Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He's also a contributor to Russia's RT and recently published an op-ed titled “Rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran spark fears of a conflict that would be an Israeli-US proxy war against Tehran”. The gist of Inlakesh's article is that Azerbaijan might leverage its close ties with Israel and the US in order to gain an advantage over Iran in the event that tensions between these two neighbors explode into a kinetic conflict. He believes that this possibility makes Azerbaijan their proxy against Iran.
That's a questionable interpretation of the strategic dynamics at play. It's based off of his forecast of what might happen if Azerbaijan and Iran go to war against one another, the possibility of which remains distant. In any case, his conclusion remains controversial, as are some of the other remarks that he made in his piece. This present piece is intended as a respectful response to what he wrote in the hopes of enlightening readers with a different perspective of recent events. Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion about what's happening, but it always helps to have additional information in order to more confidently arrive at one's own conclusions.
To start off, Inlakesh is correct in claiming that any conflict between these neighboring nations would advance American and Israeli interests by complicating the regional security situation for Iran. The primary point of contention, however, is the extent to which those two could influence Azerbaijan into provoking such a scenario. This will be addressed later on in the article. Inlakesh then wrote that last year's war “resulted in a victory for Baku and allowed it to take over Karabakh from Armenia.” It's true that Azerbaijan won, but it's more accurate to say that it liberated Karabakh from Armenia's illegal occupation.
This amended phraseology is consistent with international law since there are four UNSC Resolutions demanding that Armenia militarily withdraw from the regions of Azerbaijan that it was occupying. It's important to not overlook this legal fact since there's still an ongoing information warfare campaign aimed at misportraying Azerbaijan's liberation of Karabakh as an unprovoked act of aggression contrary to international law. That might not have been Inlakesh's intent, but the reader should nevertheless be aware of how the term “take over” can be interpreted by others in the tense information warfare context.
Moving along, Inlakesh wrote that “Iran had previously used its access through Armenian-controlled Karabakh to reach West Asia and Russia, sending its trucks and other means of transportation through the area, often free of customs.” This isn't entirely accurate. As with his prior phrase of “take over” which implies some hostile intent on Azerbaijan's part, his use of the word “controlled” to describe Armenia's presence in Karabakh distracts – whether intentionally or otherwise – from the fact that it was internationally illegal and actually an occupation. Words matter when describing conflicts such as Karabakh, Kashmir, and Palestine, among others.
The second constructive critique that can be made about that sentence is that Karabakh doesn't connect Iran to the rest of West Asia. The Islamic Republic trades directly with Turkey across their shared border and didn't ship goods through Armenian-occupied Karabakh, Armenia, then Georgia en route to its western neighbor. Perhaps some very low level of trade with Russia was unofficially conducted via this circuitous route of Armenian-occupied Karabakh, Armenia, and Georgia, but practically all of it goes across the Caspian Sea and through Azerbaijan.
In fact, Iran and Azerbaijan participate in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) alongside Russia and India. While that transregional connectivity project might have political difficulties in light of current Azerbaijani-Iranian tensions, it was nevertheless a very promising initiative up until recent events severely complicated its future. Be that as it is, Inlakesh makes no mention of it in his article. For whatever his reason for that may be (which one should assume is due to him simply not being aware of it instead of having ulterior purposes related to perception management), it still paints an inaccurate and incomplete picture for the reader.
Inlakesh accurately quotes Iranian representatives when making the reader aware of that country's concerns about Israeli influence in Azerbaijan, but it's here where then segues into implying that the South Caucasus country is the self-professed Jewish State's proxy as well as America's. He cites a statistic about Israel's arms sales to Azerbaijan to make it seem like Tel Aviv is using military means to influence Baku, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) report on “Arms transfers to conflict zones: The case of Nagorno-Karabakh” from 30 April 2021 contradicts that innuendo.
It shows that Russia sold almost two and half times as many arms to Azerbaijan as Israel did from 2011-20 at 60.1% of the volume of arms transfers during that time compared to 26.6% respectively. Inlakesh's innuendo that Azerbaijan is an Israeli proxy partially because of this relationship would therefore also more accurately imply that Azerbaijan is actually more of a Russian proxy if he's consistent with this line of thought, though in reality it's neither of those two's proxy. Azerbaijan simply practices a policy of military diversification in order to balanced its arms dependence on Russia with other partners like Israel.
The next part of Inlakesh's article sees him citing a WikiLeaks cable about Azerbaijan's alleged leveraging of pro-Israeli lobbyists in the US and supposed corruption between Azerbaijan and Israel. The first part, if true, would actually show that Azerbaijan uses its relationship with Israel to improve how it's perceived in third countries like the US, which doesn't automatically threaten Iran. The second part can't be confirmed but might have been included in the article to reinforce the reader's negative perceptions about Azerbaijan. Even if it was partially true, it would mean that Azerbaijan isn't an Israeli proxy otherwise it wouldn't ask for bribes to do business.
Inlakesh continues sharing unconfirmed reports about Azerbaijani-Israeli relations after citing a 2012 one from Foreign Policy magazine claiming that the former let the latter host an airfield on its territory for potential use against Iran. He also cites Iranian accusations that Azerbaijan supports separatism in the northern part of the Islamic Republic that's largely inhabited by ethnic Azeris. This pair of accusations isn't new and represents one of the main reasons why Iran distrusts Azerbaijan. Still, Inlakesh's article would have benefited by including some of the reasons why Azerbaijan distrusts Iran, without which it comes off as one-sided.
For instance, some in Baku are fearful that Tehran will seek to instrumentalize some of its sympathizers in the country who prefer Iran's governing model of Islamic Republicanism over Azerbaijan's secular one. Just this week, Azerbaijan also shut down the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as a mosque that's linked to him. On the topic of proxy war perceptions, Azerbaijan has also suspected that Iran still secretly sympathizes with Armenia even though it officially supported Baku during last year's war. There have also been claims that Iran arms Armenia as well. These accusations show that distrust goes both ways.
In the unlikely event that Azerbaijan and Iran go to war, Inlakesh is probably right in predicting that Israel and the US would exploit that event in order to promote separatism in northern Iran as part of their proxy war against that country. It's unclear, though, whether Azerbaijan would actively participate in this. Inlakesh has the right to predict that it might collude with them in what he believes would be a shared cause in that context, but the argument can also be made that Azerbaijan wouldn't want to escalate any potential conflict in such a manner nor risk its co-ethnics being endangered by encouraging them to rise up and risk reprisals.
One of the last points that Inlakesh made which deserves to be clarified is his assertion that Turkey “sent ex-Syrian Jihadist mercenaries to aid Baku's forces” during last year's Karabakh War. While Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergey Naryshkin gave credence to the reports that such terrorist forces flocked to the region during that time, Moscow never publicly presented any evidence of this. An alternative interpretation of what might have happened is that Russia could have been the victim of an information warfare hoax by Armenia intended to manipulatively drag it into the war on false anti-terrorist pretexts.
Finally, Inlakesh concludes his article by predicting that Iran might directly strike Israel in retaliation for Tel Aviv's alleged exploitation of Azerbaijan as a proxy against it in the event that Tehran and Baku go to war. Once again, this is just a scenario forecast on his part and therefore speculative by nature. It admittedly ends his piece on a dramatic note which might make some people remember it long after they're done reading, but it must be emphasized that nobody really knows for sure whether Iran would actually do that. After all, Inlakesh's prediction is premised on his personal belief that Azerbaijan is an Israeli proxy, which this present article rebuts.
Reviewing everything that's been shared thus far, it's possible to discern a few trends in Inlakesh's work. The first is that some of the terminology that he employs when describing last year's Karabakh War implies sympathy with Armenia, and by default some degree of dislike towards Azerbaijan, even if that wasn't his intent. Secondly, his explanation of formerly Armenian-occupied Karabakh's economic significance to Iran isn't geographically accurate for whatever reason. It also leaves out the important role that Azerbaijan plays for Iran along the INSTC. This results in an incomplete picture of some significant regional dynamics.
The third noticeable trend in his work is obviously that it aims to portray Azerbaijan as an Israeli proxy that's incapable of independent policymaking but instead voluntarily submitted itself to being another actor's puppet. The basis upon which he argues this is questionable. The point that he tries to make in support of this claim when discussing their arms relationship is discredited when one learns that Russia sells nearly two and a half times more arms to Azerbaijan than Israel does. The rest of his arguments rely on unproven reports and speculation that have long proven troublesome for the Azerbaijani-Iranian relationship.
About their ties, the fourth trend is that he conspicuously omits the Azerbaijani position about why there still exists some distrust in their relationship. One should assume that Inlakesh is simply unaware of this just like he presumably doesn't know about the INSTC, but it would have been better had he realized the substantive shortcoming of his article before submitting it for publication and therefore sought to improve upon it in the interests of objectivity. Not doing so results in the reader only hearing one side of this tense issue and thus deprives them of a deeper understanding of what might really be going on.
The fifth and final trend observable in Inlakesh's article is that he actually doesn't argue all that much in support of his title's allegation that Azerbaijan is also a US proxy. Very little in his piece touches upon this. The reader is left with the impression that the US would simply go along with what Inlakesh implies is this Israeli-led proxy war against Iran via the supposed puppet state of Azerbaijan and thus isn't playing a major role in events. If that's indeed what he intended to convey, then it might have been better for him not to include the US in his title since those readers who might have expected to learn more about this theory could end up disappointed.
Altogether, Inlakesh's article presents an interpretation of events that's skeptical of Azerbaijan, to put it mildly. It relies on innuendo that this country is really a joint Israeli-US proxy that's being exploited by those two as part of their proxy war against Iran. This claim is questionable since it's based on unconfirmed and speculative reports. His article also omits mention of the important role that Azerbaijan plays for facilitating Iranian-Russian ties via the INSTC, which is presumably something that it wouldn't have ever been allowed to do if it was really an Israeli-US proxy like he believes.
Inlakesh also doesn't talk about Azerbaijan's suspicions of Iran and the ways in which the Islamic Republic might seek to meddle in its sovereign affairs. By focusing only on the scenario of Azerbaijan meddling in northern Iran with Israeli and US support, he presents a one-sided scenario forecast that ignores Iran's unconventional options. Regardless of his intent in doing so, this cultivates a warped perception of the strategic dynamics. It's therefore hoped that those who read Inlakesh's article will also review this rebuttal in order to obtain a more balanced understanding of what's happening before making up their minds about which side, if any, to support.
Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst specializing in the relationship between the US strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China’s "One Belt One Road" global vision of New Silk Road connectivity, and Hybrid Warfare.