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Iran and South Caucasus a Geopolitical Tinderbox 
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Arunansh B. Goswami | Date:22 May , 2024 0 Comments
Arunansh B. Goswami
is an advocate, historian and Author who also Heads Scindia Research Centre, Scindia Palace Gwalior.

Gok Jami, an 18th-century Shia mosque in Yerevan Armenia. After the independence of Armenia, at the request of the Iranian government, the mosque was handed over to Iran as a place of prayer. It was reconstructed in 1994-1998 by the efforts of the Iranian government. In 2006, the dome was repaired. Photo Credits: Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami.

President of Iran Ibrahim Raisi is dead, the helicopter carrying Raisi took off at the Iranian border with Azerbaijan after President Raisi and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev inaugurated dam of Qiz Qalasi, on Sunday, May 19, 2024. Conjectures are being made about possible foreign hand ranging from Israel to USA. The death of Raisi has further complicated already complicated situation in the South Caucasus. Even though Azerbaijan and Iran are Shia majority countries, they have historically been geopolitical rivals. Baku’s geopolitical closeness with Israel has been a cause of profound annoyance to it’s nemesis Tehran. A question many readers must be having is, why two countries with  majorities following same sect of Islam are antagonistic to each other? In this article, the author will try to address this question and also explain why geopolitical tensions in the South Caucasus may increase because of the death of President Raisi.

Author of this article standing near the tomb of Nizami Ganjavi. Photo Credits: Mr. D. B. Goswami.

Complicated History 

Travelling through Azerbaijan, this author reached Ganja city (Gandzak in Armenian), where in the days of yore was born the greatest romantic epic poet in Fārsi (official language of Iran) literature, Nizami Ganjavi (national poet of Azerbaijan). Not just Nizami, but Shah Ismail Khatai is popular in Azerbaijan; he is considered a national hero by Azeris. They assert the Azeri origins of both Nizami and Ismail; the latter founded the gunpowder empire of the Safavids that ruled Iran for 800 years, an empire that fought several wars against other gunpowder empires, the Ottomans and Mughals (both of Turkic origins), respectively, for strategic dominance.  

The geopolitical outlook of Azeris, though consistent when it comes to their hatred against Armenians, has changed towards Iran and Turkey. There was a time when Safavids and Ottomans struggled against each other for geopolitical supremacy. In August 1514, Ismail (claimed by Azeris to be a fellow Azeri) was seriously defeated at Chaldiran by his Sunni rival, the Ottoman sultan Selim I. During the days of the Soviet Union, according to Edmund Herzig from Oxford University, “the Communist Party leadership in Baku threw its weight behind a conception of Azerbaijani nationhood that emphasised ties to the territory of Azerbaijan rather than to the Azeri Turkish language as the crucial ingredient of Azerbaijani ethnicity.”

Juma Mosque of Ganja city, constructed on the instructions of Safavid ruler Shah Abbas the Great during his reign of 1587-1629. Photo Credits: Mr. D. B. Goswami.

The times have changed now. Historical Sunni versus Shia rivalry has changed to Turkic versus non-Turkic (Iranian and Armenian) rivalry. The slogan “one nation, two states” (tek millet, iki devlet) summarises this and is the manifestation of the Baku-Ankara alliance based on the foundation of Turanic bonhomie and pan-Turkic amity. Within this alliance has entered Pakistan, which, despite its non-Turkic majority, claims to be a successor state of a Turkic empire (Mughals), and because of its commitment to pan-Islamism, sees itself as a natural ally against infidel Armenians. Non-Turkic groups like Caucasian Albanians and Udi Christians are used by Azerbaijani leaders now and then just as a means to discredit the historical claims of Armenians about the South Caucasus.  


Nasib L. Nassibli writes in his report for Harvard Kennedy School titled “Azerbaijan-Iran Relations: Challenges and Prospects” that “the divided Azerbaijan factor is the most influential factor in the relations between the two countries. The Republic of Azerbaijan encompasses only a portion of what we actually consider to be Azerbaijan; the second part of Azerbaijan is in north-west Iran (Tabriz is the capital of southern Azerbaijan). The Azerbaijani Turks in Iran constitute a significant part of the population of that country.” 

A memorial dedicated to an Azerbaijani soldier. Photo Credits: Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami.

Azerbaijan harbours several agents of Israel’s secret service, Mossad, according to a report by The Times newspaper titled “Spy vs. spy: the secret wars waged in the new spooks’ playground,” according to Iranian state-run edia. Tehran had summoned Azerbaijan’s ambassador to protest alleged Israeli intelligence activity there, including allowing Israel to launch activities against Iran from Azerbaijani territory and aiding in the escape of Israeli agents Tehran says were behind the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.

The fact that the Iranian President died in a helicopter crash after inaugurating the “Qiz Qalasi Dam, which represents the largest joint water project between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan, according to a report by Press TV, will lead several strategic experts in Iran to conjecture about a possible Israeli hand that has a strong network in Azerbaijan, as mentioned before.    

Blue Mosque in Yerevan. Photo Credits: Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami.


While travelling in Yerevan, this author visited the Blue Mosque in Yerevan, also known as Gok Jami, an 18th-century Shia mosque. Former Prime Minister of Armenia Hovik Abrahamyan said, “The friendly peoples of Armenia and Iran have given the world a valuable cultural heritage, enriching the world treasury with everlasting values, be it in the field of literature, music, theatre, architecture, or other… The Blue Mosque, built in Yerevan 2.5 centuries ago, is truly the best example of a cultural legacy. This monument is truly one of the unique cultural pearls of the region.” 

Yerevan and Tehran continue to have friendly relations based on their common animosity against their Turkish neighbours, who are pursuing a policy of uniting the Turkic world, and, according to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Zangezur Corridor, opposed by both Yerevan and Tehran, is expected to “unite the entire Turkic orld.” Tehran’s concern is that this corridor will block Iran’s border with Armenia. 

Author of this article standing near Gok Jami. Photo Credits: Professor Arkaja Goswami.

Tehran has over the past few months been annoyed with the growing bonhomie between Yerevan and Washington, but the recently launched “Tavush for Homeland” movement launched by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan may change this and make Yerevan’s foreign policy more balanced between Russia, which has been a historical enemy of the Turks, and the USA, which has a strong Armenian diaspora. The death of President Raisi will lead Armenian leadership to think about strengthening its internal security more and also increase the speed of strengthening its relationship with another pro-Armenian power, India, keeping in mind the possibility of a crisis of leadership in Iran because of President Raisi’s death and increasing opposition to Ayatollah’s regime. 


In Georgia, in the South Caucasus, this author saw the flag of the European Union at several prominent places, a fact that manifests Tbilisi’s shift from pro-Turkey Moscow (both majority Russians and Georgians are Orthodox Christians) to the “West,” led by the USA. According to a report by France 24 on May 11, 2024, “around 50,000 protesters marched through central Tbilisi on Saturday at a rally against a controversial foreign influence bill, dubbed “the Russian law,”  and backed by the Georgian government. Critics say the bill is inspired by a law in Russia that has been used to clamp down on dissent.” 

Flag of European Union and Georgia in Qazbegi in Georgia. Photo Credits: Mr. D. B. Goswami.

In Georgia, anti-Russian mass sentiment has been on the rise, even though its government has maintained a policy of “not annoying Russia,” which defeated Georgia in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The common anti-Russia sentiment is perceptible in Georgia. It has over the years moved significantly closer to the “West” led by the USA geopolitically, which has been a cause of speculation that the USA will use Georgia in any of its anti-Iran operations. Though Georgia has energy needs met by Iran and has so far officially stayed away from any anti-Iran alliance, its growing anti-Russian sentiment may change this. 

Tbilisi has maintained friendly relations with Ankara and Baku, much to the annoyance of fellow Christian Orthodox Armenians. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia conduct trilateral military trainings on an annual basis. Dr. Hamidreza Azizi and Dr. Daria Isachenko write in their article “Turkey-Iran Rivalry in the Changing Geopolitics of the South Caucasus” for Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit ‘ For Ankara, the South Caucasus also represents a bridge to Central Asia. Current Turkish foreign policy treats the South Caucasus and Central Asia as closely connected, if not indivisible, spaces. Both regions form the basis of the “Turkic World,” which, in Ankara’s view, used to span “from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China.”

Author of this article in Joseph Stalin’s birthplace Gori in Georgia. Photo Credits: Professor Arkaja Goswami.

Tbilisi will be concerned about the possibility of a political crisis in Iran because of President Raisi’s death and because of its energy needs, but if a pro-USA Shah regime is established in Iran, it may make it easy for Tbilisi to establish a military alliance with the West and have a pro-West Iran supporting it in any regional crisis against Russia.  


The death of President Raisi has sent geopolitical shock waves into the South Caucasus and beyond. The South Caucasus region has been a crossroads of civilisations where Islam meets Christianity, but has been seen by pan-Turkists as a hinderance in their way of creating a united Turkic world. Because of the presence of non-Turkic people, the death of President Raisi will strongly affect this Turkic versus non-Turkish geopolitics in this region and increase possibilities of conflict in this already conflict-prone region. This author wishes that peace is established in the South Caucasus by the end of territorial expansionism and the use of war as a means of foreign policy. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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