Why Iran is sabotaging an Armenia–Azerbaijan peace deal
October witnessed an unprecedented level of diplomatic activism in the normalisation process between Azerbaijan and Armenia following an escalation in fighting in the long-disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey, the US, the EU, and Russia all engaged in talks with the two countries in order to stabilise the situation in the Southern Caucasus and move forward in the peace process.
Turkey sees a rare window of opportunity to achieve a comprehensive peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. From the Turkish perspective, a sustainable peace would transform the whole region extending from China to Europe.
In this sense, a trilateral meeting between Turkey’s President Erdogan, Azerbaijan’s President Aliev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister Peshnian was held on the sidelines of the European Political Community Summit (EPC) in Prague on 6 October.
"One country appears to be strongly resisting a possible comprehensive peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia: Iran"
Although Armenia is typically an ally of Iran and a satellite state of Russia, it has enjoyed the support of Western countries too. Following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the EU and US have been incentivised to play a mediatory role between Armenia and Azerbaijan to limit Russia’s influence.
Their motive to play a bigger role in the Southern Caucasus increased after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US is reportedly working on a peace initiative to be executed at the end of 2022, which recognises the default situation of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan.
Aware of these moves, Putin tried to shore up his country’s influence over Yerevan and Baku. He hosted the leaders of the two countries at a summit in Sochi on 31 October. Russia’s interest revolves around freezing the current situation for the foreseeable future, playing on the fears of both Yerevan and Baku and getting the most out of the two countries.
Against all these efforts, one country appears to be strongly resisting a possible comprehensive peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia: Iran.
In a constant reminder that Tehran’s importance on the regional level has always stemmed from its ability to obstruct other nation’s agendas and destabilise the region, Iran’s officials engaged tirelessly in the last few months in a campaign to discourage Yerevan from moving forward with Azerbaijan on normalisation and peace initiatives.
Contrary to Turkey and Russia, Iran’s influence and interests in the Southern Caucasus decreased significantly following the defeat of Armenia in the 2020 war. Tehran was not part of any arrangement made by the relevant parties. In this sense, Iran had three major concerns regarding a possible comprehensive deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Firstly, Tehran has been extremely sensitive concerning anything related to what the Azeris call 'Southern Azerbaijan' in the northern part of Iran.
Tehran believes that any sustainable peace would empower Azerbaijan, which in turn would empower Iranian citizens with Azeri roots, the biggest ethnic minority in the country, a potential problem given Iran’s current internal turmoil.
Secondly, Iran’s traditional geopolitical strategy in the Southern Caucasus has always rested on employing its geographical position as well as its alliance with Armenia and partnership with Russia to increase its weight and influence in the neighbouring regions at the expense of Turkey.
The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war caught Iran by surprise. Despite its attempts to aid its ally, Armenia, and facilitate the delivery of Russian weapons to Yerevan, Azerbaijan dealt Armenia a humiliating defeat. Although it is too late for Tehran to reverse the unfolding realities on the ground, it can still throw a spoke in the wheels of the normalisation process.
A sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan would dramatically reverse the situation and increase Turkey’s influence not only in the Caucasus but also in Central and Southern Asia. Accordingly, Iran believes that peace between the two rivals will diminish its geopolitical relevance.
The Zangezur Corridor, a project to connect Azerbaijan to its landlocked Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic enclave through Armenia, is a case in point.
"Iran believes that peace between the two rivals will diminish its geopolitical relevance"
The corridor is part of the railway network that was built during the Soviet era, and reviving the network was incorporated in the 2020 trilateral agreement between the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia, which established the ceasefire between Baku and Yerevan.
This corridor has the power to transform the region, economically as well as geopolitically. Turkey and Azerbaijan incorporated a paragraph on the Zangezur Corridor in their June 2021 Shusha declaration, as it would facilitate transport and connections between Ankara and Baku.
Tehran could be one of the primary beneficiaries of a comprehensive peace in the region, but the zero-sum mentality of the Iranian regime, as well as its desire to maintain the status quo, in suppressing the rise of Azerbaijan and boxing out Turkey from the Caucasus and Central Asia prevent it from seeing the vast opportunities presented.
The corridor is of geostrategic importance and would connect the Turkic world to the EU freely through Turkey. Furthermore, it would allow Turkey to bypass Iran and connect directly to Azerbaijan and from there to the rest of the Turkic world, Central Asia, and South Asia.
The corridor will significantly empower Turkey's 'Middle Corridor' project and its role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vis-à-vis Iran’s 'North-South Corridor' designed to break the isolation of Tehran and Moscow and empower Iran’s relations with Russia and India.
The Iranian position has encouraged Armenia to increasingly ignore its commitments under the trilateral agreement. In order to circumvent the Zangezur Corridor idea, Armenia proposed a road that passes through three Armenian checkpoints with the condition that it would be established separately and in an area different from Meghri city, on Armenia’s border with Iran, along which the parties have already agreed to lay a railway.
Azerbaijan rejected the Armenian proposal and demanded that the legal regimes of the Zangezur Corridor be equated with the Lachin Corridor, which connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. On several occasions, President Ilham Aliyev warned Armenia that if it continued to refuse to meet its commitments and establish the Zangezur corridor, Baku would use the necessary force.
Last month, Iran's warnings to Azerbaijan reached an all-time high. Iran’s President Raisi reportedly warned Aliyev against trying to change what he called Iran’s "historical" border with Armenia as well as hosting a European military presence, as these measures would not be tolerated by Tehran and would be met with countermeasures.
To give weight to its warnings, Iran recently opened a consulate in Armenia's Syunik province through which the Zangezur Corridor would pass. The IRGC offered Armenia drones and engaged in propaganda that threatened Azerbaijan’s unity and territorial integrity by calling on the Nakhchivan exclave to join Iranian lands. In parallel with these efforts, Tehran has continued to incite Russia against Turkey.
Although Moscow hasn’t paid much attention to Tehran’s calls on this level in the last two years, the war in Ukraine adds another layer of complexity to the situation in the southern Caucasus.
"While Russia's interest in achieving peace in the Southern Caucasus may not be genuine, it is Iran who is genuinely interested in sabotaging any possible comprehensive deal in the region"
Russia is now more willing than ever to listen to Tehran’s whispers in a bid to close ranks in the face of growing Western influence in the Southern Caucasus.
While Russia’s interest in achieving peace in the Southern Caucasus may not be genuine, it is Iran who is genuinely interested in sabotaging any possible comprehensive deal in the region.
Yet, Tehran’s perception of its capacity to change the course of events in the region at this particular time might mislead them. A miscalculation of the situation could put Iran in a direct confrontational position with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Ali Bakir is an Assistant Professor at Qatar University's Ibn Khaldon Center and a nonresident Senior Fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Follow him on Twitter @alibakeer