This article was co-authored with Midstone Centre Senior Associate Shemrez Nauman Afzal
In foreign policy, geopolitical interests often take precedence over traditional cultural and religious ties. This is evident in the conflicts of the Caucasus, where we see a majority Shia Muslim Azerbaijan receiving support from Israel, while Christian Armenia is supported by Shia Iran. We must not also forget that Israel and Iran view each other as primary national security threats.
The irony of Iran, which positions itself as the representative of the global Shia Muslim population, supporting Christian Armenia while opposing Shia Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is striking. Tehran tries to navigate this contradiction by labelling Azerbaijan as ‘Zionist’ or pro-Israel, as a means of justifying its position.
This situation demonstrates the ideological dressing of conflicts, particularly for ideologically-driven states like Iran. Tehran’s foreign policy positions are often framed in religious and ideological terms, which can make it difficult for the Iranian government to pursue pragmatic geopolitical interests without appearing hypocritical or inconsistent, but it does show that Tehran prioritises geopolitical interests over ideological ones, at least in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s nationalist sentiment allows it more flexibility to align its foreign policy with its geopolitical interests, without having to consistently adhere to a specific ideological narrative. This allows Azerbaijan to form strategic partnerships with countries like Israel, despite their religious differences, in pursuit of common goals and mutual benefits, which in this case include dealing with the threat from Iran.
The ethnic overlaps between Azerbaijan and Iran actually further complicate relations, not help bridge them. Azerbaijan’s ethnic Azeri majority are also heavily present in adjacent Iran. In fact, there are more Azeris in Iran than the entire population of Azerbaijan.
Estimates for the population of Azerbaijan and the Azeri population in Iran, according to the World Bank:
- According to the World Bank, the population of Azerbaijan as of 2021 is estimated to be around 10.2 million people.
- According to the World Bank, the Azeri population in Iran is estimated to be around 16.8 million people, which is approximately 21% of Iran’s total population.
There is a growing feeling of sympathy from Iran’s Azeri population with Azerbaijan due to their shared cultural and linguistic heritage. This has worried Tehran, as it fears this could potentially lead to a separatist movement, or at least political disturbances among the Azeri population in Iran, which could destabilize the country.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that practical geopolitical interests often take precedence over ideological considerations when it comes to shaping a nation’s foreign policy decisions. Azerbaijan and Iran’s pragmatic approach to pursuing strategic partnerships and goals highlights the importance of balancing traditional cultural and religious ties with the realities of the modern political landscape.
Nagorno-Karabakh as a Magnet for Other Conflicts
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has drawn the attention of several countries, which have exploited the conflict to further their own interests. The conflict has served as a secondary battleground for other adjacent conflicts, including the Turkish-Iranian tussle for influence and the ongoing rivalry between Iran and Israel. This has created a complex geopolitical landscape, where the conflict is not just a local issue but also a magnet for other conflicts, potentially making a resolution even more challenging.
Iran’s Caucasus woes are to Turkish delight
Iran’s wariness of Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is influenced by a range of geopolitical factors, including their competition for influence in the region and beyond, and their differing stances on regional conflicts. Ankara’s backing of Baku has raised concerns from Tehran, as they see Turkish involvement in the conflict as a challenge to their own influence. Additionally, Iran worries about Turkey’s military superiority, given its better-equipped and trained forces, and Azerbaijan’s large defence budget, which could upset the regional balance of power. While Tehran perceives Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey as potentially extending Turkish security policy, it also recognizes that Azerbaijan has pursued its own independent interests, sometimes aligning with Turkey on matters concerning Iran.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict isn’t the only regional conflict in which Iran and Turkey have backed opposing sides:
- Syrian Civil War, where Turkey has supported various opposition groups, while Iran has supported the Syrian government.
- Yemen, where Iran has supported the Houthi rebels, while Turkey has supported the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
- Libyan conflict, with Turkey supporting the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, while Iran has expressed support for the Libyan National Army.
The competition between Iran and Turkey in regional conflicts, as well as their limited trade relations, highlight the fact that the two countries view each other as geopolitical rivals and not as partners. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is another arena for the two regional powers to tussle for influence in line with their perceived interests.
Turkey has sought to increase its influence in the region through projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which allows oil to be transported from Azerbaijan to Turkey without passing through Iran.
Iran has publicly maintained a neutral stance on the conflict and has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict through diplomatic means, but at times has betrayed that through thinly veiled or even direct threats to Azerbaijan.
Examples of Iranian threats to Azerbaijan
Commander of the IRGC Land Forces, Sardar Pakpour has commented on Azerbaijan-Israel relations.— CaucasusWarReport (@Caucasuswar) September 29, 2021
“We will not tolerate the conversion of any country's territory into a safe place and a base for the presence and anti-security activities of the Zionist regime elements.”
During his Monday press briefing, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was asked about the presence of Israel in Azerbaijan. He bluntly warned that Iran will not tolerate Israeli presence in any neighboring countries.— Tehran Times (@TehranTimes79) October 11, 2021
According to a message reportedly issued by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), warnings have been issued to Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and Israel for “harbouring Zionist elements”. The message also included footage of Iranian ballistic missiles targeting the U.S. consulate in Northern Iraq, which occurred the previous week.
Iran and Russia in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Iran’s interests in the conflict are complex. Any escalation of the conflict could potentially threaten Iran’s borders. Additionally, while Iran is observably aligned with Russia, it is wary of Russia’s influence in the region. It sees the current conflict, as well as the situation in Ukraine, as opportunities to gain more influence in the Caucasus. Despite its desire to be seen as neutral and calling for a peaceful resolution, Iran has been accused of supporting Armenia, and this accusation is not without evidence.
Israel’s interests in the conflict
On the 20th of April, an Israeli delegation including Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen visited Baku, agreeing on terms for significant cooperation between the two allies. Especially notable is the $120 million deal in which Israel will supply Azerbaijan with two satellites. This strategic move, of course, has Iranian considerations.
Israel, while not directly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is inevitably drawn into the fray due to its own strategic interests in the region. By aligning itself with Azerbaijan, Israel pursues a multifaceted approach to securing its regional objectives, ranging from counterbalancing Iran’s influence to ensuring energy security.
Israel’s military and intelligence cooperation has been crucial in Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, with Israel supplying advanced weapons systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to Azerbaijan. Israel’s Heron TP drones played a key role in the conflict, providing Azerbaijan with real-time intelligence and enabling it to carry out precision strikes on Armenian targets.
Azerbaijan has emerged as a key strategic partner for Israel in its efforts to counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region. By supporting Azerbaijan, Israel aims to challenge Iran’s regional ambitions and reduce the Shia powerhouse’s clout in the Caucasus. This partnership is rooted in shared concerns about Iranian activities and has been fostered through various channels, such as defence cooperation and intelligence sharing.
Additionally, Azerbaijan plays a vital role in Israel’s energy security by supplying oil and natural gas. These resources help diversify Israel’s energy portfolio and reduce its dependence on other countries, thereby bolstering its energy resilience. The energy partnership between the two countries has also served to further cement their diplomatic and economic ties. Israel and Azerbaijan have a significant energy trade relationship, with Azerbaijan being one of Israel’s key suppliers of oil. The two countries have signed several agreements related to energy cooperation, and in 2020, Israel imported around 2.2 million tons of crude oil from Azerbaijan, which constituted around 40% of Israel’s total crude oil imports.
Israel’s indirect involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is driven by its strategic interests in the region. By aligning with Azerbaijan, Israel seeks to counterbalance Iran’s influence and expand its energy security by diversifying its energy sources. Additionally, Israel has fostered intelligence and defence cooperation with Azerbaijan, enabling both countries to achieve their respective geopolitical objectives. This mutually beneficial partnership has strengthened their diplomatic, economic, and security ties in the face of shared regional challenges. Although Israel’s role in the conflict may be indirect, its involvement demonstrates the country’s continued efforts to expand its influence and assert its presence in the broader Middle East. As the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh continues to unfold, it is likely that Israel’s partnership with Azerbaijan will remain a significant factor in the region’s political and strategic landscape.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute as a Soviet Legacy
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has its roots in the early 20th century, when tensions over the control of the predominantly Armenian region within Azerbaijan escalated. In 1921, the Soviet government established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan, but tensions persisted. The conflict escalated in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union weakened, and both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence. The situation deteriorated into a full-scale war in 1991 after both countries declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the ceasefire in 1994, sporadic violence and skirmishes along the borders have occurred as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remained unresolved, with no comprehensive peace agreement being reached. The recent escalation of the conflict is therefore a continuation of this ongoing dispute, which has deep historical roots in the Soviet era and has been marked by numerous ceasefire violations.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is rooted in Soviet-era policies, such as territorial demarcation and nationality policies, which created tensions between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations. The Soviet suppression of nationalist movements also played a role in the conflict’s escalation. Economic integration and dependence created lasting disputes over resources and infrastructure, while the legacy of Soviet-era armaments fueled the ongoing conflict.
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border conflict is another example of the legacy of post-Soviet disputes, with the arbitrary demarcation of borders and policies that have caused disputes over land and resources. Like the Nagorno-Karabakh and Donbas conflicts, it involves ethnic tensions and has remained largely unresolved, with both countries claiming the disputed territories as their historical lands.
The CSTO’s Ineffectiveness in Managing or Resolving Conflicts
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was formed as a regional military alliance in 1992, following the end of the Cold War, and officially established in 2002. Its members include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
However, the CSTO’s role of preventing aggression against its member states has been limited, as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict proved.
On April 20th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced Armenia’s readiness for the deployment of a CSTO monitoring mission along the Azerbaijan border. He said: “Not only Russia is ready, Armenia is also ready. We’ve outlined the circle of our concerns, and basically, our desire is for the possible mission to be effective. This is important for both Armenia, the CSTO and the region. And we continue to work in this direction.”
This raises the question: why haven’t the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) intervened on behalf of their ally already?
The CSTO in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Azerbaijan’s decision to prioritize security partnerships with Turkey and Israel instead of joining the CSTO proved crucial in the outcome of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Turkey and Israel provided Azerbaijan with advanced weaponry and military support, which played a crucial role in its victory over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The Armenians were stuck using outdated Soviet-era weaponry and strategies.
While Azerbaijan’s policies and actions played a role in the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the CSTO’s failure to protect its member state Armenia and resolve the dispute highlights its limitations as a regional military alliance. The CSTO’s inability to act as an effective mediator, combined with its apparent irrelevance and dysfunction as a security alliance, as demonstrated by Armenia’s resounding defeat, raises questions about the organisation’s capacity to fulfil its stated objectives and commitments.
In December 2020, Pashinyan criticized the CSTO’s inaction during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, stating that the organization did not provide the necessary assistance to Armenia as a member state. He said, “The Collective Security Treaty Organization did not provide assistance to Armenia when it needed it most… Unfortunately, the organization did not respond to the aggression against a member state in the way that the CSTO Charter provides for.” 
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict highlights the stark contrast between Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s choices concerning security alliances and their outcomes. Azerbaijan’s strategic decision to prioritize partnerships with Turkey and Israel, both of whom provided significant military support, proved to be more effective in achieving its goals. This choice allowed Azerbaijan to avoid being constrained by a security framework like the CSTO, which is heavily influenced by its Soviet past.
On the other hand, Armenia relied on the CSTO, expecting the organization to provide the necessary support and protection as a member state. However, the CSTO’s ineffectiveness in resolving the conflict and inability to prevent Armenia’s defeat exposed its limitations as a regional military alliance. This outcome serves as a stark reminder for Armenia that hedging its bets on the CSTO and Russia might not always guarantee the desired support in times of crisis.
Assessing the CSTO’s Ineffectiveness
The CSTO’s ineffectiveness in resolving or managing conflicts like the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is a result of several factors, many of which are deeply intertwined with Russia’s perceived interests, distractions, and disputes. These factors, including personal disputes, lack of resources, internal divisions, and limitations of the organization’s mandate, serve to underline the CSTO’s dependence on Russia, which significantly influences the organization’s actions. This dependence on Russia means that when Moscow’s interests clash with those of its member states, the CSTO’s capacity to act in their favor is severely limited, rendering it ineffective in achieving its stated goals. Consequently, the organization exists primarily on paper and lacks a truly independent and effective presence in practice.
Consequently, this has allowed for the influence of the United States to further embed itself into Russia’s backyard. Despite Armenia’s membership in the CSTO and both Armenia and Azerbaijan being post-Soviet states, Washington remains invested in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, actively participating in peace negotiations. Recently, Yerevan announced that a new round of talks would be held in Washington to normalise relations between the two nations. This involvement by the US highlights their interest in the region and potentially addresses concerns about Moscow’s perceived lack of adequate mediation efforts in the past, which some critics argue were driven by Russia’s own interests.
Moscow’s position on the conflict changed before the Second War
Moscow’s stance on the conflict has shifted over time, with notable changes occurring before the Second War.
However, recent tensions at the Lachin checkpoint demonstrate that Moscow is closely monitoring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, despite its historical reluctance to become directly involved. While traditionally having close ties with Armenia, Russia’s strained relationship with Yerevan under Pashinyan’s leadership, as well as its involvement in other conflicts such as Ukraine, may limit its ability to engage more actively in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The dispute between Putin-Pashinyan can be traced back to Pashinyan’s rise to power in 2018, following a peaceful revolution known as the “Velvet Revolution.” Pashinyan, perceived as a pro-Western leader, adopted a more independent stance from Russia compared to his predecessors, which might have strained the relationship between the two leaders.
One example of the tensions between Putin and Pashinyan occurred in June 2019, when Pashinyan criticized the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a Russia-led economic bloc, for failing to ensure fair competition among its members. He stated, “We are obliged to note that, unfortunately, the principle of fair competition is not fully observed in the EAEU market.” 
Furthermore, Pashinyan’s government initiated prosecutions against several high-profile figures with close ties to Russia, including former President Robert Kocharyan, who faced charges related to the violent crackdown on protesters in 2008. This move was seen as a direct challenge to Moscow’s influence in Armenia. 
The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, a vestige of the Soviet legacy in the Caucasus, has once again intensified. Although it has simmered for decades, the most recent eruption occurred in May 2021 and was halted by a tense and delicate Russian-managed ceasefire. Despite ongoing clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the contested areas, causing casualties and insecurity amongst civilian populations, this conflict does not hold the global public’s attention as the Russia-Ukraine conflict is portrayed as the ‘central war’ not only in Europe but also for the entire world.
The overemphasis on the Ukraine theatre of conflict does not preclude other military confrontations from taking place around the world. Recent evidence supporting this claim includes Chinese drills or preparations for a mass invasion of Taiwan and the Sudanese coup attempt. Consequently, it is crucial to maintain a dynamic evaluation of local and regional conflicts in order to accurately assess national interests in international politics and develop a more holistic and efficient understanding of ‘human security’ as the most critical component of national security.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan war over the Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh region is not solely confined to the national, territorial, and strategic interests of these two parties. A complex yet comprehensible matrix of alliances has formed around this conflict, placing its dynamics and ground realities in the context of a regional power struggle that currently involves Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Russia. Moreover, the religious and ethnic aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute can also escalate into a broader spectrum of identity politics, similar to how cultural, linguistic, and historical identities bind Turkey and Azerbaijan to a common position on this issue.
While the most recent iteration of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has provided opportunities for battle-testing unmanned platforms and modern military tactics, the displacement and human suffering caused by the war must not be overlooked. The unwavering stances taken by both opposing parties do not aid the cause of a negotiated settlement and peaceful resolution to the dispute. It is also possible that recent developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh region could lead to the de facto cancellation of the tripartite statement signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 10, 2020. An innovative solution to the conflict may gain more potency if the international community can propose a framework that is acceptable to both Azerbaijan and Armenia and is perceived as legitimate by their citizens.