Demonstrations in northwestern Iran in support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, October 2020. Image: Facebook

RASHT – Tensions flaring up between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the intractable Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, deemed to be Europe’s oldest “frozen war,” have spilled over into the neighboring Iran, which shares borders and longstanding amicable relations with both nations.

When the exchange of fire started on September 27 to reignite a three-decade-old battle on the sovereignty of a mountainous enclave both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim to be part of their territory, it was scarcely expected that the skirmish involving two Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe member states would degenerate into ethnic chaos in Iran, which has mostly been preoccupied with its own economic pains and global isolation.

But Iran, home to nearly 20 million ethnic Azeris and about 200,000 Armenians, has been shaken by the repercussions of the tussle in South Caucuses and appears to be prodded into taking sides, rowing back from an initial position of neutrality.

Ali Rabiei, the spokesperson for the government of Iran, said in a press conference on Tuesday that the official stance of Iran is that Armenia should evacuate the “occupied regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” respect its sovereignty and uphold the United Nations Charter.

In recent days, widespread protests broke out in some of Iran’s major Azeri-speaking cities including Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil and Zanjan. Demonstrators called for the “liberation of Karabakh” and voiced anger at rumors that the Islamic Republic had dispatched truckloads of military aid to Armenia.

According to some accounts, 60 people have been arrested in these cities.

Tabriz is one of Iran’s major Azeri-speaking cities. Photo: AFP/Anadolu Agency

Racially-charged slogans

The demonstrations also became a venue for the expression of racially-charged and secessionist sentiments, with some participants chanting slogans decrying Iran’s Persian-speaking majority and other ethnic communities as the nemesis of the Azeri people.

In one instance, large groups of protesters in Tabriz chanted “Kurds, Persians and Armenians are the enemies of Azerbaijan.”

In a rare move, widely criticized by Iran’s pro-reform newspapers and social media users, representatives of the Supreme Leader in four Azeri-speaking provinces unconditionally threw their weight behind the Republic of Azerbaijan. They emphasized in a joint statement that “there is no doubt that Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, that it is being occupied and that these territories need to be returned to Azerbaijan.”

The four influential clerics – Seyed Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem, Seyed Hassan Ameli, Ali Khatami and Seyed Mehdi Ghoreishi – attributed their decision to issue the statement to the verses of the Quran and the “philosophy of Islamic Republic” necessitating the “protection of the oppressed.”

They also called those Azerbaijani troops and civilians killed in the clashes “martyrs.”

Shargh, a major reformist newspaper, warned that the clerics having a political axe to grind in a dispute which is the jurisdiction of Iran’s foreign ministry will “undermine the position of the administration to further the role of an intermediary” between Azerbaijan and Armenia, while giving a pretext to ethnic extremists to stoke sectarianism.

Many Iranians have been posting patriotic comments on social media since then, in reaction to what they perceive to be machinations to put Iran’s independence and territorial integrity in jeopardy.

Iran’s Azeris

Iran’s Azeris, represented in high political offices, large businesses and key economic and social sectors, share cross-border cultural ties with the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey, intermarry with families in the region, travel to the two countries frequently, watch Azeri and Turkish movies on satellite TV and some view themselves as successors of a historic Ottoman civilization.

In extreme cases, fans of Iran’s football clubs from Azeri-speaking cities have been seen carrying the flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey to the stadiums, to the chagrin of authorities in Tehran.

This latent Azeri Turkic nationalism has at times unsettled the Islamic Republic leadership that has been struggling for some 40 years to preserve the territorial integrity of a multi-ethnic country in which minorities of Azeris, Arabs, Kurds, Lurs, Turkmens, Balochs, Armenians and Gilaks make up more than half the population.

Map: Twitter

Emil Aslan, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says Iran’s Azerbaijanis have become increasingly exposed to ethnic nationalism over the past two decades, and it is against this backdrop that they are wading into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which to them is a largely symbolic cause.

“Available evidence suggests that a significant portion of Iran’s urban Azerbaijani community has come to politically side with Azerbaijan in a nationwide process of return to ethnic roots,” he said.

“For youth that are more educated, secular and hedge against increasingly strong Persian nationalism, Karabakh has become a cornerstone of their Turkic Azerbaijani nationalism, partly due to their larger exposition to Azerbaijani and Turkish media,” he told Asia Times.

Yet Aslan believes a predisposition to independence from Iran or annexation with either Azerbaijan or Turkey is quite uncommon among Iran’s Azeris, even though nationalistic tendencies are markedly powerful.

“My experience from fieldwork in Iran’s Azerbaijan (community) suggests that even in the midst of nationalist urban youth, the attitudes toward the idea of Iranian statehood are quite strong, with only a minority, albeit vocal, being in favor of attaining independence from Iran,” he said.

“Most wish to coexist with Persians, which is particularly the case amid more religiously-minded Azerbaijanis, who equate Shiite Islam with Iranian statehood,” he said.

Professor Brenda Shaffer, a foreign policy specialist and faculty member of the US Naval Postgraduate School, echoed those views, ruling out the unification of Iran’s Azeri-speaking provinces with Azerbaijan or Turkey as a possibility.

“While Turkey and Azerbaijan, especially through their TV broadcasts widely viewed among the Azerbaijanis in Iran, are important cultural magnets, I don’t see any meaningful interest of unification with either among the Azerbaijanis in Iran,” she said.

“In parallel, Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan are interested in the welfare and fulfillment of rights of the Azerbaijanis in Iran, but neither seeks a change in Iran’s borders nor to incorporate the territories populated by the Azerbaijani group,” she told Asia Times.

An image from a video of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry on September 28, 2020, allegedly shows Azeri artillery firing towards the positions of Armenian separatists in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFPAzerbaijani Defence Ministry

Warning the neighbors

But while separatist attitudes might be inconsequential, there are media and political elites in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey who refer to Iran’s Azeri-speaking provinces as “South Azerbaijan,” holding conferences and events in Baku and Istanbul from time to time advocating the separation of these provinces, featuring speakers from Iran and elsewhere.

The Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, based in Baku, was founded in 2002 and claims to represent the interests of Iran’s Azeris, seeking to unify Azerbaijanis “living on both sides of the Aras river.”

Iran’s Azeris also have their own grievances. They complain about being sometimes belittled by the national media, being the target of racist jokes and not being entitled to use their language for education in schools and universities.

Shaffer believes these grievances and the simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not pit Iran’s ethnic groups against each other, even though Tehran’s policies with each of its neighbors can have domestic implications since the country’s ethnic minorities mostly reside in border provinces.

“The Azerbaijani community numbers approximately 28 million, while the Armenians number close to 200,000. In Tabriz, which is an almost all Azerbaijani city, there is an Armenian community and the leaders of the protest movement in Tabriz have openly stated that they want no harm to come to this community,” she told Asia Times.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, especially given that Turkey is openly backing Azerbaijan, and major powers such as Russia and France may also wade in with conflicting interests.

Yet Tehran’s role in the fighting may become more explicit with time as it works to moderate the tensions raging in close proximity to its borders.

Several rockets and some shelling have been reported to have inadvertently hit Iranian soil since fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. At least 20 mortar shells have landed in villages of the border city of Aslan Duz in Ardabil Province, while three rockets have fallen inside the villages of Khoda Afarin County, injuring a six-year-old child.

Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami stated these mistaken firings are not acceptable and that “necessary and serious warning” was given to both countries to ensure Iran’s territory is not encroached on while they fight.