Why is Iran provoking ethnic clashes?

Nagorno-Karabakh, regarded as the heart of the South Caucasus, is appropriate as the scene of political and economic movements because of its strategic location and undefined status. Due to the ongoing Armenian occupation, Armenia and its close allies have flexibility in pursuing their policies in the region and as a result, we are witnessing some developments that are contrary to the interests of the region and Azerbaijan. These developments, which may lead to additional disagreements in the region, are relevant to Iranian ambitions to become a rising power in the Caucasus.

The Voice of Talishistan Radio, launched in Şuşa, one of Nagorno-Karabakh’s important cities, right after the Nawrooz Festival, is one of the sources of the growing tension in the region. The radio station, sponsored by Armenia and supported by Iran, is focused on the problems of the Talish people in Azerbaijan, awareness of Talish culture and language and raising awareness of their alleged persecution by the Baku administration. For this reason, the radio programming has attracted the anger and reaction of the Azerbaijani government. The map the radio station uses on its Internet site that depicts Karabakh and the predominantly Talish areas in southern Azerbaijan as separate regions exacerbates already tense relations.

The Talish people, whose total number is cited by official sources as 76,000 but which is actually over 100,000 according to foreign sources, live in the southern part of Azerbaijan and are under Iranian influence. The Azerbaijani government holds that Armenia and Iran promote separatist policies among the Talish people. The Talish conference periodically held in Yerevan under Iranian sponsorship is referred to as an example of this. Azerbaijani intellectuals from the Talish region who reacted to the launch of the radio station note that this was an Armenian provocation and that the Armenian side seeks to create the proper ground for ethnic clashes in Azerbaijan. The statements by the Armenian side, on the other hand, note that new initiatives would be implemented to ensure that other ethnic groups in Azerbaijan including Lezgis, Avars and Tats are able to express themselves freely and call attention to their ongoing problems. In addition, it was announced that members of these ethnic groups will be provided with training at the military academies in Suvorov and Madatov in the Kelbecer region, which has been under Armenian occupation for a long time.

The views suggesting that the Talish dialect of the Voice of Talishistan radio hosts sounds like the dialect widely used in Iran and Iranian support for the Talish conference held in Armenia brought about discussion. It is also noted that Iran’s unconstructive approach vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and the recently deteriorating relations between the two countries can be seen as indirect enmity. Iran criticizes Azerbaijan for its good relations with Israel; however, it is also known that Iran has been involved in destructive activities in the neighboring countries since the 1979 revolution. It can also be seen that Armenia, which pursues discriminatory ethnic policies in Şuşa that have no relevance to the Talish people and Iran are both making psychological moves because during the Karabakh war. Şuşa was invaded by Armenian forces; the invasion caused serious losses among the Azerbaijani forces due to the mistaken view that the city was adequately fortified. The attacks against Armenian forces in its aftermath also failed. The selection of the city of Şuşa as the center of ethnic separatist policies is important in terms of psychological warfare.

Even though Iranian officials argue that they have no connection to the radio station and that they are not pursuing a divisive ethnic policy, it is impossible that Armenians would do this without external backing. In addition, their efforts to preserve the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh confirm the view that Iran has been supporting various activities in this region. As argued by Western authorities for years, the region has become an important center for the drug trade through Iran. According to Azerbaijani officials, the Afghanistan-Iran-Nagorno-Karabakh line secures huge inflow of money for both Iran and Armenia.

All if fair game in becoming influential in the Caucasus

The South Azerbaijan Conference held in Baku on March 30 caused additional tension in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. After the conference, which was focused on the growing pressure on Azerbaijani Turks in Iran, Iran sent a message to Azerbaijan. Iran, which last year strongly criticized Azerbaijan’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, this time used diplomatic channels to express its reaction. Baku-based Atlas Research Center Director Elhan Şahinoğlu notes that Iranian spies were caught near the site of the Eurovision contest carrying explosives and that a different group was identified before their attempt to carry out an attack against the US Embassy in Baku. Şahinoğlu says that Iranian provocations vis-à-vis the conference where they discussed the growing pressure in Iran, the socio-economic situation and some environmental issues have been aborted successfully. Therefore, the Iranian policy to become influential is taking a different shape in the region.

Noting that the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan serves Armenian interests, Armenian expert Armen Israelyan argues that the anti-Iran activities in the region are fully supported by Turkey and that these two countries want to partition Iran. Even though Iran holds a special and important place in Armenia’s relations with the countries of the region, the Armenian opposition is increasingly disapproving of Iranian policies. It is necessary to evaluate the growing dissidence in Armenia regarding Iran, considering that like Russia, Iran wants to become a strong economic, political and military power in the region. There are political groups in Armenia maintaining that the Armenian people are uncomfortable with the growing number of Iranian tourists and investors in their country and that the presence of Iran as a state actor in the region is disruptive to Armenia’s sovereignty.

Ongoing discussions over Syunik Province, located in southern Armenia and surrounded by Azerbaijani land to its east and west and used for shopping purposes by Iranians, have caused some controversy between the Armenian opposition and Iran. The Armenian Dashnak Party argues that the Iranian ambition to rent large plots of land in the Syunik region would cause problems and asked Iran not to go forward with this initiative. Under the existing agreement, Iran would provide agricultural machinery and import small cattle from Armenia in return for the leased land.

Russia defines the approach of the opposition raising its voice against the Iranian investments as anti-Turkism. According to Russian analysts, the Dashnak Party is particularly concerned with the possibility that the Azerbaijani Turks may move to Armenian lands that Iran would rent. This approach shows that like Iran, Russia relies on policies based on ethnicity as part of its regional political approach.

Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU

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