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Azerbaijan values strategic relationships amid Armenia clashes

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What is Azerbaijan’s view of its relationship with Israel amid the conflict?

THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan. (photo credit: AZERTAC)

THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan.

(photo credit: AZERTAC)

Clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijan on Sunday spilled over into wider conflict that threatens to draw in Russia and Turkey and has important implications for the region. It also has important implications for Israel-Azerbaijan relations, according to discussions with several individuals knowledgeable of the relationship.  

After claiming that its forces were attacked by Armenia, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to regain control of territories it claims. The larger context of the growing conflict is that Azerbaijan has not seen any progress in international forums related to changes of territorial control on the ground. Turkey has also expressed total support for Azerbaijan, asserting that “terrorists” have gone to Nagorna-Karabakh to fight on behalf of Armenia.  

What is at stake here? For Azerbaijan it is a feeling that the status quo of trying to get Armenian forces to withdraw from areas in Nagorna-Karabakh and seven adjoining areas has not worked over the last years since clashes in 2016. The US, France, Russia and others have not been able to get any movement on this file. In 2010 US President Barack Obama had told Baku that he would treat the dispute as a top priority, according to reports. However, nothing came of it.

Meanwhile as the US appears to withdraw from areas in the Middle East the Caucuses are increasingly sandwiched between historic powers in Russia, Turkey and Iran. Armenia is a relatively poor country and dependent on Moscow, which is how Russia wants things to continue. Azerbaijan’s strategy has been very different. It wants control of its destiny without being dependent. It has developed close relations with Israel and other countries as part of that strategic plan.  

Azerbaijan was pressured by Turkey in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid, in which Israel stopped a Turkish-backed flotilla from reaching Gaza, to take a more pro-Ankara stance. Azerbaijan expressed support for Turkish relations but not for involvement in the Turkey-Israel dispute. Articles at the time noted that despite Ankara’s pressure to be harsher on Israel, Azerbaijani experts urged caution and not to take a stance on the issue, preferring the status quo of close relations with Israel and not wanting to meddle. This was an important juncture because reports indicate that Turkey even put pressure Azerbaijan regarding oil exports that go from Baku to Ceyhan via Turkey and which at the time accounted for thirty percent of Israel’s oil needs. Azerbaijan remained firm in maintaining close ties to Israel.

Years later Azerbaijan clashed with Armenia in 2016 and gained little, watching as Russia put pressure to stop the conflict. Today the calculous may be different. Turkey has expressed strong support for Baku and large numbers of activists in July urged the government to move forward during clashes with Armenia. However Azerbaijan remained cautious of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Ankara’s ruling party has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and has mixed religion and politics. This goes against the largely secular views of Baku’s leadership. 

The other problem facing Baku is that Turkey has a habit of pushing for conflicts in places like Idlib in Syria and in Libya, only to climb down and make a deal with Russia. That means that Ankara may be prodding Azerbaijan to war, only to cut a deal with Russia that could see Turkey give Russia gains in Idlib or elsewhere. Azerbaijan doesn’t want its gains in Nagorna-Karabakh outsourced to Ankara’s other agendas. Turkey also has a faltering economy and other troubles. Azerbaijan’s historic trend of trying to navigate a way between Iran, Turkey and Russia, means not being dependent on any of them or clashing with them.  

Nevertheless Azerbaijan is tired of what it sees as Armenia’s “provocations.” That includes statements of the Armenian Prime Minister and his family members and various ceremonies and statements by Armenia trying to encourage the Armenian-backed Artsakh state in Nagorna-Karabakh of having more of a profile.  

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has accused Armenia of firing on civilians using heavy artillery. He said in an address that due to “enemy fire, there are casualties among the civilian population and our servicemen.” In July he was under pressure to continue to mobilize the army for a wider war with Armenia. Tens of thousands gathered to support the conflict. That generation is rising in Azerbaijan and Aliyev, in power since 2003, knows that.  

A slow moving war will benefit Turkey and Russia, but a more swift war in which Azerbaijan is able to regain some territories and then come to terms with Armenia, having given Yerevan a setback, would be in Baku’s interest. Russia and Turkey benefit from large conflicts not only because they can make countries dependent and sell weapons, but because they can partition areas between them and grow their influence and undermine local soveriengty. This is what Russia, Iran and Turkey did in Syria. Decisions for Damascus are now made in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, not by the Assad regime. That is how Russia and Turkey partitioned Idlib and other areas. The same is true in Libya. Turkey and Egypt and other countries such as Russia, act as the major players co-opting the locals. Destabilizing areas can serve Turkey’s interests. That is why Ankara invaded areas in Syria that were under US protection and were stable in October 2019. Turkey has learned from that. Ankara did the same in northern Iraq, potentially undermining the stable Kurdistan Regional Government, which it seeks to use as a client. 

Azerbaijan is intensely aware of these issues. It has seen what happened to Georgia in 2008 and also Ukraine and other areas nearby such as Iraq. Azerbaijan has attempted to keep out of the messy politics of the Middle East in the past, working with Israel and improving its economy and military through a strategic relationship with Israel. It expected more from Washington and didn’t get it.

Today, it appears Azerbaijan will do whatever it takes to change the status quo in Nagorna-Karabakh, to achieve a victory. It wants the international community to pressure Armenia. But Baku is concerned about the conflict getting out of control and empowering extremists. It has seen what happened in other areas where conflicts dragged on. That is why sources say they are skeptical that Azerbaijan would let Turkey send Syrian rebels to fight against Armenia, as rumors had claimed Turkey wants to do. Armenia needs to be reconciled to give some concessions, but the rhetoric and mobilization of army units in Armenia and Azerbaijan show that as of Monday that has not happened.  Meanwhile Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and also Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are all trying to play a role in the conflict. The US has been absent so far.

For Israel the continued strategic relationship with Baku is important. It is important on many levels, not only strategic and due to energy issues, but because of years of close relations and also because of Iran. One Azeri source texted me over the weekend that “Azerbaijan uses Israel military technology successfully and all Azerbaijan media expresses gratitude to Israel for technological support.” Baku prefers Israeli technology not Turkish. “For more than two decades, the Israel-Azerbaijan partnership has evolved through the two countries’ robust cooperation in various dimensions. Israel was one of the first countries recognize a sovereign Azerbaijan. No country in Eurasia has closer or friendlier ties with Israel than Azerbaijan. One reason for these close relations lies in the longstanding friendship between Azerbaijanis and Jews living in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan-Israel relations expert Arye Gut has written. He points to Baku pushing tolerance and recognition for Jewish history and support of the Jewish community and Jewish-Azeri relations in recent years. 

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Armenia, Azerbaijan agree on ‘humanitarian ceasefire’

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By DPA Time of article publishedOct 17, 2020

Moscow – Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on a new “humanitarian ceasefire” to come into force at midnight (2000 GMT) on Saturday, both foreign ministries said.

The statements had the same wording and come a week after the imposition of a short-lived Russian brokered ceasefire, which both sides blamed the other for breaking shortly after it came into force.

The agreement comes after calls to both sides by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging them to adhere to the ceasefire.

France’s Elysee Palace meanwhile put out a statement saying the agreement came “after French mediation over the last few days and hours, in co-ordination with the co-chairs of the Minsk group [Russia and the US]”.

“This ceasefire must be unconditional and strictly respected by the two sides,” the statement said. “France will pay great attention to that and will remain engaged for a lasting end to hostilities and a quick start of credible negotiations.”

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Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict update: 12 killed as Ganja comes under missile attack

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At least 12 people were killed and over 40 injured in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja on Saturday which came under a missile attack from the Armenian military, alleged Baku.

“Civilians are continued to be saved from the debris of destruction by emergency services,” Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant to the Azerbaijani president, said on Twitter.

“Treacherous and cruel missile attack of Armenia against civilians in Ganja is sign of weakness and desperation of Armenia’s political-military leadership in the face of its defeat on battleground,” Hajiyev said, condemning Armenia for deliberately targeting Azerbaijan’s civilians.

“Two kids are among the dead. Emergency works are still going on. Armenia’s terror and War Crimes continue,” Hajiyev said earlier on Twitter. “Armenia’s foreign ministry in vile manner attempts to deny its state responsibility for this nefarious war crimes,” he said.

He said that preliminary reports pointed out to the destruction of as many as 20 houses due to the missile attack.

Turkey condemns Armenian attack

Condemning Armenia’s attack, Turkey’s ruling party spokesperson reiterated support for Azerbaijan.

“Armenia is killing civilians as a rogue state. It is carrying out brutal massacres. The murderers and their supporters are breaking the law. Attacks against Ganja are crimes against humanity,” Omer Celik said on Twitter.

He said that the attackers must not go unpunished and Armenia should be prosecuted for crimes. The official added that Armenia was killing women, children, elderly and civilians ‘indiscriminately’.

Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting?

Two ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, are engaged in a decades-long territorial dispute which has re-erupted with the heaviest clashes in years on Sunday.

Here are the key factors surrounding their conflict:

Nagorny Karabakh

At the heart of the standoff between Yerevan and Baku is the contested Nagorny Karabakh region.

The Soviet authorities merged the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory with Azerbaijan in 1921.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian separatists seized it in a move supported by Yerevan.

An ensuing war left 30,000 dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Despite a ceasefire mediated in 1994 by Russia, the United States, and France, peace negotiations struggle to move forward and fighting erupts frequently.

The latest clashes on Sunday saw Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists accuse each other of igniting the fighting that left both sides with casualties, including civilians.

It followed a flare-up along the border in July which claimed the lives of 17 soldiers from both sides.

In April 2016, some 110 people were killed in the most serious fighting in years.

Revolts and dynasty

Armenia has been rocked by political and economic instability since it gained independence from the former USSR.

The country’s post-Soviet leadership repressed opposition to its rule, was accused of falsifying ballot results, and was largely beholden to the interests of Russia.

In the spring of 2018, mass street protests brought current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. He has since cracked down on corruption and introduced popular judicial reforms.

Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, has been under the authoritarian grip of a single-family since 1993.

Heydar Aliyev, a former officer of the Soviet security services, the KGB, ruled the country with an iron fist until October 2003. He handed over power to his son, Ilham, weeks before his death.

Like his father, Ilham has quashed all opposition to his rule and in 2017 made his wife, Mehriban, the country´s first vice president.

Russia and Turkey

Turkey, with ambitions to be a regional powerbroker in the Caucasus, has thrown its weight behind oil-rich and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan.

Their alliance is fuelled by a mutual mistrust of Armenia, and Ankara routinely issues strongly-worded statements in support of Baku’s ambitions to reclaim Nagorny Karabakh.

Yerevan harbours hostility towards Turkey over the massacres of some 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey under the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

More than 30 countries have recognised the killings as genocide, though Ankara fiercely disputes the term.

Russia, which maintains close ties with Armenia, is the major powerbroker in the region. It leads the Collective Security Treaty Organisation military alliance of ex-Soviet countries that includes Armenia.

Yerevan relies on Russian support and military guarantees because its defence budget is overshadowed by Azerbaijan´s spending on arms.

Oil and diaspora

Azerbaijan has recently begun leveraging oil revenues as part of a bid to overhaul its image in the West.

Baku has invested in massive sponsorship deals including with the Euro 2020 football championship, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Baku was due to host matches this year and Azerbaijan has held Formula 1 Grand Prix races since 2016.

Azerbaijan has also tried to pitch itself to European countries as an alternative energy supplier to Russia.

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian, the late singer Charles Aznavour, and pop star and actress Cher all trace their roots to Armenia.

Some have appointed themselves unofficial ambassadors, like Kardashian who has been outspoken on the issue of the Armenian genocide.


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Eight Principles of Iran’s Foreign Policy Towards the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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The Iranian governments have not announced any specific strategy or official document on foreign policy towards Central Asia and the Caucasus, particularly about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, principles of Iran’s foreign policy towards the conflict can be understood via analysis of the positions taken by Iranian officials and also Iran’s practical approaches in the last three decades. In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, proposes eight principles for Iran’s foreign policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This would contribute to a better disclosure of Iran’s approaches as an influential actor in the South Caucasus, especially regarding recent tension between Armenia and Republic of Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Apart from the ancient and long-lasting historical, religious and lingual ties between Iran and the Caucasus, there are 800 kilometers of border lines that connect Iran to this region. The Iranian provinces of Ardabil and Eastern Azarbaijan have 369 kilometers and 200 kilometers of joint borders with the Republic of Azerbaijan respectively. Eastern Azarbaijan is the only Iranian province that shares borders with Armenia. This border line is 35 kilometers long. Iran is also the only country adjacent to the disputed region of Karabakh. None of Georgia, Russia and Turkey are in such close proximity to these disputes. The Iranian village of Khoda Afarin, located on the Eastern Azarbaijan-Armenia border, has been hit by the artilleries of the conflicting parties several times. The sound of the bullets, shells and missiles fired by the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces are heard in other Iranian villages close to the northwestern border. This puts Iran in a sensitive situation so that tension and war in Karabakh region and its surrounding areas directly impacts the security of Iran’s northwestern borders.

In addition to the security and border-related considerations, Iran is in a very different position compared with Georgia, Russia and Turkey. The presence of millions of Azeris in the northwestern provinces of Iran who are sensitive to the position of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh issue as well as presence of a hundred thousand of Armenians in Iran who sympathize with Armenia has made the Karabakh dispute outstanding for Iran from an ethnical perspective. The other dimension is the religious considerations that the Shia seminaries particularly in the cities of Qom and Mashhad inside Iran and Najaf in Iraq have about supporting the Shia Muslims of the Republic of Azerbaijan and expect the Iranian government to support the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh dispute more actively. It is also noteworthy that there is a close tie between the two religious and ethnic considerations in many parts of Northwestern Iran with an Azeri majority population. In the meantime, some pan-Azeri and Pan-Turkish currents activate the religious and ethnical sentiments in these Azeri settling areas of Iran. In many occasions they disseminate false news about Iranian government’s position vis-à-vis the Karabakh dispute.

However, when it comes to the position of Iran’s government on the Karabakh issue in the past three decades, eight principles can be referred to which can clear up many probable ambiguities:

1. Recognizing the government of Azerbaijan’s right to sovereignty over the Karabakh region and the seven regions around it

From the beginning of the Karabakh crisis in early 1990s, the Iranian government has recognized the region of Karabakh and regions around it as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This position has never changed during the previous three decades. Basically, Iran’s opposition to the ethnic dynamics and secessionism is one of the fundamental factors in Iran’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Iranian society is comprised of various ethnic groups and therefore, Iran opposes any ethnic-political dynamic that is separatist. In this framework, Iran never recognized the independence of Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in spite of good and close relations between Iran and Armenia and also Iran and the Russian Federation. In the past decades, this Iranian approach to ethnic dynamics and separatism has been persistent and is observed in Chechnya, Dagestan in North Caucasus and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

2. Non-recognition of the Republic of Artsakh and other political developments in the Karabakh region

In line with the abovementioned principle, Iran has not recognized any of the internal political developments in the region of Karabakh including the existence of Artsakh Republic and the results of the referendums and elections held in this region by the Armenians. Tehran has rejected all of them as invalid and believes that any political transformation in this region should be after the resolution of the dispute and conclusion of a peace treaty that is consented by all conflicting parties namely the government of Armenia, the Karabakh region and the government of Azerbaijan.

3. The balanced approach and maintenance of relations with both Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan

Iran has fifteen neighbors. This number is only comparable to such countries as China and Russia. Iran’s principal policy is maintenance of good relations with all its neighbors and therefore it has never initiated severing its relations with any of its neighbors. In this framework, from early 1990s Iran has asked for a balanced approach and maintenance of relations with both governments of Armenia and the Republic of Azarbaijan. Therefore, Iran’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is different from that of Turkey, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan who have either cut their relations with Armenia or have not recognized it as an independent country. Fred Halliday calls this approach “bunch of flowers policy”. Svante Cornell describes it as the “disinterested player” and for Shirin Hunter it is “pragmatism”.

Regardless of what this policy is named, it has been in accordance to this policy that Iran has provided humanitarian and financial assistances to both Armenia and Azerbaijan from early 1990s. Contrary to some allegations by the pan-Azeri and pan-Turkish allegations, Iran provided the people of Azerbaijan, particularly, the residents of Nakhchivan with gas, electricity and basic goods from early 1990s and hosted thousands of Azerbaijanis displaced by war. Such actions of Iran are mentioned in the memoirs of Abulfaz Elchibey, Heydar Aliyev and also Hashemi Rafsanjani. Add to this the point that the balanced approach and the neighborhood policy of Iran in south Caucasus does not only apply to Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan but also includes Georgia. From this perspective, Iran enjoys a special and outstanding place in South Caucasus, as it is only Iran among the three neighbors of the region that has sustainable diplomatic relations with all three countries of the South Caucasus including Armenia and Georgia as the two Christian countries and Republic of Azerbaijan as the Muslim and Shia country. As a matter of fact, there are no political relations between Armenia and Turkey from 1993 to the present time. Russia and Georgia have also cut their relations since 2008. This grants Iran a unique place in South Caucasus.

4. Opposing the war and using force to resolve the Karabakh crisis

In line with the balanced approach and its neighborhood policy based on maintenance of relations with both governments of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which was explained under the previous heading, Iran is against any war and application of force to resolve the Karabakh crisis by the Armenian and Azeri parties. As was mentioned in the beginning of this piece, unlike Georgia, Russia and Turkey, Iran is adjacent to the disputed region of Karabakh and therefore any military encounter in this region can easily threaten the security of northwestern border areas of Iran in the two provinces of East Azerbaijan and Ardabil and instigate the ethnic and religious sentiments of millions of people inside Iran. Following such approach, Iran actively entered a process of mediation between Armenian and Azeri parties in 1990s and has supported any initiation for ceasefire and peace building that is agreed by both parties. For this reason, in the clashes of the past few years including the four days wars of April 2016 and July 2020 and also the recent clash starting from September 27, 2020 the Iranian high-ranking officials have immediately called for ceasefire between the two parties in the Karabakh dispute because continuation of the war and clashes close to Iran’s border is a serious threat to the national interests and security of Iran.

5. Maintaining the rights and security of the Armenians of Karabakh in the Karabakh peace plans

Iran’s approach to the Karabakh conflict is not a one-sided one. For Tehran, the rights and security of the Armenians of Karabakh is also important and should be respected. In any peace plan and in the case of any development including the return of Azeri war refugees from the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Karabakh region and the seven regions around it or any other political and legal development such as a referendum, the right to self-determination of the Armenians of Karabakh should be respected. From the Iranian perspective, overlooking this could lead to resumption of conflict between Armenians and Azeris which could in turn trigger a war or conflict in the region and ruin any peace plan in the Karabakh region.

6. Opposing the interference of trans-regional powers in resolution of the Karabakh crisis

In line with its foreign and defense policy, Iran is opposed to any interference of trans-regional powers such as United States and NATO in the resolution of the Karabakh crisis. Similar to other crises in the region including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, Iran believes that the Karabakh crisis should also be resolved with the political will of the two countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The neighboring countries like Georgia, Russia, Turley and Iran can join this process in various forms if Yerevan and Baku ask for it.

7. Opposing the stationing of international peacekeeping forces in the Karabakh contact lines along the Iranian border

In line with the principle of opposing the interference of the trans-regional powers in the resolution of the Karabakh crisis, Iran is also opposed to stationing of international peace keeping forces particularly if they include trans-regional forces in the contact lines of Karabakh close to Iran’s border. Instead, Iran supports indigenous and regional mechanisms for maintenance of ceasefire and peace in Karabakh as well as provision of security to its residents both Armenian and Azeri.

8. Mediating the process of peace and dispute resolution upon the request from the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia

In early 1990s the Iranian government actively embarked on mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia upon their request. This resulted in a peace agreement between Yagub Mammadov (the acting president of Azerbaijan) and Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the then president of Armenia mediated by Iranian president of the time Hashemi Rafsanjani in May 1992. Unfortunately, due to some conditions including the occupation of the city of Shusha by Armenians in May 8, 1992 (only one day after conclusion of the Tehran agreement) this mediation failed. Here, Iran could not repeat the successful experience of mediating in the Tajikistan civil war which culminated in the signing of the peace agreement between the government of Tajikistan and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) in 1997. In this case, the Russian Federation was also involved. Despite this unsuccessful experience and despite excluding Iran from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the government of Iran has supported any mediation and initiation for ceasefire and peace between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan on the issue of Karabakh and has always insisted that Iran’s involvement in such initiatives is contingent upon the willingness and request of the leaders of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

In light of the eight mentioned principles, Iran has anxiously followed up the clashes between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, started from September 27, 2020 which unlike the two previous four days wars of April 2016 and July 2020 are serious breach of the ceasefire from 1994 to date. The recent clashes in Karabakh have been outstanding in terms of the expansion and volume of the conflict, human and financial losses, the level of preparedness, the curfew and the general mobilization inside Armenia and Azerbaijan and also the all-out political and military support of the Turkish government and army from the Republic of Azerbaijan. These have added to Iran’s concerns about the conditions of the region. Iran’s demand in the current situation is a quick ceasefire by the two parties to prevent more human and financial losses and to curb the intensification of the conflict into an all-out war in the Caucasus that would make the conditions uncontrollable with all the three countries in the Caucasus (Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia) and the three neighboring countries of Iran, Russia and Turkey the losers.

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