According to Russian Middle East Expert Mikhail Magid, Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan hope to fill the political vacuum in the Middle East and Central Asia created by American retrenchment. Iran, India and Russia have reasons for concern about this bloc’s formation. The Three Brothers– 2021 military exercise involving special forces from Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan, was launched on September 12, 2021, and lasted 8 days. illustrated the close relations between the participants, and it followed the acceptance of the Baku Declaration in July 2021, by the speakers of the three countries’ parliaments. The joint declaration urges increased cooperation between the three countries, based on cultural and historical ties, mutual respect and confidence. The declaration also emphasizes Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan’s roles in building peace, stability and development in their regions.
In an interview with Rosbalt Media, Magid claims that Iran especially is in a vulnerable position, because it hosts a quite sizable Azeri minority and many in Azerbaijan view the territory where the Azeris reside in Iran as irredenta. As if to confirm Iran’s sensitivity, Iran responded to Three Brothers by staging its own military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan expressed his surprise over the Iranian exercises noting that Iran had never conducted drills in that area since Azerbaijan became independent upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Magid’s interview follows below:
— According to some experts, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia could re-erupt with renewed ferocity after the Russian peacekeepers’ withdrawal from Karabakh. Also, it seems that other states could be drawn into it…
— A new party to the conflict may appear, i.e. the sizable Azerbaijani population of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
— The thing is that the Iranians were supplying oil products and construction materials to Stepanakert / Khankendi (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh). Azerbaijan has blocked their trading routes, while two Iranian drivers have been detained. This caused a diplomatic scandal. The Iranians responded by mobilizing troops across the Araz River, near the border with Azerbaijan under the pretext of military exercises.
— How did Turkey, which clearly supports its fraternal Azerbaijani people in this conflict, react to this?
— Yes, in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict Turkey sides with Azerbaijan, while Iran, as a counterweight, supports Armenia. As the Iranians were deploying their troops and heavy equipment on Azerbaijan’s borders, [joint] military exercises of Baku’s allies Turkey and Pakistan were held on Azerbaijani territory along with the country’s military.
However, now the Azerbaijani-Iranian population, which resides on the Iranian bank of the Araz River may become involved in this confrontation. The point is that during the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Iranian Azeris were quite active in supporting Azerbaijan’s offensive. Inter alia, they prevented Russian military equipment, which was transported via Iranian trailers, from entering into Armenia. Such events came as surprise to all the parties in the region, including Armenia, Russia and the Iranian leadership, and even prompted several Iranian officials to make pro-Azerbaijani statements.
— The Azerbaijani media report that Baku-Tehran relations remain strained…
— Iran’s stance on Azerbaijan as well as the support that Tehran provides to Yerevan are of serious concern to Iranian Azerbaijanis. Expressing their protest through social media, the southern Azeris submitted an ultimatum to Tehran’s authorities that expires September 27 (which is the first anniversary of the beginning Second Karabakh War). They demand a change in Iran’s policy towards Azerbaijan. Reportedly, if this does not happen, Azeris, who constitute a significant part of Iran’s population will rise up against the authorities, and initiate mass protest actions. Azerbaijani activists residing in Iran claim their constant readiness for protests.
Sayman Aruz, head of the South Literature Department of the Azerbaijan Writers’ Union, said, “There are our ancestral lands on the territory of Iran and our people’s claim to these lands as a moral historical birthright originating is obvious. Forty-five million of our compatriots are living in Iran, we share the same history, language, culture… It would be naive to believe that Iran will makes its peace with this and stand side by side with Azerbaijan as a true friend. Iranian-Azerbaijani friendship can never be lasting in these circumstances.”
— Frankly, this is the first time I come across such estimates of the number of Azerbaijanis living in Iran…
— Perhaps the author of the aforementioned quotation exaggerates the number of Azeris residing in 83 million-strong Iran (there are claims that there are 20-30 million Azeris in Iran). Nevertheless, considering the Azerbaijani population in Iran one can hardly call them a “national minority.” Furthermore, there are 10-12 million Kurds, 4 million Arabs, 2 million Baluchis, etc., in the Islamic Republic. National minorities constitute about half of Iran’s population.
— In your opinion, should the threat of mass protests be taken seriously?
— The socio-economic and socio-political situation in Iran remains precarious after the summer protests and strikes. President Ebrahim Raisi, who came to office on 3 August 2021, was not actually elected but appointed via a fake election, his legitimacy is in doubt.
Meanwhile, at least half of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. When this was compounded by water and electricity shortages due to poor infrastructure, protests erupted in Iran’s Khuzestan, and the government began shooting the demonstrators. Anti-regime protests rippled through Ahvaz (situated in the southwest) to Azerbaijani-populated Tabriz in the north. Tehran also witnessed protests. These were followed by a strike of a hundred thousand oil industry workers, who submitted economic demands and formed workers’ councils to organize the struggle. Although these protests were suppressed, there are now mass teachers’ strikes and other social protests in Iran.
If one adds in national issues (the absence or substandard of local language instruction in the schools (aside from Persian and Arabic), lack of local national autonomy, emerging Persian nationalism, and underfunding of some national regions), it becomes obvious how precarious the Iranian regime’s position is. According to studies by American sociologists, protests (both politically and socially motivated) are occurring in the most densely populated areas, with the highest voting abstention rate. Meanwhile, election turnout is falling, and less than half of Iranians cast their votes during the last elections. For all these reasons, the Iranian leadership will have to be cautious about the protest potential of the country’s Azeri population.
The situation in Iran is such that at any moment, socio-economic, political and national protests could converge into one powerful outbreak.
— Well, the situation between Azerbaijan and Iran is more or less clear to me. But what are Pakistan’s interests in getting drawn into the squabbles between Baku, Yerevan and Tehran?
— A powerful military-political and economic bloc, Turkey-Pakistan-Qatar-Azerbaijan, is taking shape now. This bloc is aimed against Iran, India, Russia. It has interests in Afghanistan, the Central Asian countries and the Middle East.
— [I get the idea] of forming an alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan against Iran and Russia. Ankara’s interests in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East are quite clear too. The decades-lasting conflict between Pakistan and India is also not news. However, why are Azerbaijan and Turkey being drawn into a conflict with India for the sake of Pakistan?
— The relations between the bloc member-states are complicated. Azerbaijan is uninterested in clashing with India. Additionally, Ankara has multi-billion-dollar trade contracts with New Delhi. The blocs are not immutable structures with unified interests. Nevertheless, as Turkey intensifies relations with Pakistan, it cannot but understand that this complicates its relations with India.
— But why should Pakistan, which has complicated relations with India, get involved in a conflict in Transcaucasia region?
— Pakistan has long been an active supporter of Azerbaijan.
So far this support has been rather verbal, but today Islamabad is drawing closer to Ankara. The Pakistanis are engaged in joint maneuvers with the Turkish and Azerbaijani military. For its part, Turkey is making statements in support of Kashmiri Muslims and turns to Pakistan when help and mediation is required in the country’s contacts with the Taliban. Turkey strives to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, and use it to increase its influence in Central Asia. This is a mutually beneficial exchange.