Historically, Tehran has aligned with Christian Armenia over Shiite Muslim, but pro-Western, Azerbaijan. Yet the recent outbreak of fighting between the two former Soviet republics poses a dilemma for neighboring Iran, as members of its large population of ethnic Azeris have been vocally expressing their support for their brethren across the border. Alex Vatanka explains:
Azerbaijan, one of four Shiite Muslim-majority countries in the world (together with Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain), also happens to have close economic, military, and intelligence ties with Israel, Tehran’s regional archfoe. But the popular momentum behind fully siding with Baku has been so great that Tehran has not even allowed Azerbaijan’s close partnership with Israel to get in the way. . . . Simply put, Iran is not in a position to act in opposition to its own Azeri minority.
Also at play in Iran’s calculations will be Turkey, the third-party actor in this conflict that Tehran watches the most intently. Tehran has accused Ankara of fueling the conflict by urging Azerbaijan to . . . attempt to recapture as much of its occupied territory as possible before agreeing to a ceasefire and diplomatic talks. However, while Iran is still tangled up with Turkey in Syria—where Iran supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad while Turkey backs the opposition—Tehran won’t want to escalate tensions over Armenia and Azerbaijan too far.
[Moreover], despite the lingering suspicion between the two powers, Turkey is an important neighbor and trading partner for Iran. Thanks to its isolation, Tehran does not want to see Ankara join its (already long) list of open adversaries. No matter how carefully the Iranians play their cards in this latest conflict in the South Caucasus, the simple reality is that Tehran holds a much weaker hand in the region now than it did in the early 1990s.