Diplomats call Iran’s position in the Karabakh conflict a balancing act. The Islamic Republic that has in its northern parts a 20-million community of Turkic-speaking Shia Azeris with separatists tendencies has managed to maintain good relations with Christian Armenia as well.
A recent statement by a representative of the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Ardebil, however, has somewhat marred the relations between the two neighboring states. Friday prayer imam Seyyid Hasan Ameli stated Iran helped Azerbaijan during the Karabakh war.
“So far politicians in Iran have not spoken about their aid [to Azerbaijan] and, possibly, because of certain diplomatic considerations will never raise these issues in the future. But not me. I am a Friday prayer imam and, speaking from the podium, I must answer questions and suspicions of Muslim brothers. We were supplying arms by convoys to soldiers who fought for Shusha and experienced shortages of weapons. With the consent of the government and at the request of Rahim Gaziyev (Azerbaijan’s defense minister in 1992-93) a common Azerbaijani-Iranian defense staff had been set up and as part of that staff Tabriz and Ardebil generals were helping their Azeri brethren, day and night, doing everything possible to preclude Armenian aggression,” the senior Iranian cleric claimed.
According to Ayatollah Ameli, Iran also provided logistical support in the delivery, if necessary to the front lines, of thousands of fighters from Afghanistan. “We were supplying arms and ammunition not to Armenians, but to our Azeri brothers. Our military training bases were located not in Armenia, but in Azerbaijan,” the imam said, according to SalamNews.
Armenia’s reaction to the statement was rather reserved. Speaking in the Armenian parliament Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan confirmed the statement made by the Iranian spiritual leader that Afghan gunmen were fighting on the Azerbaijani side during the Karabakh war. “At a certain period Afghan fighters were indeed on the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” said Ohanyan.
Meanwhile, Armenian Ambassador to Iran Grigor Arakelyan described Iran’s mediation in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict as useful, according to Iranian news agency ISNA. “Over the past 20 years Iran has proved its honesty and friendly attitude towards Armenia,” the diplomat said during a recent discussion in Tehran on topics of regional policy and Karabakh settlement.
And the Armenian press reminds that Iran is the only neighbor of the current Karabakh conflict zone and contends that during the Karabakh war it was Iran that ensured Armenia’s food security.
At present, the relations between Armenia and Iran are on the rise: Armenia is locked by neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan, and its only gateways to the rest of the world are Georgia and Iran. Armenia has a narrow 40-kilometer border strip with Iran in the south, while Karabakh, which is a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has a lengthier border with the Islamic Republic - nearly 140 kilometers.
NATO and U.S. forces are stationed in virtually all countries that border on Iran, except for Armenia and Karabakh. This circumstance is very important to Iran, which tries to funnel its efforts into ensuring that the Karabakh conflict zone remains free from foreign peacekeeping troops. Iran has repeatedly made strongly worded statements in this regard.
Muslim solidarity is part of Iran’s politics, but on the other hand in Tehran they realize the potential threat from Azerbaijan, which vows fraternal relations with Sunni-dominated, secular Turkey that seeks leadership in the Islamic world.