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Iran is the biggest loser in Azerbaijan’s culture war

The recent war between two of Iran’s northern neighbours has left the Islamic Republic in a problematic position. If the current status quo remains, Azerbaijan will be able to exercise an increasing influence across the border inside Iran.

December 16, 2020 - Ali Mozaffari James Barry - Articles and Commentary

The Khoda-Afarin bridges seen from Iran. Photo: Koorosh Nozad Tehrani flickr.com

On November 10th, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement that ended a six-week war over territories claimed by both sides.

The war resulted in a clear victory for Azerbaijan.

Under the Russian-brokered agreement, most of the territory that Armenia captured during the previous war in the 1990s was returned to Azerbaijan by November 25th.

The original source of the conflict, the Armenian enclave of Karabakh, was handed over to Russian peacekeepers. As of writing, its future is yet to be determined.

The three regional powers

The biggest regional winners were Russia, which brokered the agreement, and Turkey, which gave Azerbaijan both material and rhetorical support.

At the same time, the third regional player, Iran, has not fared as well.

Iranian public opinion is generally in favour of Azerbaijan. Iranian political, military and religious leaders have cultivated or accommodated (including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) community support for Azerbaijan through statements that favour Baku.

Despite this, Azerbaijan’s victory is detrimental to Iran for three reasons.

First, Iran’s arch enemy – Israel – is a key military ally and hardware supplier for Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, Israel has used Azerbaijani territory to launch surveillance and, according to allegations by Iran, assassinate senior scientists and officials involved in Iran’s nuclear programme. Furthermore, Israel is allegedly reviving Azerbaijan’s defunct Sitalchay Military Airbase as a launch pad for potential future strikes against the Islamic Republic.

As a result of the war, Azerbaijan has re-established control over all of its border with Iran. The conflict also allowed observers to witness the power of Israeli drones, known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Second, the war has strengthened the position of Iran’s regional rivals in Moscow and Ankara while weakening Armenia, one of the few neighbouring countries with which the Islamic Republic has possessed traditionally positive relations. While Iran has remained officially neutral throughout the Karabakh conflict, the post-1994 status quo perhaps benefited the country the most out of all the regional powers. Iran’s narrow border with Armenia now also has been compromised, as Russian peacekeepers have created a corridor linking Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave through the south of the country. Furthermore, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Foreign Ministry have been taken by surprise regarding Turkey’s transport of Syrian rebels as mercenaries to Azerbaijan.

Third, Azerbaijani ultra-nationalism, which has been historically supported by Turkey and Russia, is a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. Iran is home to a large Azeri speaking population, who form a majority in four Iranian provinces: Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Zanjan. A form of Azeri nationalism rooted in pan-Turkism (which seeks to unify speakers of the Turkic languages) and Soviet-era nationalities policy calls these Iranian provinces “South Azerbaijan”. A marginal but increasingly vocal movement has been working for decades to “reunite” these provinces with the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Aliyev regime, which began with the current president’s father, has rarely entertained this extreme form of nationalism in an open manner. Instead, the government has focused on regaining territory from Armenia (or “Western Azerbaijan”). Despite this, the Azerbaijani government has not sought to suppress this type of nationalism. With the defeat of Armenia and the emergence of a closer relationship with Turkey (which had been more distant since the mid-1990s), it appears that Azerbaijan’s cautious rhetoric may be changing regarding the “South Azerbaijan” issue.

For example, Ilham Aliyev recently discussed the cultural heritage of the 11th century ‘Khoda-Afarin Bridges’, which were controlled by Armenia from 1993 until October 18th 2020.

These bridges cross the Aras River, which connects the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran.

As a result, the structures have been used as nostalgic symbols of unity for Azerbaijani people north and south of the Aras. Of course, this development is of particular concern for Iran.

Khoda-Afarin bridges

Whilst recent attention has largely focused on the potential destruction, vandalism and erasure of Armenian heritage in territory now controlled by Azerbaijan, the two Khoda-Afarin Bridges represent the other side of Azerbaijani ambitions and use of heritage in the region.

The bridges are known colloquially as the Bridges of Lamentations (Pol-ha-ye Hasrat or Xudafǝrin Hasrat Körpülǝri),which is a politically loaded term. In Azerbaijani nationalism, the bridges are viewed as an emotional symbol representing the breakup of a ‘greater’ Azerbaijan at the hands of the two ‘colonising’ powers of Russia and Iran.

The bridge plays an important role in the narrative of the Museum of Independence of Azerbaijan (MIA), where its image is displayed alongside various Iranian edifices. This includes the World Heritage registered Sheik Safi ed-Din Ardebili Shrine. The picture effectively constructs and extends nationalist Azeri memory beyond its borders and into Iran, carrying with it an implied territorial claim to the four Iranian provinces.

Early in the war, President Ilham Aliyev told President Hassan Rouhani that he wished for the border to immediately reopen.

In response, Rouhani appeared rather indifferent. The leader told Aliyev that he did not want to see the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict become a regional war.

Rouhani specifically mentioned the issue of missiles landing in Iranian territory. However, it is clear that the president still remembers the pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations that broke out among Iranian Azeris at the beginning of the war. On the fringes of these protests were radical nationalists opposed to the Iranian regime, who chanted “Armenians, Persians, Kurds – all the enemies of Azerbaijan”.

Overall, it seems that Iran’s concern for ethnic nationalism in Iranian Azerbaijan is becoming more and more serious.

In recent years, a number of Iranian officials of Azeri background have appealed to ethnic nationalism in order to bolster their popularity and win votes. Despite the Supreme Leader’s disapproval, this group includes an Azeri faction in the Iranian Majlis.

In its most extreme form, this growing tendency has also included the scapegoating and ridicule of other ethnic groups. The most common targets are Iranian Kurds who also live in the area, as well as Armenians.

Such official support for this kind of nationalism poses risks to the internal cohesion of Iran. Overall, this is both welcomed by Iran’s neighbours (Azerbaijan and Turkey) and encouraged by its adversaries (Israel and the United States).

In addition to Aliyev’s phone conversation with Rouhani, the Azerbaijani president made a symbolic visit to the Khoda-Afarin Bridges on November 17th in military uniform alongside his wife (and vice-president), Mehriban Aliyeva. The two were photographed by Iranian snipers over the border.

The previous day, the Deputy Minister for Culture Anar Karimov announced that the bridges should be listed as World Heritage Site because they represent an an excellent example of Azerbaijani architecture.

Official Iranian voices have been muted on the matter. Nevertheless, the bridges are a central part of a potentially aggressive and expansionist Azeri nationalism that is nowadays backed up by military might and technology.

Azerbaijan weaponising heritage

Azerbaijan has a history of ‘weaponising’ heritage and not only against their traditional enemy Armenia.

In particular, the country has used UNESCO in attempts to claim heritage shared with its neighbours as its own. Baku has also prevented the international body from condemning its destruction of Armenian heritage.

For example, in 2013, Azerbaijan attempted to have the sport of chogan (which is similar to polo) declared a part of its intangible heritage. This drew immediate opposition from Iran, with the game ultimately made a part of official Iranian cultural heritage in 2017.

This incident was just one part of a series of disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan over heritage. These arguments also included the removal of Persian inscriptions from the Mausoleum of Nezami Ganjavi in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. Iran characterised this act as cultural erasure and an attempt to recast Nezami as an Azerbaijani poet, in much the same way that Turkey tried to do with the poet Rumi.

Where to now?

Where does all this leave the Islamic Republic? With much of its energy and funds exhausted in fighting battles in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Tehran has become weak on its home front. The expectation that the status quo would continue in Armenia and Azerbaijan meant that Iran was caught unprepared for the recent war.

The ethnic divisions in Iran that were initially ignored or encouraged by factions within the Islamic Republic are becoming more vocal. With its main enemy defeated, Azerbaijan has already signalled its interest in supporting ethno-nationalist claims in Iran. This has only further emboldened a activists within Iran’s large Azeri community.

Culture and heritage were one of the earliest fronts opened in this conflict and it is likely that they will continue to play a key role in the near future. Far from being benign, these issues are part of a strategy used by Azerbaijan to claim legitimacy over areas once held by Armenia. A similar strategy could be pursued against Iran and it is clear that this may have already begun with the Khoda-Afarin Bridges.

Ali Mozaffari is Australian Research Council Senior Fellow with the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University (DE170100104) and writes on cultural politics and heritage in West Asia.

James Barry is Research Fellow the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University who studies ethnic and religious identity in Iran and the Caucasus.

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