On Sunday, May 19th, a Bell 212 helicopter carrying a delegation that included Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian crashed in the mountainous terrain of Northern Iran. The difficult weather conditions, including dense fog, severely hindered rescue operations. Local authorities and media provided conflicting information, further complicating the situation. Rescue teams finally reached the site several hours later on the morning of May 20th, confirming the deaths of all nine passengers.

In the wake of Raisi’s death, the focus of the commentariat shifted to the reshuffling at the top of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the internal power dynamics. However, the broader geopolitical aspect is equally intriguing. Raisi was returning from a trip to Azerbaijan, raising questions about the purpose of his visit and his discussions with President Ilham Aliyev. This trip appears to be another episode in the ongoing saga of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Impact of Raisi’s Death on Iran’s Political Landscape

Although the office of the President is not particularly privileged in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the disaster has come as a shock to the authorities. They were unprepared for any reshuffling of power structures while public opinion remains tense, and Iran is playing a very dangerous game in the Middle East with the prospect of another confrontation with Israel. This complicates the regime’s operations.

In theory, the President is the second most important person in the state after the Supreme Leader and the head of the executive branch. In practice, his influence depends largely on his status and the support he receives from internal interest groups. While the relatively liberal Hassan Rouhani was restrained in his reformist tendencies and gradually marginalized, Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected after him and held conservative views, had a real chance of becoming the Supreme Leader’s successor. Raisi was hated by much of society, nicknamed “The Butcher of Tehran” for sentencing thousands of political prisoners accused of treason to death in 1988. He became known as the advocate of a heavy hand. From 2019, as head of the country’s judiciary, he served as Chief Justice, coinciding with the outbreak of the first mass protests in years, which were violently suppressed.

At first, the protests were about the economic situation, then about the personal freedom of citizens. The elections of August 2021, in which Raisi won office, were boycotted by a large part of the population who feared that civil liberties would be curtailed. These fears proved to be justified. In July 2022, the new government resumed the harsh enforcement of morality laws, sparking months of protests after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was beaten for “indecent behavior.” Unsurprisingly, fireworks were set off in various Iranian cities to mark the news of Raisi’s death, making the authorities nervous. In this context, the mechanism of oppression has lost one of its central figures, which could translate into public sentiment and encourage renewed unrest at the next opportunity.

Raisi was succeeded by Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, a secularist who was responsible for a deal to supply Iranian drones to Russia. He remains in office for several weeks until new elections are held. These are planned for June 28th. According to experts, the only viable candidate to succeed Raisi after his death is his son Mojtaba. This imbalance could lead to accusations of trying to turn Iran into a hereditary monarchy and friction within the establishment. The logical step seems to be the emergence of a new challenger who will absorb the Iranian elite for a while.

Raisi’s Trip to Azerbaijan: Unfinished Business

Few are examining the motives behind Raisi’s trip to Azerbaijan. The accident occurred on the way back from a visit to the northern neighbor, where Raisi’s delegation met with Azerbaijani officials led by President Ilham Aliyev. The occasion was the official opening of two hydroelectric power stations on the border river Aras: Khoda Afarin and Giz Galasi. It was certainly not just a matter of courtesy for Raisi to attend the inauguration but something more.

The history of the construction of the Aras dams is rather messy. The original plans were drawn up in the days of the USSR. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation became complicated. New borders, lack of funds, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict further hampered the works and exploitation. Probably around 2007, Iran reached a tacit agreement with Armenia and the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh whereby Iranian forces would secure the site of the dam reservoir, bridges, and irrigation system in the area of historic Khoda Afarin bridges within a 10 km radius. A similar, equally discreet deal was then struck with Baku in 2016. However, the right conditions were not yet in place to unlock the full potential of the investment.

It was only after Azerbaijani troops took control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory at the end of 2020 that both projects came out of the shadows, and their expansion and completion began. Although the bulk of the work has been carried out by Iran, both countries stand to benefit, including by sharing the energy produced. Azerbaijan’s power plants are mainly gas-fired and provide 82% of the country’s electricity. More important than power generation, however, is access to water. The geography of the South Caucasus means that Azerbaijan is forced to draw its drinking water from sources that are 25% outside the country. The situation improved slightly after the seizure of the entire Aras, including the Sarsang reservoir, in September 2023.

Iran uses the Aras River to irrigate farmland in the northwest of the country, East Azerbaijan Province. Dams are being built in Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, and the issue of access to water and river regulation is a regular source of interstate tension at the regional level. The construction of infrastructure on the river is accompanied by advanced road and trail works, which become part of the international North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the East-West Transport Corridor through which goods will flow from Asia to Europe.

When the presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan meet at the border to inaugurate two not necessarily new hydroelectric power plants, it is more than political courtesy and congratulating each other on successful infrastructure investments. In reality, it is about geopolitics, tying up one of the threads of a rather troubled history and stabilizing the region.

The Geopolitical Implications of Nagorno-Karabakh

There is still no definitive answer to the question of what will happen after the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh. For the time being, Iran has stopped going behind Azerbaijan’s back, with Azerbaijan taking a share of the investment cost and recognizing Armenia’s right to decide Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. The bone of contention remains Azerbaijan’s cooperation with Israel, its ambitious Pan-Turkic policy with Turkey, and, strange as it may sound, the nationality conflict. Iran regards Azerbaijan as a rock province, and Azerbaijanis are fond of their Iranian compatriots, leading the ayatollahs to fear rather unjustifiably at the moment that this could lead to internal destabilization and national strife.

Most importantly, while Iran has always maintained its position that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs fully to Azerbaijan, it does not tolerate the Turkish-Azeri desire to take over the so-called Zangezur Corridor, which connects the Nakhchivan exclave to Azerbaijan. This is why in 2021, 2022, and 2023, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps carried out military maneuvers near the Azerbaijani border, demonstrating its readiness to intervene if Armenia were physically cut off from Iran. This also explains Iran’s reasons for providing political and material support to the authorities in Yerevan. The rapprochement is intended to help Baku reduce tensions and weaken or break the Iranian-Armenian cooperation.

Ilham Aliyev is now playing a skillful game, the overriding aim of which seems to be to seize more and more Armenian territory in a way that incurs the least geopolitical cost. As recently as January 2024, he argued in one of his public speeches that Yerevan was “an ancient Azerbaijani city” and that its handover to Armenia was unjustified. Such rhetoric is designed to provoke certain reactions and has little to do with a genuine desire to seize the Armenian capital. However, it clearly shows that regaining Nagorno-Karabakh is not enough to satisfy Azerbaijan’s growing ambitions.

It is also an excellent tool to put pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The apparent warmth of relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin, with whom Aliyev is eager to meet, can be seen in the same context. The personal relationships he is trying to build with other leaders are designed to win their favor. As it happens, both Iran and Russia are in semi-isolation, so they can appreciate this kind of gesture. By the same token, trying to entrench trouble in a stranded Armenia is the best way to force it into submission.

The Armenians feel, not without reason, betrayed by the Russian Federation, which was their ally and guarantor of their sovereignty. At the moment of trial, it failed, and its influence in the Caucasus was marginalized by the tandem of Turkey and Azerbaijan. In response, Armenia suspended its membership of the CSTO, or the so-called Russian NATO, and it is possible that it will formally withdraw from it in the near future. Prime Minister Pashinyan is doing all he can to avoid a resumption of the conflict. His stance so far, distancing himself from the Republic of Artsakh, has kept Armenia from being drawn into open war with Azerbaijan. But the political position of the authorities in Yerevan remains unfavorable.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1: What caused the helicopter crash?

A1: The helicopter crash was caused by difficult weather conditions, including dense fog, which made the rescue operation very difficult.

Q2: Who was on board the helicopter?

A2: The helicopter was carrying a delegation that included Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, among other officials.

Q3: What was the purpose of Raisi’s visit to Azerbaijan?

A3: Raisi’s visit to Azerbaijan was to attend the official opening of two hydroelectric power stations on the border river Aras. However, the visit also had significant geopolitical implications related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and regional stability.

Q4: What is the Zangezur Corridor?

A4: The Zangezur Corridor is a proposed land corridor that would connect the Nakhchivan exclave to Azerbaijan, crossing through Armenia. It is a point of contention between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran due to its strategic importance.

Q5: What impact will Raisi’s death have on Iran’s political landscape?

A5: Raisi’s death has led to a temporary succession by Vice President Mohammad Mokhber. New elections are planned for June 28th. Raisi’s death also adds complexity to Iran’s internal power dynamics and its regional geopolitical strategies.

Q6: How does the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict affect Iran-Azerbaijan relations?

A6: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a central issue in Iran-Azerbaijan relations. While both countries benefit from cooperation, the conflict, and related regional tensions complicate their interactions, especially with external influences like Turkey and Israel.

Conclusion: Navigating the Future of Iran-Azerbaijan Relations

The border dispute continues despite Armenia’s unilateral renunciation of its claims for four villages that remained under its control after the liquidation of the Nagorno-Karabakh quasi-state, which provoked a strong reaction on the streets of Yerevan. The Russians, who are fueling anti-government sentiment, are doing everything they can to bring the government down and return politicians with pro-Russian sympathies to power. Baku agreed to Russian participation in the negotiations precisely because of the hostile relations between Moscow and Yerevan. Some hope for Pashinyan is offered by the active attitude of the West, especially France, which is trying to fill the gap left by Russia, mainly in the military dimension: arms supplies and training. However, the only neighbor offering real help is Iran, which has recently stepped up its cooperation with Moscow while keeping a close eye on Turkey and Azerbaijan.

If a similar rapprochement were to take place with Baku, Yerevan would lose its last resort to preserve the country’s independence. It would be forced to make far-reaching concessions. As evidence of the above, we can refer to a transcript of statements made by the two politicians, Ilham Aliyev and the late Ebrahim Raisi, on May 19th, 2024, during official ceremonies at the Aras River shortly before the latter’s death. Each established a semblance of closeness, but the dissonance of views and policies was palpable.

Aliyev praised the unique intimacy of relations with Iran based on brotherhood and partnership. He stressed the importance of cooperation for the stability and security of the region, arguing that no external states “thousands of miles away should interfere in our affairs.” He argued that Armenia had counted on the help of others but had miscalculated and should not make the same mistake again. “We shall not be divided,” he declared. He criticized the OSCE Minsk Group set up after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war for having “frozen the conflict instead of resolving it.” This, he said, could only be done with Baku, with political and military means, but with respect for international law.

The rest of the speech was filled with assurances of fruitful and dynamic cooperation in developing the border region’s infrastructure, including constructing a motorway and a railway line that will link the country to Nakhchivan and more broadly connect the entire region to the international transport corridors that have been under construction for many years. At the same time, he failed to mention that these links are being built mainly on the Azerbaijani side of the border. So, Aliyev tried to sweeten the concept of the Zangezur Corridor for Iran, describing it as part of the construction of an international transport route from which good money could be made. Using the example of infrastructure development, power plants, and dams, he pointed out that cooperation produces better results than rivalry or hostility. He winked at Iran by trying to suggest that outside powers were interfering in the region’s affairs, a nod to the theocratic anti-American rhetoric. At the same time, he smuggled in calculated domestic rhetoric of a just war that must eventually conclude with peace if Armenia shows reason.

Raisi, who spoke after Aliyev, was equally exuberant, celebrating cooperation and clearly calling for an even greater rapprochement, but at the same time not allowing himself to be misled. He took up the economic theme, pointing to the benefits of the construction project for the provinces of East Azerbaijan and the region as a whole. He pointed to the deep commonality of history, culture, religion, and the close affinity of the two peoples. But in his view, it was Iran and the Supreme Leader who decided to deepen relations with Azerbaijan. Similarly, he added that Azerbaijan’s development is “our own development,” referring to the aforementioned construction of new roads mainly on the Azerbaijani side of the border.

In passing, he noted Iran’s interest in the reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was probably the publicly communicated price of further cooperation in this area. He also expressed the expectation that political cooperation would move to international forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and that Azerbaijan would show solidarity on the Palestinian issue. Raisi said, “We have no doubt that the people of Azerbaijan despise the Zionist regime.” Of course, he was referring to the government in Jerusalem, with which Baku constantly cooperates. It is also suspected that Azerbaijani territory has been used for attacks on Iran. Finally, he argued that only factors threatening the status of the border between the two countries could pose a potential threat to them. Iran would not want to worry about this. On the contrary, it would prefer the borders to offer hope for cooperation and political and economic development.

It is hard to escape the impression that Raisi positioned Azerbaijan in the role of a younger brother who requires both help and some discipline. In fact, one could even say that the rhetoric used was paternalistic and possessive, in stark contrast to the common Azerbaijani notion of togetherness with the Turks, “two states, one nation.” Beneath the icing on the cake of encouraging rapprochement, Raisi made it clear that Iran would not tolerate Azerbaijan’s cooperation with Israel and would not agree to a violent resolution of the Zangezur Corridor.

Iran and Azerbaijan decided to ease tensions that had been building for several years by focusing on pragmatic cooperation in areas that would benefit both countries. The border meeting was the first of its kind, so it was highly symbolic for both countries. However, fundamental political differences remain and will take time to resolve. Ilham Aliyev has sought to develop closer relations with the Iranian president, both at the ministerial and personal levels. The gradual softening of Iran through closer economic ties was designed to make Armenia move further backward, force Yerevan to further concessions, and make Iran agree on Azerbaijan’s de facto takeover control of Zangezur.

Contrary to appearances, Raisi could have been a grateful negotiating partner, having demonstrated his negotiating skills and willingness to compromise in international politics. It was during his tenure that the conflict with Saudi Arabia was ended, and talks with the Americans on the JCPOA nuclear deal resumed. This process was interrupted by the helicopter crash and Raisi’s death. For how long remains to be seen. Iran’s foreign policy ultimately depends on the decisions of the National Security Council and the approval of the Supreme Leader. Still, the president is an important piece in this puzzle. At the level of bilateral contacts, a new candidate can revisit this issue in two to three months once he has taken office and chosen his co-workers.

If Azerbaijan wanted to achieve a political breakthrough before launching another military operation against Armenia in September or October, as it has done with extraordinary regularity in recent years, there may not be enough time to implement this plan. What will Ilham Aliyev do? Will he, emboldened by his success, go for more? As always, there are no easy answers in the Caucasus.

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By Ryan Hite

Ryan Hite is an American author, content creator, podcaster, and media personality. He was born on February 3, 1993, in Colorado and spent his childhood in Conifer, Colorado. He moved to Littleton in 2000 and spent the remainder of his schooling years in the city. Upon graduation from Chatfield Senior High School in 2011, he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated from the university in 2015 after studying Urban Planning, Business Administration, and Religious Studies. He spent more time in Colorado in the insurance, real estate, and healthcare industries. In 2019, he moved to Las Vegas, NV, where he continued to work in healthcare, insurance, and took his foray into media full time in 2021. His first exposure to the media industry came as a result of the experiences he had in his mid to late teens and early twenties. In 2013, he was compelled to collect a set of stories from his personal experiences and various other writings that he has had. His first book, a 365,000-word epic, Through Minds Eyes, was published in collaboration with Balboa Press. That initial book launched a media explosion. He learned all that he could about creating websites, marketing his published works, and would even contemplate the publication of other works as well. This book also inspired him to create his philosophy, his life work, that still influences the values that he holds in his life. Upon graduating college, he had many books published, blogs and other informative websites uploaded, and would embark on his continued exploration of the world of marketing, sales, and becoming an influencer. Of course, that did not come without challenges that would come his way. His trial-and-error approach of marketing himself and making himself known guided him through his years as a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and would eventually create a marketing plan from scratch with a healthcare startup. The pandemic did not initially create too many challenges to the status quo. Working from home did not affect the quality of his life. However, a series of circumstances such as continued website problems, social media shutdowns, and unemployment, caused him to pause everything between late 2020 and mid-2021. It was another period of loss of momentum and purpose for his life as he tried to navigate the world, as many people may have felt at that time. He attempted to find purpose in insurance again, resulting in failure. There was one thing that sparked his curiosity and would propel him to rediscover the thing that was gone from his life for so long. In 2021, he started his journey by taking on a full-time job in the digital media industry, an industry that he is still a part of today. It was at this point that he would also shut down the rest of the media that he had going at the time. In 2023, he announced that he would be embarking on what has become known as PROJECT30. This initiative will result in the reformation of websites, the reinvigoration of social media accounts, the creation of a Youtube channel and associated podcast, the creation of music, and the continued rediscovery of his creative potential. Unlike past projects, the purpose of this would not expound on the musings of a philosophy, the dissemination of useless news and articles, or the numerous attempts to be someone that he was not. This project is going to be about his authentic self. There are many ways to follow him as he embarks on this journey. Most of all, he wants everyone to be entertained, informed, and, in some ways, maybe a little inspired about the flourishing of the creativity that lies within the mind and soul of Ryan.

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