The long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has created partnerships in the South Caucasus that cut across religious, ethnic, and geopolitical lines in surprising ways, Foreign Affairs writes.
Iran, which is ruled by Shiite clerics, has provided an economic lifeline to Christian-majority Armenia, whose primary backer has long been Russia. Meanwhile, Israel and Sunni-majority Turkey have formed a strategic alliance with predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan. And the two Shiite-majority countries in the mix, Iran and Azerbaijan, remain locked in a bitter, decades-long dispute over territory and identity.
For almost three decades, with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen in a stalemate, this configuration was mostly seen as a case of politics making strange bedfellows: curious, but not a cause for alarm. In 2020, however, the momentum in the conflict shifted decidedly toward Azerbaijan, which won a clear-cut military victory over Armenia during a short but consequential war over the territory. That outcome is slowly but surely heightening, to dangerous effect, inherent but long-hidden tensions among the players in the region. All of this is taking place as Russia, which has traditionally been the most important outside actor in the conflict, has been distracted by its faltering war against Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as Israel’s ties to an emboldened Azerbaijan have deepened, Iran has become concerned that Israel is turning Azerbaijan into its proxy and using it as a launchpad for operations against Iran. In recent years, Iran has watched as Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies have grown closer, owing to a shared enmity toward Tehran. The Iranians now fear that a similar dynamic is taking shape between Israel and two countries with predominantly Turkic populations, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The perceived threat of being sandwiched between an Israeli-Gulf Arab bloc to the south and an Israeli-Turkic bloc to the north, combined with domestic unrest in Iran, could tempt Tehran to overtly enter the conflict on the Armenian side and try to destabilize the Azerbaijani state. Meanwhile, an increasingly self-assured Azerbaijan might seek to arm and stoke separatism among the Iranian Azeri population. Such steps could lead to an escalatory spiral that would threaten the stability of the strategically vital South Caucasus and potentially produce a wider crisis.