund the UAE’s Masdar Foundation and other foundations became key investors in the aforementioned reconstruction project. For instance, the Masdar Foundation has already inaugurated two wind stations in the northern parts of Azerbaijan, while other stations are set to be built within the next few years in Nagorno-Karabakh. They will be jointly operated by Azerbaijan and certain Arab companies, which will be based in Nagorno-Karabakh as well.
So, I’d highlight intensive diplomatic traffic with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates. For example, during the most recent Security Council meeting initiated by Armenia to impose sanctions against Azerbaijan because of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Arab countries including Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, did not vote against Azerbaijan. Instead, they reiterated support for a diplomatic solution.
An interesting thing is that the relations with Tajikistan, which I’d characterize as mid-level or even low-profile, started to take momentum with President’s Aliyev recent visit to that country. The reason the bilateral ties remained low-profile for many years is Tajikistan’s stance that was mostly pro-Armenian. This, partly, was a result of Iran’s “soft power” in Tajikistan, pushing Dushanbe to keep the pro-Armenian stance for many years.
But now, since the regional balance of power changed, Tajikistan also shifted to Azerbaijan as a potential economic partner, and they invited Aliyev to attend the current Central Asian countries’ Advisor Council meeting, which is the first time a non-regional state leader attended such an event of the Central Asian leaders.
As for the MENA region, I can highlight the diplomatic relations with Algeria and Morocco. But the key economic partners in the Middle East are Türkiye, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, economically speaking.
Since we are talking about the Middle East, how do you evaluate the dynamics in this region, especially in light of the reintegration of Syria back into the Arab League and the demand among the regional powers for more independent foreign policies?
In my opinion, the power dynamics in the Middle East are more critical compared to two or three years ago, because security became more volatile.
The region is still stuck with the Yemeni conflict, with a problem in northern Iraq, and an ongoing conflict in northern Syria despite that the Arab states agreed to bring back Syria to the Arab League.
The internal situation is still fragile, still volatile, which suggests that the region will be plagued with the current state of conflict for the next few years, for the next several years I’d even say.
But of course, the power dynamics in the Middle East depend mostly on two or three countries, namely Türkiye, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those three countries are the main determinants, of the regional balance of power. And, of course, Türkiye is a military power, while Saudi Arabia is an economic power, alongside the United Arab Emirates. And these dynamics require a partnership between Ankara, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi.
Without Ankara, Abu Dhabi or Riyadh, these regional power dynamics cannot be shifted, and cannot be changed. Probably the Gulf countries, the Gulf monarchies also apprehend this fact, and therefore they agreed to diplomatic normalization with Türkiye, starting this year. Because separately those countries are unable to shift the regional power dynamics.
It is possible only in a trilateral format to bring any positive change. Together they can stop the Syrian war, they can interfere in the current problem with the Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine created for Saudi Arabia the possibility to play on the oil market prices and to position itself as a more independent leader. In your opinion, did the Russian invasion of Ukraine influence Middle Eastern politics?
Worth noting, that the Russian invasion created also a power gap. This allowed Saudi Arabia to counterbalance between the West and Russia because Riyadh also has very good ties with Russia.
Last year they agreed on a price cap, it was in the OPEC+ format, which angered the United States, but it did not yield any significant results on Saudi Arabia because any pressure from Washington only pushed Saudi Arabia towards Russia and China.
And for Saudi Arabia playing with the oil prices perfectly suited its national interests and it gives it more, so to say, extensive rule in the Middle East, and also influencing Iran to some extent. I guess Saudi Arabia is currently pretty much fine or even comfortable with what’s going on in and around Ukraine.
Just like China, because Beijing also gets more space to interfere with Central Asia. The same applies even to Iran, Caucasus and Türkiye, because Russia’s influence is a little bit waning, and Russia’s resources are shrinking, which opens more space for countries like China, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to interfere, and ensure their own interests.
Actually, how do you expect those developments and dynamics in the Middle East to impact Azerbaijan?
I wouldn’t say that the entire Middle Eastern power dynamics have a direct impact on Azerbaijan, because Azerbaijan’s role in the Middle East is quite limited.
But on a case-by-case basis, it might have some impact, if we’re talking about Iran, Türkiye or Israel because Azerbaijan has very extensive or very comprehensive with these countries. For instance, in terms of Israel, we are witnessing a very volatile domestic political crisis with Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist government.
With Iran, we are witnessing the potential rivalry with Saudi Arabia or its ongoing rivalry with the US and its allies. And there’s a muted rivalry between Iran and Türkiye because Iran is nervous about watching how Türkiye is increasing its footprint in the Caucasus.
Therefore, any kind of interference in Iran, let’s say, from the West, may create important political and security consequences for Azerbaijan because of borders with Iran are quite long. We are talking about more than 300 kilometres of border with Iran, which requires to be guarded extremely.
As for Türkiye, any kind of deepening economic crisis and inflation can have certain economic and political repercussions on Azerbaijan, because Türkiye is still leading, I would say, the main ally of Azerbaijan in terms of defence, security, politics, the economy and everything to be honest. Türkiye is a transit hub for Azerbaijan, gas and oil to the West, and any kind of instability caused by the economic crisis can have a direct impact on Azerbaijan.
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