Iranian Official: We Helped Azerbaijan In Karabakh War
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Iran, of course, is now fairly hostile towards Azerbaijan, and maintains good relations with Armenia. Armenians have claimed that Iran helped Azerbaijan during the war, but there has not been confirmation of this, nor have mainstream accounts repeated the claim. (The authoritative book on the war, Thomas De Waal's Black Garden, while devoting several pages to Russia's complex role in the war, doesn't address Iran's role at all.) Iran and Azerbaijan also have been quiet about this (if it is in fact true), though some opposition figures in Azerbaijan appear to have been supporting Rezaee's allegations.
Rezaee is now a candidate for president, and it's possible that this is a play for votes among Iran's substantial ethnic Azeri population. It also could be a subtle power play by Tehran against Baku, suggests Alex Vatanka, an Iran scholar at the Middle East Institute who has written a lot on Iran's relations to the Caucasus.
"Why come out now and say it? I can only assume that the Iranians know Armenia can't really afford to allow this historical fact [if it is true] to harm present ties with Iran," he told The Bug Pit. "On the other hand, Iran has a lot to gain from such news. If you are Tehran, and want to go over Aliyev's head, what would be better to play than the 'Islamic' or 'nationalist' card and shape Azeri public opinion. I see it all as part of Tehran's cold-hot approach to Aliyev's government."
So far there doesn't seem to be any official reaction from Baku.
UPDATE: A reader writes in to note that this is not actually the first time an Iranian official has made such a claim; an Ayatollah Said Hassan Ameli did so a couple of years ago, as well.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.