Iran’s reaction to the Four-Day War and the factor of its ethnic Azeris

It is traditionally said that Armenia and neighbouring Iran maintain good relations and that Tehran is sticking to a policy of neutrality in the Karabakh conflict, regardless of its huge Azeri ethnic minority and the official rhetoric of Islamic consolidation. Tehran, since the start of the conflict in the early 1990’s has repeatedly made offers of mediation, which however, are of little effect, due to the sceptical attitude of other regional and global players, including Russia and of course the USA who are unanimous in keeping Iran’s  influence as limited as possible in the Caucasus

Text : Tigran Zakaryan

Avast region in Iran bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan is inhabited predominantly by the Turkic-speaking Azeri population with a large section of them who consider themselves kin to the Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan.
Azeri or Pan-Azeri nationalism has always been a problem for Iran’s government, which they have tried to resolve through different methods under different regimes. The current government is constantly underlining the importance of the Shi’i-Islamic and all-Iranian solidarity over narrow ethnic allegiances, while the ongoing struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan to its north is a potential threat which could mobilize ethnic Azeris and serve as a  catalyst, empowering their ethnic consciousness.
April’s unprecedented escalation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh (soon coined as Four Day War), inflamed Iran’s ethnic Azeri displays of solidarity with Azerbaijan against Armenia.
On the grassroots level the solidarity with Azerbaijan among ethnic Azeris was generally more apparent, than on official or semi-official level. Oneinstance of such solidarity display occurred at a match played in Iran’s East Azerbaijan provincial capital of Tabriz on the 6th April. Fans of the local TraktorSazi, the most popular team among ethnic Azeris, chanted slogans such as “Karabakh is ours and will be ours” before and after the match. The fans also carried banners with various slogans in support of Azerbaijan, which were written not only in Azeri, but also in Persian and English. Azeri solidarity displays were also occasionally seen on higher level too.
Weeks after the conflict flare-up, the East Azarbayjan TV (Sahand TV) showed on 23rd May Ayatollah Mojtahed-Shabestari (the representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamaeni in the province) talking in Azeri at a meeting with a group of members of religious and cultural NGOs from the Azerbaijani Republic. Shabestari said that “Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan and belongs to Islam”.

The TV channel later said that the chairman of the Azerbaijani State Committee for Religious Organizations, MubarizQurbanli, “appreciated Iran for supporting Azerbaijan over the Karabakh conflict”, adding that people of Azerbaijan would never forget the aid provided by Iran and Iranian officials in this regard. He also mentioned that Wahhabism and the spreading false interpretations of Islam harms all Muslim countries.
It would be wrong however to state that the clerical leadership in all Azeri-populated communities in the north was anti-Armenian.
For example, The Supreme Leader’s representative in the province of West Azarbayjan and Friday imam of Orumiyeh, Hojjatol-Eslam-val-Moslemin Seyyed Mehdi Qoreyshi, was much more reserved in his assessment of the situation days after the Four Day war.
Referring to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and deadly clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Qoreyshi said during Friday prayers on 8th April that the conflict has been raging for 20 years and the international organisations have done nothing to bring an end to it. He thanked the Iranian government for their response to the issue and efforts towards establishing peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, claiming that “any kind of conflicts and riots are against the region”, the channel reported.
An incident, which could potentially intensify anti-Armenian sentiment among Iran’s ethnic Azeris, occurred at the very start of the sudden eruption of hostilities on the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh. Major Iranian media outlets, including the official Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (VIRI) and Tasnim agency reported that several mortar shells fired by either party in the conflict during the night of 2nd April landed in a locality across Iranian border, also causing damage to infrastructure. Due to the incident it was claimed that the damage caused temporary power outages in three villages of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. The Iranian media quoted the deputy governor-general of East Azerbaijan Province for political and security affairs Sa’id Shabestari-Khiabani, confirming the report.
The same official was quoted by Tasnim agency on 3 April as saying: “At present, full security is established on borders of the East Azerbaijan province and armed forces and border guards are ready to give a determined response to any kind of encroachment against our territory”.
He added that necessary measures had been taken by the provincial Security Council, after three shells fell in Khodaafarin village at 14:30 GMT on the 2nd April, consequently damaging an electricity post.
“Following this incident, the provincial Borders Guards [Service] requested a meeting on the border with the two parties [Azerbaijani and Karabakh administrations]. At this meeting, the two parties involved in the conflict were seriously counselled and given an official warning by the Border Guards [Service] of the Islamic Republic [of Iran]. They promised that such an incident would not reoccur,” Shabestari said.
Sahbestari was also seen as pointing to Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian forces as the most culpable party, whilst Yerevan was quick to intervene by summoning the Iranian ambassador for clarification and to consequently deny such a statement.
Armenian Deputy Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan had briefed the Iranian military attaché in Yerevan (Hossein Sheikhi) on the shelling of an Iranian village during clashes between Azerbaijani and Nagorno Karabakh forces, Armenpress news agency reported on 4th April.
Regarding Shabestari-Khiabani’s allegations, the Armenian deputy defence minister responded, saying: “The Armenian side, after confirming the geographical coordinates of the village in question, states that the settlement is located behind Nagorno Karabakh forces and, therefore, it is unlikely that the ethnic Armenian forces shelled it. Tonoyan also reportedly claimed that “the incident resembled a provocation and was not in the interest of the Armenian side.”

Tonoyan and Sheikhi also made arrangements to regularly exchange information “in order to exclude any misinformation,” Armenpress reported, adding that Nagorno Karabakh forces promised to conduct their own investigation into the incident.
Other Iranian officials also spoke on the incident in a rather stern and even, one might say,threatening manner. The Iranian Law Enforcement Force (police) Border Guards Commander Qasem Rezaei said in a statement that he had seriously warned Azerbaijan and Armenia of hitting Iranian border villages by shrapnel, Mehr News Agency reported on 5 April.
State radio VIRI quoted the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, as expressing “serious concern” over the clashes and calling on both sides to exercise “self-restraint”.
Iranian officials also made attempts at quelling the flare-up of hostilities, which from the very first day showed their serious negative potential for Tehran as well.
Iranian Defence Minister Brig-Gen Hoseyn Dehqan called for the immediate cessation of the “military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan”, urging “both sides to exercise restraint, and resolve the dispute through dialogue”, as reported by conservative Khorasan newspaper on the 4th April.
Dehqan was reportedly said to have held separate conversations via telephone with his counterparts, the Azerbaijani and Armenian defence ministers Zakir Hasanov and Seyran Ohanyan.
IRINN Iranian rolling news channel said on the 5th April that the Azerbaijani economic minister and Iranian communications minister had a telephone conversation and the Iranian side stressed that “Armenia and Azerbaijan should put an end to the conflict”. The Iranian minister voiced Iran’s preparedness to help both countries resolve the issue, the news channel added.
Later, months after the flare-up of the conflict, Iranian Presdient Hasan Rouhani at a joint press conference with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (on the side-lines of the Trilateral Iran-Russia-Azerbaijan Summit on 7-8 August) held in Baku, reiterated earlier offers to mediate in the conflict.


Iranian media’s concerns over the clashes
The Iranian media shared concern over the resumption of hostilities in Karabakh and expressed a rather cautious attitude towards possible Turkish involvement in the conflict.
Hard-line daily Vatan-e Emruz said on 5th April that Turkey “is fomenting the flames of war” in Karabakh and that only Iran and Russia can work together to establish peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The newspaper wrote that Baku had proposed an “unrealistic” condition for ceasefire such as the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azeri territories where, the author said, Armenians have been living for approximately100 years. “Baku’s condition means the continuation of war”, the author said.
Meanwhile, Hard-line Keyhan said that Iran, Russia and Turkey, together with Azerbaijan and Armenia, will be able to reach a solution to the Karabakh conflict.
Some media outlets largely reported from the Armenian side, probably to counter-balance the impression that Karabakh Armenians stood behind the shelling incident in the East Azerbaijan province.

For instance, Iran’s English-language Press TV news channel on the 3rd April reported the Armenian and Karabakh officials’ remarks on the intensifying clashes without mentioning Azerbaijan’s position.
The channel aired Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s remarks about Armenia’s position on the clashes at a meeting of the National Security Council.
The channel later showed an interview with David Babayan, the spokesman for the Karabakh president, accusing Azerbaijan of violating international law.
At the same time, with the above said, it should be noted that due to the political and social idiosyncrasies of Iran, we cannot gauge just how deep the sympathy among ethnic Azeris with Azerbaijan against Armenia could manifest. We can claim that this could be a warning sign for Tehran in its current policies against nationalist and even separatist or secessionist tendencies in Azeri-populated regions. However, the contrast between the reaction of Iranian media, officials and the population and clerics in Azeri-populated regions could signal another split amongst Iranian society along ethnic lines.
The Four Day War was a serious challenge to Tehran’s uneasy policy of balancing between the Azeri ethnic sentiment and its own state interest. Iranian diplomacy (through its active neutrality and media) offered a rather balanced and occasionally even somewhat pro-Armenian image of the conflict, thus preventing growth of the potentially dangerous anti-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani sentiment among a portion of its population, which could threaten destabilization inside the country.