The Dynamics of Türkiye-Iran Relations During the Second Karabakh War

07.09.2023

On 27th September 2020, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War began when Azerbaijan launched a military operation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was previously occupied by Armenia. In addition to the war’s regional dynamics, this operation also had repercussions on Türkiye-Iran relations and ultimately reshaped the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. Türkiye provided support for Azerbaijan, while Iran generally took a pro-Armenian stance that varied occasionally but ultimately leaned towards favouring Armenia. Following Azerbaijan’s successive recapture of its territories occupied by Armenia, Iranian officials have expressed their support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Unlike Iran’s changing position, Türkiye has taken an unwavering stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The role of Iran’s reluctance to confront Türkiye must not be disregarded in the instability of its policies towards this war. The absence of consistent anti-Azerbaijani policies from Iran has contributed to shifting dynamics in the South Caucasus region, favouring Azerbaijan and thereby Türkiye. This has also influenced relations between Türkiye and Iran.

During the war, the Iranian Foreign Minister at the time, Javad Zarif, expressed Iran’s desire to act as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the Second Karabakh War. However, the Norduz border crossing incidents limited Iran’s ability to act as a mediator due to their impact on Iran’s foreign policy.  Due to allegations that Iran was transporting arms to Armenia through the Norduz border crossing, Iranians of Turkish descent took to the streets, destroyed lorries travelling to the border crossing, and chanted slogans such as “Karabakh is Turkish, Karabakh will remain Turkish, let Nurduz customs be closed!” The Iranian government explained that this incident caused a misunderstanding in its statement. On the other hand, an objective example of Türkiye’s support for Azerbaijan during the war was the Parliament’s endorsement of the Presidential Decree to deploy troops to Azerbaijan on 17th November 2020.

The 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had significant impacts on the region. Firstly, it shortened the length of the border between Armenia and Iran to 40 kilometres, which consequently reduced Iran’s influence in the South Caucasus region. Secondly, the creation of the Turkish-Russian Joint Monitoring Centre in Azerbaijan has considerably diminished Iran’s role as a significant actor in the region. Additionally, Iran avoided confrontation with Türkiye’s during this time, given its internal problems and international sanctions that restricted its influence in the war. Moreover, Iran abstained from participating in post-war negotiations. On 9th November 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia commenced peace talks. On the following day, several media outlets reported that Iran had reservations regarding the agreement signed on 10th November, which included the reopening of the Nakhchivan-Zangezur-Zangilan road.  The reasons for Iran’s limited involvement in the outcome of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War require careful consideration.

This was due to its inability to predict the course of the war and assess the effectiveness of Türkiye’s support. The initial factor limiting Iran’s influence in the war was its indecisive policy. The second factor was Türkiye’s policies and their support to Azerbaijan, which further diminished Iran’s influence. Finally, regarding the second reason, Iran was hesitant to confront Türkiye during this process, as it was preoccupied with its internal affairs and international sanctions, thereby limiting its impact in the war.

It is also necessary to examine why Iran has adopted a more pro-Armenian stance in this war, which could lead to serious changes in this region. The map shows Iran can link with Russia via Georgia through its shared border with Armenia. The connection between Azerbaijan and Türkiye is being strengthened through the opening of the Zangezur Corridor, which was included in the Shusha declaration signed at the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.  This corridor also leads to the encirclement of Iran’s northern border with Turkish corridors. The war has brought Türkiye to an important position in the region. Indeed, as a result of its support to Azerbaijan, Türkiye took part as Russia’s partner in the Joint Monitoring Centre. Türkiye, which played an active role both during and after the war with this Center, was also there after Azerbaijan’s decisive victory. President Erdoğan’s participation in the victory celebrations and singing the Aras folk song was a clear symbol of Türkiye ‘s position.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which started on 27 September 2020, became one of the crisis areas of Türkiye -Iran relations. With the effect of Türkiye ‘s decisive stance, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War ended in Azerbaijan’s favour and led to the strengthening of the Türkiye -Azerbaijan line in shaping the regional dynamics. Iran, with its Azeri population and its unwillingness to confront Türkiye in this war limited its room for manoeuvre in foreign policy. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War almost reshaped the region. Especially with the Zangezur Corridor, Türkiye and Azerbaijan became closer to each other and Türkiye ‘s access to the Turk states in Central Asia became easier.

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