Russian-Iranian competition intensifies in South Caucasus

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During the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Moscow on October 5, one of the main topics of the talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov was the rise of tensions in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. Iran’s top diplomat at a press conference in the Russian capital expressed a series of complaints against Baku, focusing on Azerbaijani relations with Israel. In turn, Lavrov was clear that Russia is “against the accumulation of military activities” in the South Caucasus and “against provocation exercises”, which should have been a signal to the Iranian side of the need to reduce tension.

Azerbaijan and Turkey conducted joint military exercises in the Azerbaijani region of Lachin in early September, as tensions between Baku and Tehran escalate.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Minister said that during talks with Abdollahian, he spoke in favor of the creation of a “3 + 3” negotiation format, which would include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey. This is necessary to solve regional problems, he stressed.

On October 1, Iranian ground forces has begun the “Conquerors of Khaybar” exercises in the north-west of the country, on the border with Azerbaijan, using armored units, artillery, drones and helicopter gunships. This is one of the largest military maneuvers that the Iranian armed forces have carried out in recent history near Azerbaijan, inevitably raising fears that it is a preparation for military aggression.

Iran has also accused Azerbaijan of cooperation with Israel. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tabriz, Colonel Hossein Pursmail, said that “the repetition of Israel’s threats against Iran through Azerbaijan is not only in the interests of Baku is also a threat to the good of the latter. existence. ”Other statements by Iranian officials have broadened Tehran’s list of grievances. For example, Iranian lawmaker Mahmoud Begash underline that it could not be just Israel: “If the Turkish adventure and Azerbaijan’s behavior continue, we will return Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh to the main owner – Iran. Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh are autonomous regions of Azerbaijan

Tehran’s militarist movements near the border with Azerbaijan, as well as the crisis between the two countries in general, are mainly driven by the ambitions of the new Iranian leadership under President Ebrahim Raisi, who is likely seeking to compensate for the failures of his predecessors by taking hard positions.

The Raisi administration’s foreign policy “is a balanced foreign policy under active, dynamic and intelligent diplomacy. Our focus on Asia and the region does not mean that we do not pay attention to other regions, including the West, “Amir-Abdollahian said. Iranian News ISNA agency.

During the 44-day Armenian-Azerbaijani war at the end of 2020, the former reformist-led Iranian administration attempted to come up with various mediation initiatives. However, the Iranian proposals have not aroused the interest of the parties to the conflict themselves, nor of Russia and Turkey.

Tehran probably harbored a grudge and Lavrov had to specifically comment on the issue in December 2020, a month after the end of the conflict, declaring: with Iranian colleagues, the subject of Karabakh aroused interest during our consultations or negotiations.

So Iran, unlike Russia and Turkey, felt that its interests were not being respected after the Armenian-Azerbaijani war.

Furthermore, Iran – which sees itself as a world leader for Shia Muslims – has all but lost its influence in the Shiite-majority country of Azerbaijan, and is trying to compensate with direct support from Armenia. But in doing so, Tehran is challenging not only Baku and its ally Ankara, but also Moscow. Tehran is trying to become the guarantor of the security and territorial integrity of Armenia and thus reduce the influence of the Russian side on the Armenian rulers. This was duly appreciated in Armenia itself, and Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan unexpectedly went to Tehran on Monday, October 4, where he received corresponding assurances of support from the Iranian side.

“Azerbaijan’s encroachments on the sovereign territory of Armenia threaten our efforts to ensure stability and security in the region,” Mirzoyan said during the visit. “In this regard, we highly appreciate Iran’s position regarding the territorial integrity of Armenia and the inviolability of its borders.

By “encroachments on the territory”, he meant the corridor of Zangezur, a road which must pass, according to the The agreements on November 10, 2020, across Armenia and connects the mainland of Azerbaijan to the isolated Azerbaijani region of Nakhichevan. Keep in mind that this approach of Iran, which opposes the creation of this corridor, also indirectly contradicts the interests of Russia, since the border troops will have to ensure the protection of this highway, which would certainly give Moscow additional leverage in the South Caucasus.

The contours of the Russian-Iranian contradictions in the South Caucasus complete the Russian-Iranian competition in Syria. The gradual build-up of conflict potential of the two countries, contrary to the mutual claims of Ankara and Moscow, is still hidden and unannounced, and in Russia it is often denied.

In Syria, Russia can hardly be satisfied with the constant attempts by pro-Iranian structures, mainly Maher Assad’s 4th Division, to take control of the territories on the borders with Jordan and Israel. If these areas are transferred to the 4th Division, pro-Iranian formations could be deployed there, which will threaten Israel, Russia’s strategic partner in the Middle East. Also, the creation of a quasi-autonomous pro-Iranian enclave in the Deir az-Zor region certainly worries Russia, as does Tehran’s influence on decision-making in Damascus in general, which remains decisive. Iran has also occupied most of the most attractive niches in the Syrian economy, closed to Russian business.

Overall, for Moscow, the contradictions with Tehran may turn out to be much more sensitive than the differences with Ankara. Russia and Turkey are filling voids in the Middle East and the South Caucasus, not encroaching on each other’s spheres of influence, but only by dividing them (as happened in Idlib or in Libya). Iran, on the other hand, may try to start pushing Russia out of where it is already entrenched, whether it is part of Assad-controlled Syria or Armenia. In addition, Iran could compete with Russia for influence in Afghanistan, as well as in Central Asia, notably Tajikistan.


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