By Rufat Ahmedzade
Iran’s Hybrid Warfare
The recent terror attack against the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran is an escalation in Iran’s provocative policies against its northern neighbour. Iran’s longstanding policy of intimidation against Azerbaijan is a product first and foremost of its difficulty in coming to terms with the existence of an independent Azerbaijani state. Add to that the fact that Azerbaijan is a secular state in contrast to Iran’s theocracy, and that national identities collide – as a nationalising state Iran seeks to suppress the ethnic Azerbaijani identity in the Iranian Azerbaijani provinces. The creation of the Iran-backed proxy force, the Huseyniyyun brigade, financing terror and sleeper cells inside Azerbaijan and extreme media propaganda urging the overthrow of secular statehood are all part of the Tehran regime’s hybrid warfare and resemble the policies that the regime has put into practice in the Middle East.
After the liberation of the Karabakh region in 2020, Iran’s hostile policy against Azerbaijan took an openly aggressive trend when it held two major military drills on Azerbaijan’s borders in 2021 and 2022. In the latter exercise it used pontoon bridges to intimidate Baku, as if Tehran was going to cross the Araz river which forms a natural border between the two countries. There has been a subsequent acceleration in verbal threats by Iranian officials, military officers, and clerics in the media, and in propaganda pieces written by the Iranian regime’s lobby group, the NIAC, in the West, primarily by the disgraced Iranian lobbyist Elder Mamedov on the Responsible Statecraft and Eurasianet sites, to attack Azerbaijan and promote Iran’s geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus region. Iran’s leaders openly object to the restoration of transport routes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mainly the Zangezur corridor, part of the trilateral statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia which ended the Second Karabakh War in November 2020. The Iranian regime’s geopolitical concern is the establishment of full fledged peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as it would lead to the normalisation of Armenia’s relations with Turkey and the opening of borders which is a worst case scenario for Iran’s rulers.
The growing Turkish influence in the region is a major concern for the Mullahs as continuing conflicts and Armenia’s inability to make peace with its neighbours facilitate Iran’s disruptive influence in the region via Yerevan. As a state totally dependent on Russia and Iran, Armenia is a central point in the Iran-Russia axis. Moscow and Tehran use Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan as a geopolitical mechanism to keep the region under the Russia-Iran sphere of influence and to threaten Europe’s energy diversification in which Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea Basin play a key role. The conflict also creates a safe haven for illicit economic activities by Iran and Russia, including re-exports and the evasion of sanctions. In the midst of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the growing Russia-Armenia-Iran ties pose a serious danger in the South Caucasus region and require new approaches.
After Vladimir Putin’s speech at Valdai where he blackmailed Armenian leaders for recognising Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity at the Prague meeting, Yerevan declared its full support for Russia’s proposal on Karabakh, meaning the indefinite stay of Russian troops – supposedly peacekeepers – in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. The disruptive, criminal activities of Moscow’s appointee in Karabakh, Ruben Vardanyan, the visit of Iranian saboteursto Karabakh and the misuse of the Lachin road for illegal economic activities and the transportation of weapons and land mines are the result of the Russia-Armenia-Iran axis’ negative role in the region. Armenia and its allies are interested in prolonging the deadlock by refusing to implement the obligations of the joint statement and by playing with words and interpretations in order not to sign a peace deal and recognise Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Armenia’s policies are creating enormous risks in the region in favour of their allies in Moscow and Tehran. Azerbaijan is the only party interested in peace based on international law. Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity should be openly supported by the US and the incoming US ambassador should visit Azerbaijan’s liberated lands, particularly Shusha, to send a clear message to the revanchist and pro-Russia forces in Armenia that the United States supports the concept of the inviolability of internationally recognised borders and territorial integrity. This is a vital norm as the Russian invasion of Ukraine once again shows the dangers of allowing borders to be changed by force.
The United States needs to formulate its regional policy within a new framework as the deepening Tehran-Moscow ties threaten vital US interests globally. The Biden administration’s inability to formulate a new policy based on the new geopolitical realities and the ongoing Russian war of aggression emboldens Armenia’s leadership to avoid peace and recognition of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Armenia relies on its traditional allies Russia, Iran and France, and is encouraged by the West’s remarkable tolerance of its aggressive policies, such as its official territorial claims on its neighbours. The disruptive role of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has already put an end to the EU initiative for peace talks. It’s important to reduce Paris’ negative impact in the region which favours Moscow’s geopolitical goals. The Armenian leadership has rejected Secretary Blinken’s calls for them to have direct dialogue with Azerbaijan, despite the format for regional talks proposed by Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili.
Azerbaijan is the only country in the world bordering two internationally recognised rogue states – Russia and Iran respectively. Both of these countries have imperial ambitions against Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus region. As a leading country in the South Caucasus Azerbaijan plays a key role in supplying Europe’s energy needs and energy security, a role that has grown since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also provides the only route to Central Asia bypassing Russia and Iran and is a key part of the East-West Middle Corridor. Azerbaijan’s important role in the Organisation of Turkic States and growing reach to Central Asia are in the US national security interests as they give an alternative dimension and route for Central Asian states as they manoeuvre and balance vis-a-vis the Russian and Chinese tandem. In other words, the United States should strengthen its dialogue with the Organisation of Turkic States as part of its global competition with China.
Azerbaijan is an ally of vital Washington allies such as Turkey and Israel and Azerbaijan’s strong relations with these countries contribute to its ability to stand up to the subversive policies of Moscow and Tehran. In addition, Azerbaijan’s role in combatting Iran-backed international terrorism and narco-trafficking show how Baku sustains its independence in a tough region.
Azerbaijan’s extensive humanitarian aid to Ukraine is creating concern in Kremlin circles, as it’s not the first time that Azerbaijan has rushed to help a victim of Russian aggression. Azerbaijan’s electricity and natural gas supplies to Georgia and its joint economic projects played a significant role in the country’s development of an independent foreign policy. Now the extension of Azerbaijani natural gas supplies to Europe will help European countries that have been dependent on Russian gas, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and particularly Moldova. Azerbaijan’s natural gas deliveries will enable Chisinau to stand up to Russian intimidation policies.
All these factors highlight the strategic importance of Azerbaijan in terms of geopolitical, trade and energy security. It is a country that offers transport routes bypassing Russia and Iran and facilitates Western interests in the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea basin region. As such, it is a target of the Russia-Iran tandem which seeks to undermine Azerbaijan in order to block and weaken Europe’s energy security and geopolitical initiatives.
Washington should, therefore, put pressure on Armenia to sign a peace deal with Azerbaijan, provide Azerbaijan with military products to enhance its defensive capabilities against Iranian and Russian threats and encourage the regional format Azerbaijan-Israel-Turkey-Georgia to contain Russia and Iran’s disruptive policies regionally and globally.
Rufat Ahmedzade is a PhD researcher from the UK. She mainly writes on political and regional developments in Iran, Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus region.