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Iran Policy toward Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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Nagorno-Karabagh is located inside the Azerbaijani territory that, with the other seven districts around it, has been occupied by Armenian forces between 1988-1994.  According to the published data, Occupied areas include 20 percent of Azerbaijani land.  With the help of other pro-Armenian countries such as Russia and Iran during the first war murdered more than 30 thousand Azerbaijani people and displaced approximately one million people from their homeland by the Armenian troops. Armenian army burned homes and schools and destroyed other buildings and facilities while invading and seizing Azerbaijani villages, towns, and cities. Now the question arises among political and military experts: how did poor Armenia occupy so much land? It is a mountainous country with no natural resources and always challenges social issues like poverty. The answer to this question is straightforward. We should not forget Iran’s role in that conflict that was one of the main actors to support the Armenian government to reach its goal in Nagorno-Karabakh. In a current war commenced between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh – which is internationality recognized as Azerbaijani land- on September 27, assessments show that Iranian aid, especially logistical assistance to Armenia, continues more than ever.

Since 1992 the Iranian government developed relations and cooperation in different aspects, particularly political, military, and economic fields. Multilateral aids have sustained and strengthened Armenia against its internal problems and the Republic of Azerbaijan. To shipment, Iran uses the Nourduz border terminal to transfer Iranian food and products to Armenian people. In 1994, after Jabrayil district occupation and truce between two countries, Iranian trucks were carrying the aid to Nagorno-Karabakh via the Khudafarin steel bridge. At that time, to avoid the Turkish people agitation in that area, security forces ordered the electric power outage, then the convoy was moving to occupied regions. Tehran’s different types of aids to Yerevan have been continuing since Armenia’s independence from the past Soviet Unions. For instance, Iran sends Armenia military equipment, oil, gas, food, and sanitary stuff to fortify it against the Republic of Azerbaijan. Every day tens of trucks ship Iranian aids to Armenia from Nourdouz customs. Recently, different footages captured by peoples from the roads show that Iranian trucks are sending Russian made military trucks and equipment to Armenia. When the critics and objections rose, Iran ministry of foreign affairs spokesman “Saeed Khatibzadeh” denied shipping the military equipment and trucks to Armenia and justified which they were the Russian trucks; we transferred them based on our agreement. But the footages released by the Azerbaijan defense ministry demonstrated the military trucks and equipment that had been taken by the Azerbaijan army as the trophies in liberated regions. According to registered data, a Russian airlifter IL-76MD  flew recently over Iran to deliver Russian military hardware and weapons to Armenia.

Interestingly, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran officials, the vast majority of Iranian nationalists defend occupier Armenia versus Azerbaijan. They distort the reality and spread the rumors against Azerbaijan in newspapers, websites, state tv, radio channels, and social media. For example, most of those groups to justify supporting Armenia blame Turkey to stimulate Azerbaijan to start a war and claim Turkey has mobilized the extremist Islamic groups and sent them to Karabakh. They have not represented any document for their claim so far, and it has remained only on the accusation level. It is quite evident in the Iranian National Front statement about the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. Also, Azariha is the news and analysis website affiliated with Pan-Iranism circles, which corporates closely with the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence in Tabriz city defend Armenia and spread hate speech and false content against Azerbaijan. In fact, the hostility of Iranian officials and Persian nationalists to Turkish culture and identity in the region has led them to unite against Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Iran’s aid to Armenia sparked a new wave of protests between Azerbaijani Turks that comprise almost one-third of Iran’s population. Despite governmental repression, on two different dates, on October 1 and October 18, thousands of Azerbaijani Turks came to streets in various cities like Tabriz, Zanjan, Urmia, Ardabil, and Tehran, and demonstration was held to protest Iranian state policies against Azerbaijan by supporting Armenia. The demonstrations were peaceful, and protesters demanded that Iran should stop transiting Russian military Trucks and military supplies to Armenia.  From the beginning of the current battle on September 27, the Iranian security forces have arrested over 200 Azerbaijani Turk protesters. The majority of them were tortured during detention and in solitary confinement. In contrast, every year, Iranian authorities support and mobilize Armenian in Tehran against Turkey on April 24. Nobody from Armenian has been arrested so far.  However, despite the existing state restrictions and suppression, Iran’s aid to Armenia and supporting that country by pan-Iranians at individuals and groups levels have caused severe divergence between Azerbaijani Turks and the Persian community throughout the country. Meanwhile, the present conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia for the liberation of seized districts has strengthened Azerbaijani Turks’ solidarity in Iran with the Republic of Azerbaijan that Tehran’s biased policy to fortify Armenia is one of the main reasons. 

Because of the Azerbaijani Turks’ existing high population in northwestern provinces, Iran Islamic Republic has always looked as a potential menace for its national security. For this reason, Iranian authorities’ preference is the Republic Azerbaijan with drowning in problems and crises that war is one of them. However, powerful and developed Azerbaijan versus Iran with traditional society and secluded government can lead to a tendency towards independence among Azerbaijani Turks, which is not pleasant for the Iranian government. In fact, Ideological interests do not determine Iran’s policy towards Azerbaijan with most Shiite Muslims and its support for Christian Armenia; rather, it is based on conspiracy theories.  Iranian officials and Persian nationalists suppose that sovereign Azerbaijan is a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and national security. They think that strong and victorious Azerbaijan may encourage Azerbaijani Turks to stand up to the Iranian regime and fight for the independence and secession of their areas from Persian domination.

Moreover, another reason for acting Iran against Azerbaijan stems from a strategic partnership with Israel. Considering this fact, the Iranian government and Persian media spread rumors against two countries cooperating, like spying on Israeli intelligent service using Azerbaijani land against Iran. This accusation is an excuse in Iran’s hands to weaken Azerbaijan and justify its support for Armenia. By magnifying this cooperation, they want to cover up the main reason to consider which modern Azerbaijan is the main threat to Iran’s national security.  Whereas other countries such as Russia, Georgia, and China have good relations with Iran and Israel, the Islamic republic does not accuse and does not reprimand.

Overall, Iran Islamic Republic has been supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan since the collapse of the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, attractive and strong Azerbaijan can motivate Azerbaijani Turks to fight against negative assimilation policy and discrimination in Iran. So far, Iran has tried to prevent Azerbaijanis’ solidarity on both sides of the border by supporting Armenia and weakening Azerbaijan. Despite the atmosphere of suffocation and oppression in Iran, Iranian nationalists’ behavior and the government’s hostile policies against Azerbaijan in the current war with Armenia brought the Azerbaijani Turks in Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan closer together and deepened the ethnic cleavages in Iran. This solidarity and empathy between Azerbaijanis have been unprecedented during the last century. Therefore, Iranian officials should understand that without considering Azerbaijani Turks’ demands, they cannot achieve lasting national security in Iran. The continuation of Iran’s current policies against Azerbaijan and the awakening and awareness of Azerbaijanis in Iran may lead to destructive consequences against territorial integrity and stability.

Elchin Hatami is a human rights activist and was born in Azerbaijan, Iran, whose activities are mostly based on ethnic rights in Iran. He holds a master's degree in sustainable agriculture from the University of Tehran and currently lives in Chicago, USA.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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