Iran’s official response regarding the Karabakh conflict has always stood out for being neutral, balanced and level-headed. Iran is the only country that borders Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan. Armed clashes in the conflict zone can destabilize the situation near Iran’s northern provinces. During the current fighting, as was the case during the 2016 Four Day April War, missiles have fallen on the territory of Iran and a six-year-old child was wounded in one of the villages. Also, an Azerbaijani military helicopter was shot down onto the territory of Iran. Azerbaijan’s use of Israeli-produced UAVs in its border regions causes further alarm for Iran. Additionally, every escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict creates a new opportunity for those interested in the spread of Pan-Turkic and anti-Iranian sentiment among the Turkish-speaking population (sometimes self-styled as Southern Azerbaijanis) of the northern provinces of Iran. A rally was organized by members of this group in Tabriz, demanding their government not help Armenia and to allow them to go fight in Karabakh. The rally was dispersed and its organizers detained. It’s noteworthy that the participants of the rally were chanting not only anti-Armenian, but also anti-Iranian slogans.
This time around, the participation of not only Turkey, but also the representatives of extremist Sunni groups, specifically threaten Iran’s national security interests. All of these components are factored into the official announcements that the Iranian government is making and the responses of the press and analytical community on the ongoing Azerbaijani assault.
Since the fighting began on Sunday, September 27, the Iranian press has covered the issue by providing mostly neutral information and relying on reports from the defense ministries of both countries. It is noteworthy that some publications used the words of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as a headline: “Azerbaijan has attacked Karabakh.” All the responses by the international community, the phone calls with Pashinyan and his statements about Turkey's involvement in the war were actively covered. Most of the articles were accompanied by photos disseminated by the Armenian side, depicting the battlefield and the civilian populations and settlements.
On the second day of the armed clashes, the spokesperson of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh, called for a ceasefire and announced Iran’s readiness to act as a mediator. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran is closely monitoring the developments, stating that their neighbors are their priority and that they are ready to help resume the negotiations. This was followed by the phone call between Nikol Pashinyan and Hassan Rouhani, during which they emphasized the necessity of resolving the conflict through peaceful means.
The Iranian press is paying special attention to the news about the presence of terrorists at the Line of Contact. Analysts say that, regardless of the outcome of the current clashes, the presence of terrorists in the region will destabilize it and cause new conflicts. The Iranian press reports that, according to Syrian sources, 30 Turkish militants formerly fighting in Syria were killed and 60 disappeared in Karabakh. Analysts find parallels between the Syrian crisis and the current stage of the Karabakh conflict. They stress that, in both cases, Turkey plays a destabilizing and provocative role, and that the interests of Turkey and Iran are contradictory in both regions. Additionally, it is noteworthy that, when referring to Iran's position on the peaceful settlement of the conflict, an analyst pointed out that Iran would even agree to resolving the Karabakh conflict through a referendum, if only to exclude the use of force, the continuation of clashes and the presence of terrorists in the context of the conflict.
The spokesperson of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also spoke about the presence of terrorists, stating that Iran will not allow terrorists to be present near its northern borders.
In the multi-layered Iranian response, the leaders of Friday prayers in the northern Iranian provinces of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Ardabil stand out. They often press on the nationalist sentiments of some groups in the local population to make anti-Armenian statements, particularly conveying a religious dimension to the Karabakh conflict and emphasizing the necessity of helping Azerbaijan. While there were similar calls this time, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, the Imam of Tabriz, announced that responding to the conflict should be left to the country’s diplomats and that the conflict cannot be resolved through military means. He also emphasized that the parties to the conflict must immediately cease fire and return to negotiations, since “additional bloodshed cannot help resolve the conflict in any way.” This is an important record from the perspective of neutralizing the discussions around “jihad,” “bloodshed for Islamic lands” and “liberating Islamic lands by sword” which have been thrown around in the past.
When analyzing the speeches of these devotees, one must keep in mind that their statements are a good tool to control the pan-Turcik mood in society. In other words, these messages aim to avoid pushing the local population to the domain of foreign agents, and to impose an Iranian, revolutionary agenda in case they appear in Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and the National Security Interests of Iran
For Iran, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its peaceful settlement are closely related to national security interests.
The philosophy of Iran's national security includes the protection of all components of Iranian identity. Assuming that this identity consists of Iranian, Islamic, Shiite and revolutionary elements, we can insist that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and particularly the involvement of Turkey and terrorists in that conflict, is a threat to all the components of its security.
Thus, the status quo of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict effectively hinders the implementation of the Azerbaijan-Northern Iran-Turkey pan-Turkic program. In turn, the neutralization of this obstacle is one of the important components of the security of Iran's identity. Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, is consistently trying to advance the idea of one nation, two states, presenting the northern provinces of Iran as "Southern Azerbaijan" and talking about the need to unite them with the Republic of Azerbaijan. In the context of this ideology and the struggle of the pan-Iranian ideology against it, preventing the expansion of Azerbaijani forces toward the east and southeast is within Iran’s immediate interests.
From the perspective of Iran’s Islamic identity, the current Azerbaijani state, with its secular approaches and pro-American, pro-Israeli policies, is considered a threat in the context of regional countries founded on Islamic values.
From the perspective of Shiite identity, although Azerbaijan is a country with a Shiite majority, the repression in Nardaran and other cities with a significant religious population make Azerbaijan an enemy of Shiite identity. The policy adopted by Azerbaijan towards religious organizations impairs the activities of Shiite religious leaders, renders them marginal and considers their demands extremist. Under current circumstances, the transfer of Sunni extremist groups to Azerbaijan also impacts northern Iran, a country that has made it a national security priority to fight these groups in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the region, emphasizing that, if they are not eliminated outside of Iran’s borders, they will appear inside them.
From the perspective of Iran's revolutionary identity, the existence of Azerbaijan's clan-based authority, and the reliance of politics on foreign economic and political actors in a polarized society, render Azerbaijan an obstacle to disseminating revolutionary values.
Thus, we can say that, while Iran's response to the current escalation of the conflict is as neutral and balanced as it used to be, there are far more concerns about Azerbaijan's behavior and desire for a military solution, Turkey's involvement and the arrival of terrorists in the region. As a result, the cessation of the current clashes and the expulsion of terrorists from the region is considered to be within Iran’s national security interests. Maintaining the status quo of past decades is a preferred scenario for Iran.