President Joe Biden has vowed that Iran “will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Yet his promise, made in a June 28 meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, will likely ring hollow if his administration does not pay attention to crucial geopolitical developments in Eurasia.
While June’s elections in Iran and Armenia had seemingly divergent implications for diplomacy and peace, the results have more in common than meets the eye. In Iran, the election of hardline cleric and alleged human rights violator Ebrahim Raisi as president marks not only the latest affirmation that the outcome of the Islamic Republic’s “democratic” process is essentially controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also an apparent setback for the Biden administration’s efforts to restart diplomacy with the Iranians in order to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal. (Raisi immediately ruled out a meeting with President Biden.)
In Armenia, the landslide reelection of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is widely seen as popular approval for an unpopular agreement — last year’s Armenian surrender in its war with Azerbaijan and its subsequent pullout from occupied territories in Nagorno-Karabakh that are internationally recognized as Azerbaijani lands. Although Armenians had largely reacted to the surrender with anger, their ballots struck a different tone by rejecting Pashinyan’s opponents, who called for a reversal of last November’s Russian-brokered deal. Even if they did so reluctantly, Armenians seem to have expressed a vote of confidence in ending their decades-long conflict with Azerbaijan.
On the surface, these elections portend opposite developments — a defeat for diplomacy in Iran and a victory for diplomacy in Armenia. Yet a deeper examination reveals that the Iranian and Armenian elections could be part of the same regional trend.
Coming in second to Raisi in Iran’s race was not another candidate, but instead an unprecedented number of invalidated votes. These included votes for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. While it is instinctual to dismiss such write-in votes as meaningless gimmicks, the ballots that Iranians cast for foreign leaders send a meaningful message.
Although Tehran insists that it has a neutral stance on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the regime’s behavior suggests otherwise. In April 2020, Iranian trucks delivered fuel to Nagorno-Karabakh while the region was occupied by Armenia. Then, during last fall’s war, Iran was accused of serving as Russia’s conduit for transferring weapons to Armenia. More recently, the mullahs expressed “solidarity” with Armenia’s continued occupation of some portions of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, Armenia has acted as a sanctions-buster for Iran, with Armenian banks enabling Tehran’s obfuscation of payments to and from foreign clients. In August 2019, America imposed sanctions on two Armenian companies over their business ties with Iran.
At the same time, Iran and Azerbaijan, which have the world’s two largest Shi’a Muslim populations, maintain economic and diplomatic relations but otherwise experience tensions. The 20-30 million Azerbaijani Turks who live in northwest Iran are one of the country’s persecuted minorities, as they are deprived of freedom of expression in education, courts, government, and the army. Further, in attempts to return Azerbaijan to its Persian roots, the Tehran regime has carried out terrorist attacks in Azerbaijan, including by dispatching terrorists into Azerbaijan to bomb Israeli and American facilities.
Azerbaijan’s multifaceted alliance with Israel — a decades-long relationship that preceded the broader tide of rapprochement between Israel and Muslim-majority nations in more recent years — represents a sharp difference in the worldviews of Azerbaijan and Iran, with the latter country known for its threats to wipe Israel off the map.
How does this pertain to the write-in votes for foreign leaders in Iran’s election? Despite the closeness between Iran and Armenia, some Iranian voters sent a potentially defiant message of support for Armenia’s adversaries, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Their votes were invalidated, but their message should not be ignored; they are pleading with their government to reconsider its approach toward the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
If Tehran instead were true to its word and implemented a genuine policy of neutrality on Armenia and Azerbaijan, it would contribute to prospects for peace in the region, aligning with the momentum potentially created by Pashinyan’s reelection in Armenia. Of course, even a casual follower of geopolitics knows that the notion of Iran being true to its word is a pipe dream. Tehran can only be expected to continue its actions that fuel conflict.
But that is exactly where the U.S. comes into play. Given Armenia’s role in empowering Iran to circumvent sanctions, the Biden administration needs to understand how Yerevan undermines Washington’s nuclear diplomacy, and then do everything in its power to amplify the voices of Iranians who are asking their country to be more sympathetic toward Azerbaijan.
Without such a mindset shift in the White House, hopes for successful diplomacy and enduring peace in Eurasia will likely fall by the wayside, along with President Biden’s promise on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.