Farshad Golzari: Turkish-Iranian relations will not be affected by the tensions in the Caucasus

Russia and the United States are the main actors in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, with Turkey being a second-tier player and Israel still not having taken a position on the new tensions between Yerevan and Baku, believes the Iranian foreign policy analyst.

Farshad Golzari has been working as a journalist in the field of international politics and security since 2013. His bachelor’s degree in criminal law and master’s degree in criminology have led him to spend years researching the nature and activities of various terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and even the Taliban, in addition to providing analysis and writing news-analytical reports. In addition to analyzing international events, one of his specialties is the study of armed and unarmed conflicts in the world. Political and security developments in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, as well as US foreign policy issues are among the issues he examines and analyzes.

The Barricade approached Golzari in the beginning of October 2020 in order to get an Iranian point of view on the ongoing conflict in the Caucasus. 

Mr. Golzari, what are the reasons for the breaking out of the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh this summer and autumn? To what extent are they internal (related to the two countries The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan) and to what extent are they regional and international?

First of all, I must point out that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an old and historical wound and dates back 100 years. I do not want to get into historical and repetitive issues, but the main point is that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been discussed since the collapse of the Tsars in 1917, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet republics. In the late 1980s, when the republics realized that the Soviet Union would soon disintegrate, a crisis erupted again. In 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh region held a referendum in which the nature of the referendum was either to become independent or to be ruled by Armenia. These conflicts were sporadic in the 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this old wound re-emerged and the two republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, and finally Armenia succeeded in occupying not only the Nagorno-Karabakh region but also several provinces of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

After that, the Minsk Group was formed in 1994, and the record of this institution is quite clear. Leaving aside these historical issues, we see that in 1993, when Heydar Aliyev (former president and father of Elham Aliyev) came to power, he established a ministry called the “Ministry of Unexpected Events”, which was responsible for handling the Nagorno-Karabakh case. It may be interesting to you and your audience why a ministry should be set up for this. The answer to this question must be sought in consolidating the power of the Aliyev family. The family, and now Ilham Aliyev, is using the Nagorno-Karabakh tool to consolidate the foundations of their rule in Baku. During the 17 years (since 2003) that Ilham Aliyev has been President of Azerbaijan, we have seen him repeatedly highlight the threat of Nagorno-Karabakh and even keep the army on alert. This means keeping the shadow of war on the people of Azerbaijan and Aliyev’s opponents, whose backbone is Azerbaijani nationalism.

For this reason, part of the new round of clashes goes back to Aliyev’s efforts to prevent power from slipping out of his hands. There are rumors that Aliyev is looking to replace his wife and first vice president Mehriban Aliyeva with his son until he is ready to enter politics. The liberation of Karabakh can be considered as an effort to cover this issue. In other words, in the name of liberating this region, they are preparing public opinion in their favor. Azerbaijan is the initiator of the new conflict, and for this reason Armenia cannot be blamed so far, and I believe that these tensions are the result of international conflicts.

I believe that the new conflicts have two main actors, namely Russia and the United States. Turkey is also a second-tier player, and Israel plays the role of a hidden and complementary element that has not yet taken a position on the new tensions between Yerevan and Baku. If you remember, when Nikol Pashinyan was supposed to be the Prime Minister of Armenia, he took an anti-Russian stance and at least sought to reduce Russia’s influence in Yerevan. There is no doubt that Moscow remembers his remarks well. On the other hand, if we look at Aliyev’s situation, we see that his government was under pressure from the people and the displaced, and even the political parties. 

For example, members of the “Musavat Party”, Azerbaijan’s oldest political movement, founded in 1911, pressured Aliyev about what his government had done to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh, which makes up 20 percent of the country’s territory. The figures of the New Azerbaijan Party, which was appointed by Ilham Aliyev, tried to defend him, but it seems that the pressure from the United States and Israel was also effective. Tel Aviv and Washington have significant military and energy interests in Azerbaijan and are trying to integrate Baku more than ever. Note that 20% of Baku’s oil goes to Israel, and the United States also needs Baku to develop NATO against Moscow. For this reason, I believe that the green light of the United States and Israel led Ilham Aliyev to immediately order an attack on Armenian positions and order the liberation of Karabakh. 

In Yerevan, Pashinyan has faced the silence of the Russians. I think the Kremlin is now settling accounts with Pashinyan and has made it clear to him that he needs to moderate his anti-Russian stance. The Russians will take advantage of Pashinyan to support Armenia. On this basis, Washington and Tel Aviv allowed Aliyev to consolidate his legitimacy and political position with this attack, and in return caused Pashinyan to seek refuge in Moscow. Of course, we must not forget the roots of the Armenian Orthodox Church, which have ties to the United States and Russia.

But in the case of Turkey, I believe that it has probably reached a probably temporary deadlock in Syria and Libya. The city of Idlib is the only place in Syria that is referred to as a red or polluted spot, and most of the terrorists in the area have been trained by Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) are well aware of the threat to US national security if the terrorists in Idlib want to return to Turkey. These terrorist elements have different personalities and beliefs, and their typology is dangerous for Turkey, the United States and even Europe. The transfer of these elements by Turkey is considered a kind of avoidance of threat, but Ankara seeks to provoke new conflicts based on the “Ottoman-Islamic policy”. You can see the proof of this in the sudden change of the use of the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque! These facts show that the current conflict is more international than regional and domestic.

What is the importance of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan for Iran and of Iran for them as economic and geopolitical partners?

Professors of history and political science in Iran believe that Azerbaijan and Armenia are not just geopolitical partners for Iran, but children separated from their mother. Cultural, religious, historical and social ties between Tehran, Baku and Yerevan have been established for centuries. Although Armenians are Christians, they have Iranian citizenship in Iran and are recognized in Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution. According to Article 64 of the Iranian Constitution, Armenian Christians in the south and north each have a representative in parliament. Azeris are also present in the highest positions of government, state, religion and constitute a significant part of political and security figures. In the field of economics, there are many Azeri businessmen in our economic structure. These entanglements are very important, but I believe that the Republic of Azerbaijan views Iran as a major threat for three main reasons:

  1. Large territory
  2. Larger army and military forces
  3. Composite population, which is larger than Azerbaijan’s one

These three reasons are the most important issues that have made Baku lean towards Israel, the United States, Turkey and some other European countries. The next point is that Azerbaijan perceives the threat of Iran more than Russia, because of Iran’s religious and social hegemony over the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan. However, according to historical documents as well as contemporary data, Armenia has not entered Iran’s security strategy at all and has not posed a major threat to Tehran. Yerevan is connected to Iran through the Norduz border on the Aras River, an eight-hectare border market that defines only a small part of the two countries’ trade relations. On the other hand, Iran is a bridge between Azerbaijan and the Republic of Nakhchivan, but these are only part of Iran’s importance for the parties and vice versa. Meanwhile, Tehran adheres to Security Council Resolutions 822 and 884 and other documents and resolutions. You should note that in international relations, neighbors are not chosen, but imposed on us!

Turkey is a major supporter of the Republic of Azerbaijan, while Russia sells weapons to both Baku and Yerevan and is interested in mediating between them. Iran has also proposed being a mediator between them, even though a few days ago it rejected Baku’s accusations that it delivered weapons to Armenia. What does the current escalation of the military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia change in the geopolitical cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran, which is expressed by the Astana trilateral format on Syria? 

This question has several parts. Regarding Turkey, I must say that Ankara is playing a dual role between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which many Turkish politicians consider to be part of a political game. Let me give you an example. Now, if you look at the Armenian markets, you can see that a very large part of these markets are goods imported from Turkey, and Armenian traders are still in contact with Turkey. When you see this scene and ask the Turkish authorities why they are supporting the Republic of Azerbaijan against Armenia, they give you the answer: politics is one issue and economy is another! You are absolutely right about Russia. Moscow sells arms to both sides, but their religion is the same as Armenia’s, and the Kremlin, on the other hand, does not want to tip the regional balance against itself and will have Yerevan’s back anyway.

But on the issue of sending weapons from Tehran to Armenia, I think that Azerbaijan, as in the past, is looking for a psychological war in order to manage its internal space. The rule of psychological war is that you present a subject so that you can justify your weaknesses by highlighting it. There is an important issue in this regard. A news line was launched against Iran and the Baku media introducing Iran as the number one enemy to the Azerbaijani people. This is a kind of psychological preparation. If the United States or Israel is to take dangerous action against Tehran in the future, the public opinion of Azerbaijan is ready in advance and will not object; Israeli media almost believe that Iran’s Natanz nuclear power plant was bombed by Israeli fighter jets from Azerbaijani territory, but Baku denies this. This is the same psychological and political planning! 

Meanwhile, in some circles, it is said that the Deputy Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan, during his recent visit to Iran, asked to buy some missiles from Tehran and apparently because of Israel’s affinity to the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran refused to do so. In any case, I do not think that Iran is ready to disrupt its relations with Armenia for the sake of Azerbaijan since Tehran considers them Iranian. But it has the same position in the case of Azerbaijan. In any case, I do not think that these tensions will change Iran’s cooperation with Turkey and Russia in the form of Astana. At the same time, in the current situation of the Middle East and North Africa, it is not in Turkey’s interest to move beyond the Astana.

You have been researching and writing on terrorist political currents, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. How does the transfer of Turkey-affiliated fundamentalist fighters/mercenaries from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh change the international and security relations in the Caucasus region?

The news about this is still considered unconfirmed, but according to the available statistics, it is said that part of the PKK is in Armenian territory to fight the Azerbaijani forces. On the other hand, it is said that most of the elements of the Free Syrian Army as well as al-Qaeda have been transferred to Azerbaijan by Turkey. In early October 2020, Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for the Libyan National Army, which operates under Khalifa Haftar, announced that Turkey had transferred Syrian and Libyan terrorists from Libya to Azerbaijan. Ankara may say that Haftar’s team falsely spread this news due to enmity with Erdogan, but a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry also stated that Tehran will not allow terrorist groups in the areas adjacent to our northern borders to pose a threat to national security. Here, too, there is no confirmation from the spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but his words show that these elements are stationed in the Aras River area. 

Based on current data, I believe that elements of the “Sultan Murad Brigade” belonging to the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) were transferred to Baku by Turkish Airlines and that the flight was not directly from Libya or Syria; rather, they probably entered Azerbaijan from Turkey. Note that the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is based in Idlib under the name of Haras al-Din, has an Arab origin and its central council is generally of Iraqi or Jordanian origin and does not want to leave Syria. But other al-Qaeda members of Caucasian descent, who have come to Syria from areas such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, East Turkestan, and even Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, want to be in Azerbaijan and fight in the South Caucasus. The potential of this array from al-Qaeda is about 3,300 to 4,700 people, and the transfer of this volume and even half of this amount to Azerbaijan will turn the Caucasus region and beyond the borders of Iran into a time bomb. 

Many countries around the world, in the form of an anti-ISIS coalition or individually, were fighting terrorists in Syria from the ground and air, and now Turkey is transmitting this threat to the South Caucasus. I have no doubt that this security threat will be costly not only for Iran, but also for Russia, Georgia, Armenia and even Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, despite the government’s crackdown on extremists and the closure of Wahhabi mosques built by the Saudis, there are still threats and even underground mosques. There are still secret traces of the establishment of the “Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus” in Chechnya, and extremist Wahhabis are active in Georgia. However, if Ankara fails to achieve its goals, it will probably import some of the ISIS elements held in the Orfa camp in southeastern Turkey to Azerbaijan. Russia and Iran have experience in dealing with terrorists in Syria, but I do not think other South Caucasus countries can deal with these elements. Therefore, they must hold Turkey accountable in this case.

What is the future of Turkish-Iranian bilateral relations after the escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh started? The two countries have good economic bonds, but there were protests of Azerbaijanis in Tabriz, who solidarised with Baku and wanted the closure of the Iran-Armenian border…

I do not think that these tensions will affect the relations between Ankara and Tehran. In Syria, we witnessed these tensions, which were rooted in differences of opinion and differences in the macro policies of the two sides, but ultimately did not lead to the severance of relations between the two sides. Regarding the issue of Iranian Azeris’ identification, I must say that they are the same current of “Pan-Turks” who call themselves Grey Wolves. This group is considered a part of the Azerbaijani-speaking community, but internal statistics show that their number is not high, and according to documents, the provocation of the media run by the Azerbaijani Intelligence Service (MTN) has been effective. 

We are witnessing this trend in the case of the Kurds as well. When Turkey attacked the Syrian Kurds by land and air, the Iraqi Kurds as well as the Iranian Kurds reacted, and even the Kurdish regions of Turkey opposed the Turkish military action. On the other hand, Baku Muslims are also influenced by religious and ethnic issues in the provinces of Ardabil, Tabriz and Urmia. These issues are obvious in countries where ethnic diversity is present. In addition to Iranian political officials, religious figures also defended Azerbaijan’s right to Nagorno-Karabakh, which, in addition to ethnic and linguistic commonalities, contains Islamic-centered ideological issues. Of course, part of Iran’s support can be considered a kind of defense against the anti-Iranian propaganda of the Azerbaijani media. Note that the population of Iran is 5 to 6 times that of the Republic of Azerbaijan, but the latter’s demographic structure is not uniform. On the other hand, the citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan enter Iran easily and without a visa for treatment, tourism and trade, but Iranians must obtain a visa to travel to this country. It seems to be an obvious mischaracterization to say that Azerbaijan has defined its relations with Iran very closely and quite clearly.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict creates unexpected geopolitical alignments. Turkey and Israel, who are in conflict over Palestine and side with different allies in the Middle East, support Baku. Pakistan is another regional power, which declared support for the Republic of Azerbaijan, even though it hasn’t recognised the State of Israel. At the same time, Armenia has a huge diaspora in the United States, France, Russia and all over the world. How great is the danger of further escalation of the conflict and the direct military involvement of Russia, Turkey and other countries in a manner which has been already unfolding in Syria?

Contrary to popular belief, the current Israeli-Turkish dispute is not over Palestine. One must remember that in 2009, Erdogan, the then Prime Minister of Turkey, attacked Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Economic Summit and accused him of killing Palestinians in Gaza. Shortly afterwards, Israeli commandos seized the Turkish ship Marmara, which was carrying humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and reportedly killed about nine passengers. Abdullah Gul was the president of Turkey at the time, and I think he and Erdogan knew what the reaction of the Israeli army was, but they tried to use it to their advantage in Muslim public opinion. Shortly afterwards, Israeli-Turkish relations were restored to their former amicability with an apology and compensation. 

Even now, I believe that the Palestinian issue is just a tool for Turkey, and that Ankara’s disagreement with Tel Aviv over the Eastern Mediterranean and Greece’s cooperation with Israel are more important; the devaluation of the Turkish lira, as well as inflation, has prompted Turkey to look for energy basins in the eastern Mediterranean that could pose a threat to Israel and its allies.

On the other hand, the economic relations between Turkey and Israel are also one of the axis that make the two sides not get too aggressive with each other. As for Israel’s support for Azerbaijan, I must say that Tel Aviv seeks to procure its oil and gas outside the framework of Arab countries so that it can rely on Azerbaijan if it enters into a dispute with any Arab nations, either accidentally or preferentially. It goes without saying that Israel is seeking to put pressure on Iran from Azerbaijan, which is why 60% of the weapons used in Baku’s military structure have been provided by Israel. Even Azerbaijan used Israeli-made Harop suicide drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last week. “Israeli engineers should be proud of such a product,” said Hekmat Hajiyev, Ilham Aliyev’s international affairs adviser, acknowledging the Israeli military’s use of Harop suicide bombers.

Pakistan’s support for Azerbaijan as well as Afghanistan’s support for Baku is based on Islamic ideology and kinship.

But in the case of Armenia, it should be noted that the eastern part of the country during the Sassanids (from 384 to 591 AD) was the meeting place of ancient Iranian and Roman civilization, and after that it became the crossroads of Islamic and Christian civilization and now the place of conflict between Russia, NATO and the United States. The majority of the population in this country is Orthodox Christian, and on the other hand, you should note that the Armenian lobby in the US Congress has a special place after the Israeli lobby, the Saudi lobby and the Irish lobby. It may be even more important than the Saudi lobby! 

In France, and in Europe in general, the Armenians are much more influential than in Azerbaijan, and the discussion of Christian ties is just one reason. Another reason for Armenia’s importance is its position in the energy hub of the Caucasus region. Yerevan is very important for the Minsk Group (consisting of France, Russia and the United States) and even Germany, and if the war in Nagorno-Karabakh escalates, expect to see French weapons in the hands of the Armenians. In any case, I cannot consider Turkey as the opposite of Russia. Russia does not allow Western powers to enter any region whose gas exports it monopolizes. That is why I believe that the knot in this thread will be untied by Russia and the United States and then by the Europeans. Even if the prime minister of Armenia and the president of Azerbaijan hold private talks for a year, no result will be achieved; Nagorno-Karabakh is the chess board of the powers and Baku and Yerevan are this game’s pieces.

What is the preferred end of this conflict for Tehran? To what extent is the Islamic Republic of Iran worried by the perspective that international, Western peacekeeping forces be placed in the conflict zone – in Iran’s South Caucasian neighbourhood? Who are the international powers which Iran trusts in the context of this conflict’s resolution?

As Tehran and other UN members have said, cease-fire is the best option. Our national interest lies in peace, not war. It is true that this war will cause the arms mafia to sell billions of dollars in weapons, but in the end it will cost more than the benefits. In my opinion, the deployment of international peacekeepers in our region is not considered a threat, but certainly the multinational nature of peacekeepers makes the Iranian military and intelligence services consider this a potential threat to themselves. The Iranians know the region well, but I do not think Russia will allow peacekeepers to enter the region. If this is to happen, I think Moscow will launch a plan for indigenous border guards with the participation of its forces and Iran. This is the same plan that was implemented in Syria with the participation of Turkish and Russian forces to set up military police and patrol to ensure security around Idlib and the M4 highway. Finally, I think Iran would trust Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, because this is only a regional issue, but if the powers come in publicly, Tehran’s decision will probably change.

Photo: Farshad Golzari (source: Farshad Golzari)

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