Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 30 Issue 1
Author: Silvia Boltuc
The South Caucasus and the Middle East have long been at the epicentre of geopolitical, ideological and ethnic tensions. While the Israel-Iran hybrid war is experiencing a new momentum, ongoing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan might open a second front in which both Tel Aviv and Tehran might be involved.
Israel’s regional strategy to counter Iran’s power
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran and Tel Aviv have engaged in asymmetric warfare, which exploits tools such as proxy groups all over the Middle East and cyber-attacks. While Iran has backed the Axis of Resistance, Israel has concentrated mainly on fighting Hezbollah along its borders and Syria and targeting Iranians working on the domestic nuclear program.
Moreover, Tel Aviv has pressured Washington to avoid signing a new JCPOA with Iran, mediated by Europe. While already on January 13th, 2023, the outgoing Israeli chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, outlined Tel Aviv’s plans for attacking Iran, recent reports suggesting Iran was two months away from manufacturing nuclear weapons further fuelled the conflict.
Syria registered increasing attacks by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Damascus. Iranian-backed militias such as Hezbollah and Qud Forces, along with their infrastructures, are the main targets of Israel’s attack on Iranian interests and tools of power in the region.
On the night between the 1st and the 2nd of April 2023, the Israeli air force carried out the third air raid of the week on Syrian territory. Previously, the IDF hit the Damascus suburbs two nights in a row. As a result of these operations, two military advisers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Meqdad Mahqani Jaafar Abadi and Milad Haidari, were killed. IRGC stressed on an affiliated media platform that the “Israeli crimes will not go unnoticed, and Israel will pay the price for it.”.
On April 4th, 2023, while the Islamic Republic of Iran was mourning its martyrs, whose bodies had just returned home, Israel launched a new massive attack on the Syrian capital, with loud explosions heard over the city that led to the death of two civilians. Sardar Sharif, the spokesman of the IRGC, accused Israel of trying to target the resistance front, but ‘the movement of right and resistance will become stronger and more motivated,’ he said. Sharif further added that ‘IRGC would avenge the blood of martyrs Heydari and Mehghani’.
In a letter sent to the United Nations Secretary-General and the chief of the Security Council, Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, Amir Saeid Iravani, has warned that his country will take decisive measures to protect its forces and interests from ‘any threat or an unlawful act perpetrated’ by the United States or others, stressing that Iran’s presence in Syria is entirely legal.
While the confrontation in Syria is hardening, the U.S. internal debate to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle Eastern country is increasing inside Congress. According to a former U.S. representative, after more than eight years of military operations, there is no definition of the ‘enduring’ defeat of ISIS, and the issue needs to be addressed.
As Israel’s strategy to confront Iran directly is toughening, particularly after the drone attack on Iranian military facilities in the city of Isfahan, a second front of this confrontation might be open in the South Caucasus, where Israeli-backed Azerbaijan has violated the November 9th, 2020, agreement at a detrimental of Iran’s ally Armenia.
Growing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran
Iran and Azerbaijan relations recently worsened following Baku’s attack towards Armenia’s sovereign territory on September 2022 and its claims on the northern Iranian region inhabited by Iranian Azeris. Although during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Iran backed the return of the territories under Baku’s control, Tehran has always stressed that the Armenian sovereign territories are a red line which Azerbaijan should not cross. The statements by Baku’s leadership to be ready to take the so-called Zanzegur Corridor, which crosses Armenian-Iranian borders, with force if needed, concerned Tehran.
Moreover, on August 2022, several media connected to Azerbaijan’s presidential administration published articles and analyses claiming Baku’s right to ‘reunite’ with northern Iran. In this regard, it might be cited headlines such as the one posted by Caliber.az, ‘The time has come: Southern Azerbaijan should secede from Iran’, which was a clear threat to Iran’s internal security.
Following the September attack on Armenia, Iran started on October 17th 2022, massive military drills along Azerbaijan’s borders, called ‘Mighty Iran’. These exercises are part of the Iranian military doctrine of deterrence and showed Tehran’s readiness to react to an external threat.
Another growing concern among Iranian elites is the Azerbaijani crackdown on Shia believers which seems to be an increasing practice. On April 2nd, 2023, the authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan announced the arrest of four people accused of having close relations with Iran in connection with the unsuccessful assassination of Fazel Mustafa, a member of the parliament. Azeris media platforms released pictures of the men allegedly involved stating that they had been travelling between Iran and Azerbaijan for years and that Tehran was behind the plot.
Aykhan Hajizada, the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, affirmed that the terrorist act against Fazel Mustafa is a continuation of the terrorist attack on the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Iran, which led to its closure and accusations against the local government.
Following all these public attacks directed towards the Raisi leadership, Iran sent a protest note to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over ‘insulting actions’ from the Azerbaijani media, warning that continuing this ‘immorality’ will bring damaging consequences for future relations between the two countries.
In addition to complaining about the increasing crackdown on Shia Muslims, Iran accuses Azerbaijan of favouring Israel’s activities along its borders. The media outlet MashreghNews underlined that while Hajizada complained about Iran threatening Azerbaijan, the Republic of Azerbaijan opened an Embassy in Tel Aviv on March 30th, 2023.
On that occasion, Eli Cohen, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke of increasing anti-Iranian cooperation between Tel Aviv and Baku. Particularly worrying are Israeli activities inside Azerbaijan: Tehran claimed Israel is exploiting the southern Caucasian republic as a starting point for territorial aggression and espionage.
On March 25th, 2023, Azerbaijan violated the terms of the 9th November 2020 agreement, entering the demarcation line in the Shusha region and taking under the control of the Azerbaijani Army several high grounds between Jaghazur and Zabukh villages, as well as a large area along the border.
Given the concern of losing Turkey’s support in the case of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defeat at the upcoming presidential elections in May 2023, Azerbaijan might evaluate conducting an attack towards Armenia shortly. Iran’s belief in this possibility is proved by the recent change of Iranian ambassadors both in Yerevan and Baku.
In a move that might suggest Iran’s security assistance to Armenia, Tehran appointed as the new Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani, an IRGC Quds Force affiliate. Sobhani was ambassador to Syria, one of the most critical roles an Iranian representative might play. At the same time, Mojtaba Demirchiloo, former Iranian Ambassador in Kazakhstan, will serve as the new envoy in Azerbaijan.
The Southern Caucasus is experiencing new tensions as Azerbaijan is perpetrating the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, although an international resolution urge Baku to remove any obstacles to free movement. Azerbaijan’s strategy seems to force Armenians to leave Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh spontaneously by isolating them from Armenia and any enter/exit road.
Moreover, confirming the possibility of a new escalation, Baku’s affiliated media platform explained that all routes to Artsakh have been close to impeding the delivery of weapons by Armenia, Russia and Iran to the Armenians living in the region, which these governments always denied.
With the upcoming Presidential elections that might change the status quo in Turkey and growing tensions confirmed by several diplomatic incidents and military drills between Azerbaijan and Iran, Tehran and Yerevan fear an imminent attack also on the Armenian sovereign territory. The so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’, which the IRGC media platform claimed to be a code name for an operation against Tehran, will cross the Armenian Syunik region and cut Iran’s access to its strategic link towards Europe and Russia.
The change of diplomats in Armenia and Azerbaijan might be a strategic move preparing for a possible new escalation in the Caucasus. The severe crackdown on Shia Muslims inside Azerbaijan and recent statements on ‘a united front against Iran’ made by Israeli representatives during the opening of the embassy of Azerbaijan in Tel Aviv were perceived by Tehran as a direct threat to the Islamic Republic’s internal security.
From a Western perspective, although a corridor connecting Turkey to Azerbaijan is of significant interest to NATO and Europe, the repercussion of war in the Caucasus on energy supplies might be unsustainable. Moreover, Baku’s energy assets and industries are exposed in the Caspian Sea and avoiding a widespread confrontation with Iran would benefit both countries.