Although Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is resisting growing pressure from the public and clergy to support Muslim neighbor Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, his government has so far treaded a neutral stand.

Over past weeks, series of demonstrations in different Iranian cities, particularly in northern provinces, and a barrage of statements from various quarters have expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan, asserting its right to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Armenia’s aggression.

The strategic community world over had been keenly watching Iranian moves, as it had traditionally sided with Armenia in its conflicts with Azerbaijan.

According to Maysam Behravesh, political analyst and former policy advisor, Iran’s support to Armenia was to quash separatist sentiments, as it hosts a sizeable presence of 20 million Azerbaijanis — known also as Azerbaijani Turks — in the northern parts, constituting a quarter of the country’s population.

“The prevailing perception in Tehran is that Azerbaijan’s recapture and control of Nagorno-Karabakh will likely to fuel Turkish/Azerbaijani separatist sentiments and ambitions in Iran’s adjacent provinces in northwest, which could threaten its national security and territorial integrity,” he said.

When Abulfaz Elchibey took over as Azerbaijan president in the early 1990s, he had expressed the wish to reunite Azerbaijan, which did not go well with Tehran.

Iranian Azerbaijan comprises the north-west portion of Iran including the provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Ardabil. It shares borders with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Iraq.

According to observers, Elchibey’s statement became a key trigger for Tehran to tilt towards the Christian Armenia, which shares 22 miles (35 kilometers) border with the country. This border is termed as a lifeline for three million population of Armenia.

“For Armenia, relations with Iran are a matter of survival as it remains blocked from two sides. For Iran also, the country has been a stepping stone to seek influence in the southern Caucasus,” said Mehdi Mohammadi, a geopolitical commentator.

Besides Russia being the ally of both Armenia and Iran also plays a factor in cementing relations.

Recently several reports suggested that Russia was sending ammunition to Armenia through Iranian borders. Iranian officials, however, rejected these reports and termed them as “baseless rumors”.

Offering mediation

While resisting public opinion to support Baku, both President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asked both the countries to resolve differences through dialogue, offering mediation along with Turkey and Russia. But both leaders have stopped short of condemning the actions of Armenia in an attempt to stay neutral.

But the calls are growing within the country to abandon the traditional stand and support publicly Azerbaijan.

On Saturday, Alireza Arafi, an influential cleric and head of religious seminaries, lent his support to Azerbaijan. He said the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Baku.

Arafi, who is close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said all religious seminaries, clergy, and student bodies are supporting the stand of Azerbaijan.

Further, in a joint statement issued by four representatives of Khamenei in four different provinces also asserted that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan.

Parliament Speaker’s Advisor Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the UN resolutions “stress on Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh”.

A lawmaker from Iran’s Azerbaijan province said Karabakh is an “Islamic land” that will be “liberated”.

Many people have taken to streets in the northern provinces of Tabriz and Urmia demanding the closure of Iran’s border with Armenia.

Analysts believe that these unprecedented developments have put Tehran in a spot.

President Rouhani, in a telephonic conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan, last week urged restraint and offered mediation to resolve the dispute.

Observers in Tehran say that wave of sympathy and solidarity with Azerbaijan, is also linked to Armenia’s growing proximity with Israel, which is the red-line for Iran’s hardliners.

Last year, Armenia established its embassy in Tel Aviv, which has not been viewed kindly in Tehran. In June this year, many protests were held near Armenia’s embassy in Tehran against the country’s decision to open its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv.

“Iran is very sensitive about Israel’s growing presence in its neighborhood, which is directly linked to its internal security. So, Armenia’s closeness with Tel Aviv was seen as a betrayal,” says Mohammad Amin Hashemi, a writer, and regional observer.

Azerbaijani students make a difference

Further, thousands of Azeri students are enrolled in Iran’s religious seminaries and many have already graduated and returned to their country.

While the public opinion in Iran seems to favor Azerbaijan, the official stance remains unchanged. But, there is speculation that the mounting pressure and changing geopolitical realities may force Tehran to change its traditional stand.

On Sunday, Iran’s embassy in Baku strongly condemned the attack on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja by Armenian forces that killed several civilians.

Behravesh, however, does not believe Iran will change its stance. He said that in this case (Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), Iran’s policy is driven by “national security interests and concerns”.

“That is unlikely to change under another president unless something major happens and transforms the geopolitical equation,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Meanwhile, Iran is closely monitoring developments on its borders, which is evident from statements by senior officials and a visit of the parliamentary delegation to the border areas.

Upper Karabakh conflict

Relations between the two former Soviet republics have been tense since 1991, when the Armenian military occupied Upper Karabakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions.

Some 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory, including the Upper Karabakh, has remained under illegal occupation by Armenia for roughly three decades.

The occupied Upper Karabakh region includes the towns of Shusha, Khankendi, Khojaly, Asgaran, Khojavand, Aghdara, and Hadrut.

The seven other occupied regions of Azerbaijan are the provinces surrounding the Upper Karabakh area, including Lachin, Kalbajar, Aghdam, Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Qubadli, and Zangilan.

Four UN Security Council and two UN General Assembly resolutions, as well as many international organizations, demand the withdrawal of the occupying forces.

Over 1 million Azerbaijanis became internally displaced persons, while 20,000 were martyred by Armenian forces and 50,000 were wounded and became disabled, according to Azerbaijan’s official figures.

At least 4,000 Azerbaijanis went missing during the conflict and their fate remains unknown.

More than 2,000 Azerbaijanis were captured and taken hostage by Armenian forces.

The OSCE Minsk Group – co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US – was formed in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, but to no avail. A cease-fire, however, was reached in 1994.

Many world powers, including Russia, France, and the US, have urged an immediate cease-fire. Turkey, meanwhile, has supported Baku’s right to self-defense.

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