“We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” said the late Ayatollah Khomeini, whose Iranian revolution has been officially celebrating its 44th anniversary this week. With the world’s attention focused primarily on Ukraine, most people missed the current Iranian president’s recent speech and the anti-regime hacker attack during his live internet broadcast of the address.
But as fragile as Iran’s cybersecurity appears to be, the nation’s neighbors were tuning in nervously, given the mounting evidence that Iranian efforts to exert control over their region are now underway.
On January 27—Holocaust Memorial Day—Israel’s ally in the Caucasus and one of those neighbors, Azerbaijan, felt Iran’s intent when its embassy in Tehran was stormed by a radicalized gunman. “A terror attack,” declared Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry. Iran remained silent for days.
Only weeks before, Iranian missile systems and the same “suicide” drones sold to Russia in Ukraine were transferred to Azerbaijan’s enemy and Iran’s other northern neighbor, Armenia. In addition to those military moves, a new Iranian consulate in Armenia was opened just two miles from Azerbaijan’s border.
Why now? Iran has failed for decades to export the revolution into the Caucasus because of the continuing regional influence of Russia. But as fear of Moscow recedes, and Ukraine’s military deficiencies become clearly evident, Iran sees a chance to fill the vacuum.
Such Iranian adventurism would create more problems for Azerbaijan—which would find itself surrounded geopolitically. Internally, it would serve as a catalyst for the longtime source of civil opposition to the Azerbaijani government—the majority Azeri ethnic group.
Iranian efforts will begin with Armenia because that nation offers an “open door.” State Department cables disclosed by Wikileaks exposed the military and sanction-busting links with Iran going back to the beginning of the century and even the Armenian sale of weapons used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.
Now, with Armenia part of Russia’s six-nation military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and with Moscow’s active military engagement on Armenia’s side in their successful war of conflict against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, there has been no reason to turn from this partner of choice.
Armenia’s political classes are experiencing repeated abandonment by Moscow in their hour of need. Russia failed in 2020 to intervene militarily at Armenia’s request during a rerun of the early 1990s war with Azerbaijan. Smaller, cross-border skirmishes over the last two years have led to further attempts to trigger CSTO’s equivalent of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense doctrine. All have been met with Russian rebuffs. Moscow’s disintegrating power forces Armenia to seek Iran as a new security guarantor.
Armenia’s history with Iran and Russia is little known—especially among members of Congress—who primarily hear of an ancient Christian nation with a forever-threatened culture located in a majority Muslim neighborhood. While that snapshot characterization is largely true, it is far from the complete story.
Fact is Azerbaijan—which has increased gas supplies to Europe to reduce that continent’s energy dependence on Russia, cut financial ties to Moscow by banning trade in rubles, and continues to distribute free petroleum to Ukraine’s emergency services—acts more like a U.S. ally than Armenia ever has.
Yet the United States offers little in return for Azerbaijani support for Ukraine against Putin’s illegal war. America is diplomatically, economically, and militarily absent from the Caucasus. The United States played no significant role in the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war, allowing that role to be filled by Russia. A two-year search for a peace deal has been deferred to the European Union. And successive presidents’ claims to be countering Iran remain simply untrue while America holds next to no presence of any kind in either Armenia or Azerbaijan—the two countries that stretch Iran’s northern border.
While serving in Congress, as far back as 2006, I questioned America’s strategy regarding Iranian containment and the Democrats’ horrible record of appeasement. President Clinton’s “out of sight, out of mind” approach, followed by Obama’s unworldly Iran deal a decade later, set a dangerous precedent.
Unless America awakens, Iran’s malignant influence over its neighbors will grow, as Khomeini’s successors are being handed the chance to export his revolution into the Caucasus—a goal that has eluded the Iranians for 44 years. The Europeans, despite trying, are as incapable of influence over their southern flank in the Caucasus as they are over their eastern flank with Ukraine.
Armenia is too enfeebled and complicit, while Azerbaijan is not strong enough to fend off either Iran or Russia on its own. Until the United States puts aside its reticence, Russian weakness will enable Iran to reach within the countries of a region that should be resolutely full of American allies.