The fallout from Israel’s objection to Iran’s nearing the development of a nuclear capability is the underlying though not the primary cause of the recent friction at Armenia’s border with Iran. As America begins to retrench from the Middle East wars, the overarching regional conflict between Iran and Israel is now shifting over to Azerbaijan and Turkey insisting on taking over Armenia’s borderland contiguous to Iran in violation of Armenia’s territorial integrity. This locus recently coined as the “Zangezur Corridor” would create a land link between Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave located at Armenia’s West to mainland Azerbaijan on Armenia’s East. Strategically, this will allow Turkey – a close ally, an ethnic and linguistic relative of Azeris— to expand its economic reach and political influence through an unobstructed land route that extends from its European border in Eastern Thrace to the Caspian Sea and over to its ancestral lands of Central Asia that border China. This expansion would effectively lay down the foundations of Turkey’s long-envisioned Turanian empire.
The takeover of the Zangezur Corridor has equal, if not more important, economic and geopolitical benefits for Turkey. Back in 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the opening of China’s silk road –a brand new double trade corridor set to reopen channels between China and its neighbors in the West: most notably Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. What makes this plan, also known as the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), critical to understanding the Zangezur Corridor conflict is the fact that the silk road is designed to traverse through Turkey on its way to Europe while circumventing Armenia. Avoidance of Armenia becomes a pivotal geopolitical advantage to China’s competitors.
It is politically well established that China and India are Asia’s major adversaries. Within this complex geopolitical backdrop, China, Pakistan, and Pakistan’s close ally, Turkey including Azerbaijan have developed an unholy alliance against the competing forces of India and Iran. While not necessarily adversarial, as in China-Iran relations, these alliances are real and relevant within the context of the larger economic realities presented by the silk road.
To countervail the effects of the silk road, India has planned an alternative economic trade route of its own to prevent its isolation and compete against China. India’s proposed road to the European market must by necessity circumvent countries that are in alliance with the Chinese plan; namely, and most relevantly within the context of the Zangezur conflict, Turkey and Azerbaijan, which are in solid partnership and political and ideological alliance with India’s perennial nemesis, Pakistan.
This political polarization leaves India with the only alternative option of shipping its goods to Iran via the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf. The goods will then traverse Iran by land to cross the Armenian border of Zangezur –the only friendly route available to reach the Black Sea ports of Georgia to be shipped across to the shores of Europe.
To prevent India from using Iran as its transit hub, Turkey, through its surrogate Azerbaijan has decided to capture the Zangezur Corridor to monopolize the economic trade routes to Europe. By capturing the corridor, Turkey and its client state, Azerbaijan, almost completely encircle Armenia, leaving the border of an unreliably neutral Georgia as Armenia’s only outlet to the outside world. The result is a landlock that foretells a bad omen reminiscent of the days Armenians were subjugated to the whims of their Ottoman overlords.
Azerbaijan has had close diplomatic, economic, and defense industry ties with Israel since relations began in 1992. During Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year, Baku — heavily backed by the Turkish military — deployed Israeli-made Kamikaze (IAI Harop) drones on the battlefield, which when coupled with the highly advanced Turkish Bayrakdar drones caused major havoc on Armenian forces.
Taking advantage of his victory over the defeated Armenian forces, Aliyev, who seems to be in a state of euphoric stupor, appears to be under the spell of his Turkish overlords, who stand to gain the most out of appropriating the Zangezur Corridor. Turkey’s rush to force Armenia to buckle under the pressure and deliver the corridor before it manages to recover from its military defeat is its strategy to strike while the iron is hot and before Western powers begin to intervene for an equitable peace deal.
A series of provocative events directly aimed at pressuring Armenia to give up its Zangezur Corridor with Iran as a pretext to simply link up the two separate parts of Azerbaijan was perceived as a tacit diversionary setup to deny Iran access to Armenia. By forcefully acquiring the Armenian borderland with Iran (i.e., the Zangezur Corridor), Iran would then be alternatively forced to ship the goods through the Turkish/Azerbaijani-acquired Zangezur Corridor to move India’s products to Europe. This would make Turkey and Azerbaijan the beneficiaries of both the Chinese silk road and its Indian counterpart. Iran’s reaction to this is that it will not tolerate any geopolitical or map changes in the Caucasus that would subordinate Iran’s interests to those of its Turkic neighbors.
The intensity of Azerbaijan’s provocative events of recent weeks caused the percolating years-long developments to erupt and enflame relations that had remained dormant for years.
The first signs of provocation began when Turkey, true to its tried and tested methods in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, sent its Syrian Islamist Jihadi terrorists to fight alongside the Azeris against the Armenian forces in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war. After the war, Jihadis never left the area. Azerbaijan and Turkey gave the Jihadi terrorists and their families incentives to begin settlements in the region. The precedent of surrounding Iran with settlements of Jihadis of the Sunni denomination of Islam who consider Shiites heretics did not sit well with Iran’s Shia leaders.
Tensions continued to mount between Tehran and Baku when Azerbaijani forces began to block, fine, and in a couple of instances detain, Iranian truck drivers on the Goris-Kapan Highway in Armenia’s Syunik Province where Azerbaijan had managed to occupy a strip of that Armenian land during the Karabakh war. Upon Iranian protest, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev began delivering tirades and in an insulting move displayed a doctored poster of the assassinated Iranian commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani to further provoke Iranian ire.
Tehran took Aliyev’s shenanigans as an affront to Iran’s sovereignty and its right to protect its citizens against unlawful levies and in some instances arrest of its citizen while transporting goods to stranded Armenians in the Artsakh region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a move to escalate tensions, news emerged that an Azerbaijani assassin allegedly hired by Iran sought to kill wealthy Israeli businesspeople in Cyprus.
To further inflame the situation, Azerbaijan conducted a naval exercise allowing members of the Turkish military to join its naval forces in the Caspian Sea, triggering condemnation from Iran asserting that the exercise violated norms excluding non-bordering countries from deploying forces on Caspian waters.
Having had enough and sensing ulterior motives, Iran began holding large-scale military exercises near the borders of Azerbaijan.
THE UNDERLYING CAUSAL CONNECTION OF THE CONFLICT
The twin fundamental causes that underly the eruption of this conflict is: (A) Iran’s near completion of its nuclear weapons program that Israel considers to be an existential threat to Israel; and (B) the existence of known, but officially denied, Israeli military and intelligence bases in Azerbaijan conceivably to facilitate the launching of attacks and offensives against Iran and its nuclear facilities from a closer distance than Israel. Iran expresses “serious concerns” about Israel’s presence in the Caucasus as tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan mount over Baku’s ties with Israel, a major arms supplier.
The crescendo effect of these progressively worsening developments along Iran’s Armenian border has led Iran to mobilize forces and hold military drills close to its northwestern borders with Azerbaijan amid lingering tensions following Azerbaijan’s 44-day war with Armenia last year. In response, Azerbaijan and Turkey launched a joint military drill starting on Wednesday, the 6th of October – an ominous event reminiscent of last year’s drills that took place before the invasion of the Karabakh region.
The ace in the hole in this ongoing conflict is Putin’s role and influence in driving the forces and events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the unfolding developments and cascading reactions since the end of its kinetic phase. Russia is in the mode of making calculated concessions to Turkey to lure it away from NATO. Albeit adversaries in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, Russia, in an unprecedented move, allowed Turkey to establish a limited foothold in the Caucasus at the cost of facilitating the Armenian defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh by default.
To allay Turkey’s disappointment in denying its full integration into the Caucasus and to further alienate Turkey from the West, Putin offered Turkey the sale of the second tranche of its S-400 missiles and the free rein to capture its grand prize –the Zangezur Corridor. A prize from which Russia could also economically benefit as the two countries would secure a direct land-based passage through the borders between Russia and Azerbaijan to conduct trade.
Washington’s relative silence regarding the latter developments and particularly the anticipated purchase of the additional S-400 missiles from Russia may be a calculated measure awaiting the evolution of the Iran/Azerbaijan conflict that may draw Turkey into the fold. As the United States scales back its commitments throughout the Middle East, as recently manifested in Afghanistan, its reliance on regional partners will only increase. And in the wake of an impending nuclear Iran, the U.S. may very well be encouraging its surrogates Israel, Turkey, and Azerbaijan to accomplish its objectives. Such a war, sparked by the joint effort of Turkey and Azerbaijan to dispossess Armenia of its Zangezur border with Iran, however, will set the entire Middle East region on hell-fire that will create a tsunami of refugees that will engulf Europe with turmoil and chaos or even wars for decades to come.
In 2019, the United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program after NATO ally Ankara purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system. The reason the Turks were expelled from the program was that the Russian hardware poses a threat to the security of the technology included in the Lockheed-Martin-made F-35.
And yet, a UK-based Arabic news site Elaph has reported citing a senior Israeli source that two advanced Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets have been ‘permanently stationed’ in Azerbaijan. The report, published on 2 October, comes at a time of rising tension between Azerbaijan and Iran, with Iran threatening Azerbaijan and accusing it of hosting Israeli forces. If the S-400 indeed poses a threat to the security of the technology included in the F-35 when both weapons are concentrated in the same hands, how can one reconcile the fact that the anti-Iran protagonists in possession of the F-35 slated for use against Iran also have the possession and capacity to use Turkey’s S-400 missiles? It begs the question, could the F-35 be compromised in a quid pro quo exchange? Or do we trust our allies so much that we are willing to take the risk? Or perhaps the U.S. has already retrofitted the F-35 to prevent its vulnerability from the S-400.
Though Azerbaijan denies any Israeli presence on Azeri soil, the denial appears to be specious as this is not the first time reports of Israeli jets in Azerbaijan have emerged. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine cited four senior American diplomats and military intelligence officers as saying that the U.S. believed Israel had been granted access to an airbase in Azerbaijan. It is well established through other sources including the 2009 U.S. Embassy cable leaks via Wikileaks that Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy close relations, with Israel selling billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Azerbaijan, including sophisticated drones that were heavily relied on to destroy Armenian forces in the 2020 Karabakh war.
But Russian pundits have a different take on the situation. They believe that neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan is in a position to engage Iran in an all-out war that could wreak havoc and devastation with an uncertain outcome. Pakistan is under Chinese influence and thus not inclined to directly participate in a war against Iran unless sanctioned by China.
If by some ill-advised move Turkey decides to attack Iran, it will have some very serious problems with Russia that could lead to its defeat, say the Russians. Moreover, Turkey does not have a unified popular front in support of a war with Iran as Iran does. Despite its various ethnic populations, including some twenty-plus million Azeris, Iran can mobilize its population around its religious Shia faith.
What Russian pundits do not consider is that after its latest adventurism in the region, Turkey is now standing on a slippery slope. Its recent announcement to purchase additional Russian S-400 missiles has further alienated the United States. News of requesting to purchase 40 US-made F-16 fighter jets from the United States,
which some suspect might well be a gambit to set the stage for warplane negotiations with Russia, comes as a classic play of both ends against the middle just days after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government was planning to expand defense ties with Russia. This, while recognizing Crimea as Ukrainian territory seems to unsettle Russia. Russia knows that such recognition is meant to secure Turkey with military bases in the Ukraine, which Russia interprets as a further NATO intrusion upon its near abroad security belt. Regardless, Russia plays along knowing that luring Turkey away from NATO – by offering it, a heretofore denied, limited but concrete access to the Caucasus and a realistic opportunity to manifest its fledgling Pan-Turkist vision— is well worth it. But for Turkey to play both ends of the political chess game cannot but ultimately undermine its strategy.
To minimize the chances of an internal collapse and prevent a general uprising of its ethnic Azeri population that could trigger a copycat effect encouraging the remaining Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish ethnic groups to take advantage of the opportunity to secede from Iran, Iran devised a strategic rallying cry uniting all Iranians behind the struggle to defeat the Israeli Zionist aggressor. Characterizing the conflict as an anti-Israel crusade triggers the mechanism that could draw universal allegiance to the cause regardless of ethnic affinities. This clever maneuver is a prophylactic measure aimed at drawing the loyalty of the Azeri population who could otherwise empathize with and decide to unite with their Azerbaijani kin.
RUSSIA/TURKEY LONG-TERM STRATEGIC VISION
Iran is the only geographic barrier that impedes the joint long-term ambitious plan of Russia and Turkey to spread their otherwise unilaterally unachievable influence across the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, and over to South and South East Asia and Africa.
Notwithstanding Israel’s overt policy to destroy or diminish Iranian hegemony over it and the region, there is more reason to believe that the ultimate purpose of instigating and provoking Iran into war is to carry out a Russia/Turkey collusive plan of neutralizing Iran through a blitzkrieg operation. The plan hinges on whether Iran takes the bait. Turkey, including its Syrian Jihadi and Pakistani units, and Azerbaijan with the direct support of Israel presumably attack from the north/northeast of Iran while Pakistan strikes from the southeast. Meanwhile, Russia moves in to close the Armenia/Iran border to lock Iran within its territory and prevent it from activating India’s planned trade route to Europe. The by-product of this collusive plan, however, would likely trigger internal strife and spark secession movements with grave consequences for the entire region and the world. The probability of this collusive plan going into effect could very much be on the table despite the October 13, 2021, Azerbaijan and Iran agreement to de-escalate tensions through dialogue. Iran’s refusal to stop production of a nuclear bomb and/or Russia’s pressure forcing Armenia to allow Azerbaijan and Turkey the right to use its territory through the Zangezur Corridor may quickly reverse that process and spark a war. The collateral beneficiary of this war would, of course, be Israel – a plausible protagonist but not likely the architect.
Minding the fact that for the first time, an Indian Foreign Minister has just visited Armenia, it remains to be seen whether India will proactively take action to countervail the Russia/Turkish/Azerbaijani hostile plans in the region and protect its stake in its planned trade route to Europe through Armenia’s North/South Highway.
Trapped between the claws of the Russian bear, Armenia, with limited sway in conducting a free and independent foreign policy, will need all the diplomatic leverage it can muster from India to protect its Zangezur Corridor. Despite its desire to deepen its relations with India, Armenia will not overtly antagonize Russian interests for fear that the latter may allow a greater calamity than the Karabakh war to devastate the Armenian nation while the rest of the world turns a blind eye as it did during the 2020 war. The 2020 Karabakh war has taught the Armenians the bitter lessons of betrayal by a so-called untrustworthy Russian ally who sold them out when the going was tough. They have learned that history repeats itself and that they are just as all alone as they were during the Genocide of 1915 facing the overwhelming power and enemy forces who have for centuries ravaged their nation.
Ultimately, if Western powers decide, in the interest of preserving their geostrategic leverage, to undermine the ambitious plans of Russia and Turkey, the blitzkrieg strategy against Iran will fail. Only then will we know that the Zangezur Corridor will serve Armenia’s economic future through the India/Iran trade route to Europe; otherwise, Armenia’s loss, to say nothing of outright violation of its territorial integrity, will be Turkey’s gain, not only in monopolizing the transit of both the Chinese and Indian trade routes to Europe but also by offering it the opportunity to inaugurate its long-cherished dream of a Pan-Turkic federation. Notwithstanding the outcome, Russia will still emerge as the clear winner.