Since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, tensions between Iran and the emerging Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan Axis have significantly escalated. It is now glaringly obvious that Iran grossly miscalculated the new reality that would emerge with Azerbaijan capturing Armenian-held territories in the South Caucasus.
A major motivating factor of Azerbaijan’s insistence on controlling Nagorno-Karabakh is the Greater Pan-Turkic project, where Turkey sees itself as the domineering center of a sphere of influence stretching from Istanbul to Western China. Rather than dealing with this project, which supports Turkic separatist ideals in Iran, Tehran decided on pan-Islamic optics and continually congratulated and praised Azerbaijan’s capture of historically-demographically-culturally Armenian territories.
In the first week of the war, three representatives of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a joint statement saying: “There is no doubt that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan and its government's move to recapture the region is completely legal, according to Shari'a, and in line with four Resolutions of the United Nation's Security Council.” In the final days of the war, Khamenei said in a television broadcast that “all Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia should be freed. All these lands should be given back to Azerbaijan.”
Despite Tehran’s consistent moral support for Azerbaijan’s war effort, it became clear that there was naivety about the latter’s regional ambitions. Iran was never a part of the new regional reconfiguration that Turkey and Azerbaijan were trying to establish. In fact, it is becoming more evident that Turkey and Azerbaijan have intentions of weaponizing, as part of their pan-Turkic project, the approximate 15-18 million Azeris living in Iran – that is more than the entire population of Azerbaijan.
On December 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recited a poem in Baku during a victory parade celebrating the Azerbaijani victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. The poem, a symbol of pan-Turkism, laments how the Azeri people are divided between Azerbaijan and Iran’s Azeri-majority northwest.
Even with this provocation, Tehran was eager to quickly move on, yet again refusing to acknowledge the shifts in power and influence occurring in the South Caucasus. In August 2021, Azerbaijani soldiers began mistreating Iranian truck drivers along the Goris-Kapan Highway which links Iran to Armenia through the newly Azerbaijani-administered Nagorno-Karabakh region. Once again though, Tehran quickly sidestepped the issue and accepted Azerbaijan’s explanations for harassing their truck drivers.
Tehran’s realization that it had grossly miscalculated its policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh finally came when Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan held joint military exercises. It is worth noting that Pakistan is on Iran’s eastern border whilst Turkey and Azerbaijan are on its northwest and northern border respectively. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh questioned the legality of the exercises, highlighting that according to the Caspian Sea’s legal conventions, the military presence of non-littoral states in this sea is illegal.
However, Iran encouraged Azerbaijan’s violation of OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, the United States and France) objectives and United Nations resolutions on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute without violence. By doing so, Tehran put itself in a difficult position where on the one hand it was encouraging Azerbaijani violations of international law, but is now complaining that the very same country is violating agreements that directly affect Iran’s own security.
Tensions have now reached unprecedented heights, with a war of words occurring between lawmakers from the two countries, and major Iranian military exercises being conducted along large stretches of the Iran-Azerbaijan border.
According to Tehran Times, one Azerbaijani lawmaker claimed that Pakistan’s army would invade Tehran if it made any hostile move against Baku. Another lawmaker threatened to cut Iran’s tail. Fada-Hossein Maleki, a leading member of the Iranian parliament sitting on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said: “The drills carried out by the governments of Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are worrying,” adding that Iran is closely following the situation along the Iran-Azerbaijan border. Mohammad Reza Ahmadi Sangari, another Iranian lawmaker, tweeted that the leaders of Baku have been “illusioned” by their victory in Nagorno-Karabakh which was achieved by “Turkish doping.”
Middle East specialist Mikhail Magid believes that the alliance between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan is directed against Iran, India and Russia, as they are among their biggest challengers to their goals in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Again, the interest in these regions is motivated by Ankara’s pan-Turkic project to become the dominant power and influence in Central Asia. With foreign policy pursuits being guided by identity politics, it is impossible for Turkey and Azerbaijan to reconcile with Iran as it is not only home to millions of native Turkic-speakers, but it is also a land bridge that connects the Turkic-speaking Anatolia and Caucasus from the ethnically Turkic Central Asia.
It is for this reason that Turkey has also pinned a lot of trust and cooperation with Pakistan, a country with no founding story other than being established as a country for South Asia’s Muslims. To create a national identity, separate from their Indian origins, Pakistani intellectuals have been engaging in historical revisionism, claiming that today’s Pakistanis are the descendants of Turkic warlords and Mughals who conquered northern India over the past 1,000 years.
It is through identity politics that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan are consolidating and strengthening their relations, something that become emboldened following the success of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War to more closely interconnect the Turkic World. For Iran, this poses as a major threat to its own sovereignty and domestic stability, something that will surely be weaponized by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan as they aim to muscle out regional competitors, including India and Russia, in their pursuit to shape the region according to their own image and interests.
Yet again, one can’t help but think how the regional situation would be different today if Iran opted to view the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War through the optics of realism rather than Political Islam.