A strategic storm is brewing on the frontier of the South Caucasus and the northern rim of the Middle East. It involves the cross-border ethnic Azerbaijani population that forms a majority in Azerbaijan and is the largest minority group in Iran. Baku’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, resulting in Azerbaijan having a much longer border with Iran, and the unrest accelerating regime evolution in the Islamic Republic could create a crisis on Iran’s northern flank. Tehran is facing a significant challenge from its ethnic Azerbaijani citizenry which it discriminated against for decades.
Baku-Teheran relations are at a nadir after a gunman murdered the security chief of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran in January. Tit-for-tat followed. Iran expelled four Azerbaijani diplomats on May 5, which itself was in response to Baku’s April 6 move to expel four Iranian diplomats in retaliation for the March 29 assassination attempt on one of its prominent lawmakers, Fazil Mustafa. Tensions between the two countries experienced another spike in the wake of the March 29 opening of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tel Aviv. Days after Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen’s April 19 visit to Baku, thirty-two Israeli lawmakers sent a letter to Cohen’s office expressing support for Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani minority. Coincidentally, on April 20, Israel opened its embassy in Turkmenistan.
That last data point is noteworthy. Having made significant inroads in the Arab world, with Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza serving as a launchpad for its operations against Israel, Iran is now increasingly worried about what it perceives is a growing Israeli presence on its northern flank. This is in addition to the fact that its historic Sunni Muslim competitor, Turkey, has also made major inroads into the Trans-Caspian region, where Ankara is trying to create a strategic Turkic corridor.
For the longest time, Tehran took comfort from the fact that its regional ally Armenia served as a check on Azerbaijan, and Russia managed the balance of power in the South Caucasus. Turkey’s increasing influence in what was a Russian sphere of influence since 2020, followed by the Kremlin’s military and economic weakening in the aftermath of its 2022 war on Ukraine, is a cause of major concern for Iran.
Historically, much of the South Caucasus, along with parts of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, was under Persian control and was lost to the Russians in the early 1800s. Iran’s northern borders were established in three treaties with Moscow throughout much of the nineteenth century. For the better part of the twentieth century, Iran’s pro-Western Pahlavi monarchy represented a frontline state straddling the Soviet Union. Even after the ouster of the monarchy in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamist regime, Tehran was in no position to try and regain influence in the South Caucasus.
It was not until the 1991 Soviet implosion that Iran was able to use Shia Islamism to project power into a then newly-sovereign Azerbaijan, a Western-leaning secular Turkic, Shia majority nation. This was not just an offensive strategy but also a defensive one: an independent Azerbaijan could now do the reverse, leveraging Azerbaijani ethnonationalism to weaken the clerical regime—an objective on which Azerbaijan and Israel see eye-to-eye.
While it is expected that the Iranian regime would accuse Israel of supporting Azerbaijani separatism in Iran, the same claim was notably made by Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah’s son. Additionally, during a mid-April visit to Israel, Pahlavi got some Israeli parliamentarians to retract their signatures from the Knesset letter in support of Iranian ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Now that Tehran is faced with significant domestic unrest, it is all the more fearful of ethnic minorities that have been Persianized linguistically. There is worry that non-Farsi groups may culturally rise up against the theocratic order—in particular ethnic Azerbaijanis, who form about a quarter of the country’s 88 million people.
In the fast-approaching post-Khamenei era, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will likely complete the process of supplanting the clergy as the principal center of power in the Islamic Republic. But the IRGC will be unable to rely on coercive means alone to ensure that minority communities such as the Azerbaijanis, as well as the Baluchis, Kurds, and Arabs, will remain loyal to a shape-shifting regime.
Azerbaijanis have been at the forefront of the protests that broke out after the killing of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who morality police murdered last year after arresting her for not observing the hijab. “Freedom, justice, and national government” has been the common slogan on the streets of Tabriz, Urmia, and Ardabil, the three largest ethnic Azerbaijani population centers in northwestern Iran. Azerbaijani protest activists have become a leading factor in the Iranian protest movement. Eight different protest organizations united around the Telegram channel AZFRONT, based in the city of Tabriz. The accelerating regime evolution is an opportunity for ethnic Azerbaijanis to revive their ethnolinguistic Turkic identity. During a 2011 visit to Turkey, Ali Akbar Salehi, a former Iranian foreign minister, acknowledged that as many as 40 percent of all Iranians speak Azerbaijani.
As its religious influence continues to wane, the regime will try to use Iranian nationalism as a means of maintaining unity among the masses. This will not work—only about half of the country is ethnically Persian. Iran’s rulers will have to forge a new social contract with the country’s minorities, especially the ethnic Azerbaijanis—or face dire consequences to national coherence.
Kamran Bokhari, PhD is the Senior Director of the Eurasian Security & Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.
Image: Sepah News.