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Iran at Risk From Spillover of Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes

Intense fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan is taking place in proximity to Iran’s northwestern border, which it shares with both countries. While Turkey has sided firmly with Azerbaijan and Russia stands behind Armenia, Iran may face the greatest risk of any neighboring country because the war has resulted in vocal domestic opposition, sparked tensions with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and carries the risk of a potential spill-over into Iranian territory.

Iran has a substantial Azerbaijani minority – approximately one-third of the population – which is protesting Tehran’s support for Armenia. Most of Iran’s Azerbaijani population is concentrated near its border with the conflict zone, but Tehran also has a significant Azerbaijani community. The outbreak of fighting last week has prompted protests in multiple Iranian cities, including Tehran, Tabriz, Urmia, and Zanjan. More than 20 Azerbaijani activists in Ardebil have been arrested, and Amnesty International has warned that they are at risk. Unrest among Azerbaijanis may augment ongoing anti-regime activity.

The current protests demand that Tehran stop Russian convoys to supply Armenia via Iran, as confirmed by Iranian state television. Representatives of the Azerbaijani community in Iran have also threatened to disrupt the convoys if they continue. Iranian officials acknowledge that Tehran has supported Armenia since the onset of the latter’s conflict with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, out of fear that Azerbaijan could attract Iran’s own Azerbaijani population. If domestic Azerbaijani opposition remains active, Tehran may find it difficult to sustain its material support for Armenia.

Many of the battles between Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking place in close proximity to the Iranian border, leading Iranian officials to declare their readiness to defend that border. Already, Azerbaijan has regained control of regions and infrastructure near the border, such as the Khudafarin bridge on the Araz River. Tehran runs a joint hydroelectric project near the bridge together with Armenia’s occupation authorities.

Tehran warned both sides to avoid “intrusions” after it alleged that artillery fire hit villages on the Iranian side of the border. Reportedly, Iran is fortifying its troops and air defenses in the region. The return of Baku’s control over some Armenian-occupied territories bordering Iran now lengthens the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, something Tehran has worked to avoid, preferring an Armenian presence.

Iranian alignment with Armenia and Russia has also led to tension with Turkey, whose media outlets, including government-sponsored TRT, have criticized Iran’s support for Armenia. Some Turkish outlets have mocked Iran’s alleged commitment to “Islamic solidarity” given that it now sides with majority-Christian Armenia. Over the last year, Turkey has significantly reduced its imports of natural gas from Iran, a trend that is likely to continue in light of their further disagreements.

Tehran also is likely not happy that Azerbaijan is using Israeli-supplied weapons in close proximity to Iran’s border. Israel’s support for Azerbaijan also seems to be fostering appreciation for Israel among a significant number of Azerbaijanis in Iran. Since Turkey and Israel both support Azerbaijan, this may provide an opportunity for Ankara and Jerusalem to improve relations.

While Russia and Turkey may each gain from the developments in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, it seems that Tehran only loses.

Brenda Shaffer is a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). She is also a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School. For more analysis from Brenda, the Iran Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brenda on Twitter @ProfBShaffer. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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