The "corridors war", currently being hotly debated among experts, pundits, and policy-making circles in the South Caucasus, is largely based on wishful thinking rather than hard facts. In reality the options are rather limited, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed.
Since the end of the 2020 Karabakh war, the theme of competing corridors in the South Caucasus has established itself as one of the primary topics for discussion and debate among experts, pundits, and policymaking circles. Almost daily, Azerbaijan and Turkey speak about the necessity to open the so-called "Zangezur corridor," arguing that it will significantly boost the regional economy. According to Baku and Ankara, the opening of the corridor is envisaged under the terms of the November 10, 2020, trilateral statement, even though the document itself speaks about only one corridor – Lachin. Under the term “corridor”, Azerbaijan envisages an arrangement which will allow Azerbaijani vehicles and trains to cross the Armenia – Azerbaijan border, pass via the Syunik province of Armenia and then enter the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic (an Azerbaijani exclave), without any border, passport, and customs control implemented by the Armenian side. Some Azerbaijani experts say Baku may propose other names if the "corridor" term disturbs Armenia, such as “special transit zone."
Armenia strongly rejects any notion of a Zangezur corridor, and says that restoration of communications envisaged by the trilateral statements of November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021, have nothing to do with any corridors passing through Armenian territory. Armenia does not accept the essence of Azerbaijan's proposal - the transit of goods and passengers through Armenian territory without any control - regardless of whether it will be called a corridor, a special transit zone, or any other term.
Meanwhile, another hot debate is underway in the region. Many experts discuss the potential competition of a "Zangezur" – essentially an "East-West" corridor, with a "North-South" international corridor. They argue that the "North-South" international corridor envisages the transportation of goods from India to Europe via the Iran - Armenia - Georgia - Black Sea route. According to this vision, there are two competing international projects backed by global actors. Those with anti-Russian views claim that the "East-West" (Azerbaijan – Turkey) corridor is backed by Turkey and Russia, while the US, EU, Iran, and India support the "North-South" project. This narrative puts Russia and Turkey against India, Iran, and the collective West. Others argue that the "East-West" corridor is supported by Turkey and the UK, while Russia, India, Iran, and the West push forward the "North-South" project. Both camps agree that due to these "corridor wars," the South Caucasus has become the center-stage of great power competition, which is emerging as a result of the demise of the "Unipolar Moment" of the post–Cold War era.
This narrative sounds quite attractive from the geopolitical point of view, making the South Caucasus a region of primary importance in the upcoming global competition. All relatively small states want to have increased significance, which may partially explain these stories' popularity. However, how realistic is this narrative, and can Iran – Armenia – Georgia – Black Sea route really be a primary channel for an international "North-South" transport corridor? Russia, India, and Iran signed an agreement to launch the corridor in 2000. The main idea behind the project is to establish alternative sea/land routes to connect India with Russia and Northern Europe to substitute the traditional route through the Suez Canal. The three countries envisaged sending goods to Iran from Mumbai by sea, then using the Caspian Sea to transport them to Russia and railway to reach Europe. In this context, India launched the massive modernization of the Iranian Chabahar port to serve this project and moved it out from the US sanction list. In 2005 Azerbaijan joined the agreement offering its territory to bring goods from India to Russia and Europe via the Iran - Azerbaijan - Russia route. Azerbaijan constructed a railway which reaches up to the Iranian border town of Astara, while Iran launched the construction of the Qazvin – Rasht – Astara section to connect Iranian Astara with the domestic railway network of Iran. The Qazvin – Rasht link was launched in March 2019, while as of now, Iran has not finished the Rasht – Astara section, and there is a lack of credible information on when the link will be launched. In late June 2021, Nurminen Logistics launched the first container block train carrying paper-based products in thirty-two 40-foot containers from Finland to the largest Indian container port Nhava Sheva using this route. However, due to the Astara – Rasht missing rail link in Iran, the freight was loaded into trucks in Iranian Astara and then reloaded into ships at Bander Abbas port.
Meanwhile, recently discussions were launched about the possibility to use Iran - Armenia - Georgia - Black Sea route as the second leg for the "International North-South corridor" to bring Indian goods into Europe along with Iran – Azerbaijan – Russia route. Given the Iranian suggestion to launch "Persian Gulf – Black Sea multimodal transport corridor" to connect Iran with Europe via Armenia, Georgia, and the Black Sea back in 2016, some experts in Armenia and abroad argue that the "Persian Gulf – Black Sea" corridor can be integrated into the "North-South international corridor." After the 2020 Karabakh war and the Azerbaijani and Turkish rhetoric about the "Zangezur corridor", these discussions took a geo-political significance for Armenia pitching against each other the "East-West" (Zangezur) corridor and the second leg of the "North-South international corridor" as the two competing geo-economic projects backed by different global actors.
However, how realistic is the plan to use the Iran - Armenia - Georgia - Black Sea route as a credible way for large scale transit of Indian and European goods to and from India?
First of all, we should take into account that Armenia and Iran have no railway connection. In 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan stated the intention to construct the Armenia – Iran railway through the Syunik province, but nothing happened in the last 13 years. The existing Armenia - Iran international M2 highway passes through mountainous areas in the Syunik region and is prone to disruptions, especially during winter time. Since mid-December 2020, the 21 km of M2 highway has passed under the de facto Azerbaijani control as the Armenian army withdrew from its positions in Syunik province under the direct order of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Recently Azerbaijan established a police checkpoint along the highway and started to check Iranian trucks. Currently, even Armenian cars face problems passing through this 21 km long section making this highway unfit for large-scale international transit. Armenia currently constructs an alternative highway to circumvent that section and hopes to finish it in March 2022. However, this alternative road may satisfy local Armenian demand and serve the Iran – Armenia transit, but it can definitely not be perceived as a viable route for international transit.
Armenia has plans to construct a new highway via Syunik province up to the Armenia – Iran border to bypass mountain passes. The EU will allocate 600 million Euros of loans to construct the Sisian – Kajaran section of this highway, and construction may start in late 2022. Yerevan looks for other sources of funding to launch the construction of the second part of this highway connecting Kajaran with the Armenia - Iran border. According to reasonable estimates, the new highway connecting Sisian with Armenia - Iran border will cost at least 1.5 billion USD and will be finished in 2029-2030. Only after finishing this new highway may Armenia theoretically compete for the inclusion into the "North-South international corridor" and become part of the India - Europe transit via Iran - Armenia - Georgia - Black Sea route. However, even in this scenario, the necessity to load and reload goods many times (from ships to trucks in Iranian ports of Bander Abbas and Chabahar, then in Georgian Black Seas ports from trucks to ships and one more time from ships to trucks in Bulgaria or Greece) will significantly increase the costs of the transportation.
The more realistic option is to use Iran - Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic - Armenia - Georgian Black Sea ports railway route as a second leg of the "International North-South corridor" if communications are opened in the South Caucasus. This option will allow bringing Indian goods to Southeastern Europe using only sea and rail routes (Nhava Sheva – Bander Abbas/Chabahar by sea, Iranian ports – Poti/Batumi by rail, and Poti/Batumi - Bulgaria/Greece by sea). However, this route will also pass through Azerbaijani territory, and this factor will deprive it of the perceived geopolitical aspect to circumvent Azerbaijan or Turkey or compete with “East – West” corridor.
Thus, the hot debate about "corridors war" in the South Caucasus, which pitch India, Iran, and the West against Turkey and Russia, or India, Iran, the West, and Russia against Turkey and the UK, is more a product of abstract geopolitical chit-chat than factual reality.