For 30 years, Iran has adopted a cautious approach to developments in the South Caucasus, wary of the risk of encirclement. Iran's current military drills on the border with Azerbaijan are meant to send a signal that Tehran has its red lines too, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Iran has carefully followed the developments in the South Caucasus. The strategic goal of Iran was not to allow the region to be a launchpad for the US or Israeli-initiated anti-Iranian activities. Due to the constant US pressure, Iran could not significantly increase its influence in the South Caucasus and directly compete with the US. Meanwhile, the US and Israel were not the only sources of concern for Iran. Turkey's intentions to increase its influence in the South Caucasus through the establishment of the Turkey–Georgia–Azerbaijan strategic partnership was another source of concern. Being unable to counter the US, Israel, and Turkey alone, Iran viewed the Russian presence in the South Caucasus and, particularly in Armenia, as benign, offering a strong buffer against US and Turkish activities in the region. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, many experts articulated regional geopolitics as a struggle between two blocks – the US and Israel-backed Turkey–Georgia–Azerbaijan against Russia–Armenia–Iran. Iran's position was quite clear – more Russia in the South Caucasus meant less Turkey and the US, and vice versa.
This equilibrium started to change in recent years. A Russia–Turkey rapprochement launched in summer 2016, and growing US–Turkey, NATO–Turkey, and Israel–Turkey tensions have brought about significant changes in the regional security dynamics. Russia and Turkey started exploring the possibilities of coming to an agreement in the South Caucasus, reducing the US and EU influence in the region. Turkey's strategy to transform itself from the US junior partner to an independent regional power has created a dilemma for Iran. A less US-dependent Turkey was in line with Iran's strategic interests. Iran was constantly arguing for the less involvement of external players (particularly the US and Israel) in the South Caucasus, and a more independent Turkey fitted well in this calculus.
However, Turkey's more assertive mix of pan Turkic and neo-Ottoman foreign policy has raised concerns in Iran. The rapidly changing regional geopolitics and the collapse of the previously held Russia–Iran vs. US–Turkey system of checks and balances ushered in a new configuration in the South Caucasus. The 2020 Karabakh war was the first sign of this changing regional balance of power. Russia did not prevent Turkey's active involvement in the war in support of Azerbaijan, while Turkey accepted the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Iran’s reaction to the 2020 war was quite cautious. The absence of the US and EU during the preparation and implementation of the 10 November 2020, trilateral statement most probably satisfied Iran. Tehran supported Azerbaijan's and Turkey's offer to launch a 3+3 (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, Turkey) format to deal with regional security viewing it as another opportunity to push out the US and EU from the region. Meanwhile, Turkey's growing influence in Azerbaijan and increasing Azerbaijan–Israel defence co-operation raised concerns in Iran. As a result of the war, Azerbaijan took control over the 130km border between the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Iran. It brings Azerbaijan closer to the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic, which has a 10km land border with Turkey. Currently, only the Syunik province of Armenia separates Azerbaijan from Turkey. The 10 November 2020 tripartite statement speaks about unblocking all economic and transport links in the region. By signing the statement, the Republic of Armenia guaranteed the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic to organise the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions. However, almost immediately after the document's signature, Azerbaijan and Turkey started to speak about establishing the “Zangezur corridor”, which should connect both countries. President Aliyev stated many times that the Syunik province of Armenia artificially separated the Turkic world spanning from Istanbul to Central Asia, and the establishment of a corridor should change that situation.
According to Azerbaijani experts, with the term “corridor”, they understand the free flow of goods and vehicles from Azerbaijan to Nakhijevan via Syunik province without any passport or customs control procedures while crossing the Armenian border. Meanwhile, on 20 April 2021, the Azerbaijani president stated that if Armenia did not establish that corridor, Azerbaijan would open it by force. On 12 May 2021, Azerbaijani troops advanced several kilometres into Armenian territory in the Syunik region, which Armenia perceived as a warning that Azerbaijan was ready to use force to open the corridor. The Armenian authorities reject the notion of corridors stating that Azerbaijani goods passing through Armenian territories should be subjected to standard passport and customs control procedures.
The statements from Azerbaijan and Turkey on the “Zangezur corridor” raised concerns in Iran. Tehran views it in line with Turkey's pan-Turkic policy to unite the Turkic world. Given the existence of the up to 25 million Azeri-speaking population in Iran in the regions bordering Azerbaijan, Tehran may view the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor” as the first step for not only creating a direct land connection between Azerbaijan and Turkey but for encircling Iran with a Turkic arc. Meanwhile, the “Zangezur corridor” may cut alternative Iranian access to Georgia, the Black Sea, and Russia, forcing Iran to use only routes via Azerbaijan or Turkey. Since early September 2021, Azerbaijan has started to check and tax Iranian trucks along Goris-Kapan highway, which connects Armenia with Iran and is partially under the Azerbaijani control. On 15 September 2021, Azerbaijan police arrested two Iranian drivers along that road accusing them of illegally entering the territory of Azerbaijan. The Iranian Ambassador in Azerbaijan had several meetings with high-level Azerbaijani officials seeking to solve the issue, but his efforts were fruitless. These actions raised concerns in Iran.
In the last week, Iran launched several large-scale military drills along the Iran-Azerbaijan border, sending a clear message to Azerbaijan and Turkey that Iran will not tolerate the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor” by force. As for now, Iran has zero intention to deploy its troops in Syunik or start a war with Azerbaijan. However, if Azerbaijan seeks to force Armenia to open the “Zangezur corridor” through military operation, Iran may intervene militarily.