Opinion: Armenians misjudged Iran's calculations in the South Caucasus

Armenian experts were surprised and disappointed by Iran's attitude during the 44-day Karabakh War. The new arrangements stipulated in the 10 November trilateral declaration appear to suit Tehran's interests since Iran knows Russia and Turkey well, and can navigate between them, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for KarabakhSpace.eu  

Iran has always enjoyed close relations with the South Caucasus. The region was part of an Iranian empire until the first half of the 19th century. As Russia replaced Iran as the region's de facto master, Iran kept its soft-power influence in modern-day Azerbaijan through Shia Islam, and in Armenia through the millennia-long cultural relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 appeared to open new opportunities for Iran to orchestrate a come back to the region. However, Iran faced tough competition from Russia and other players such as the US, EU, and partly Israel. In the last decade, as Iran's focus was gradually shifting towards the Middle East, the South Caucasus remained an important but not vital area for Iran. Tehran was satisfied by the status quo in the region, as Armenia was under substantial Russian influence, Azerbaijan was pursuing a balance between Russia and the West while deepening its relations with Turkey, and Georgia's bid to Euro-Atlantic integration was effectively stalled.

Since the ceasefire agreement of May 1994, the Karabakh conflict settlement process was one of the key drivers of regional geopolitics. As Azerbaijan gradually increased its military pressure on Armenia in recent years, sending clear signals that a big war was approaching, there was a perception in the Armenian expert community and political circles that any change in the status quo in and around Karabakh would be against Iranian core interests. According to this narrative, the main threat for Iran from the South Caucasus was Azerbaijan's and Turkey's support to the separatist movement in the Azeri-speaking regions of Iran based on a pan-turkic ideology.

Thus, it was seen that a 135 km-long de facto border between Iran and the unrecognised Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) Republic (NKR) was entirely in line with Iranian national interests. NKR separated Azerbaijan from Turkey and played a role of natural buffer against the spread of pan-turkic ideology along the Iranian border areas. Many Armenian experts were sure that Iran would never allow Azerbaijan to retake these territories. The centuries' long Iran–Turkey rivalry for regional dominance boosted these perceptions. Any Azerbaijani military success was considered as adding significantly to Turkey's influence in the region, which will be against Iran's vital interests.

Armenians viewed Iran's resistance as one of the critical reasons preventing Azerbaijan from starting a large-scale war. Among other reasons were Western oil giants' concerns that war would endanger oil and gas pipelines running from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, and Aliyev's fear that he might lose his power in case of an unsuccessful war.

Once Azerbaijan launched a large-scale war against NKR on 27 September, the Armenian expert community expected a tough reaction from Iran. The information about the deployment of Syrian mercenaries on the battlefield by Turkey only intensified Armenian hopes. Iran was fighting against these mercenaries in Syria, and should have viewed their deployment along its borders as an unacceptable step.  But instead, as the war continued, and the Azerbaijani army advanced along NKR–Iran de facto border, Iran launched no active measures to prevent Azerbaijan from reaching the former administrative border of Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan. Iran concentrated troops on its side of the border, and expressed concern as several bombs and rockets landed on Iranian territory, but nothing more. According to several sources, Iran provided its land and airspace for Russian military shipments to Armenia, but this had more to do with Russia–Iran relations than Iran's policy to prevent significant changes to the status quo in the region. In late October 2020, Iran presented its own initiative to solve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The deputy foreign minister, Araqchi, visited Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, and Turkey to discuss the Iranian offer. According to the Iranian foreign minister, Zarif, Iran's initiative was based on respecting the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and peacefully resolving differences. The emphasis on respecting the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan defied the perceptions in Armenia that Iran would be against any changes to the status quo.

Moreover, days before the end of the war, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayattolah Khamenei, stated that Azerbaijan had the right to liberate its occupied territories, and international borders must be respected. Iran welcomed the 10 November 2020, trilateral statement, which put an end to the hostilities, and expressed its readiness to participate in the reconstruction works in the territories taken by Azerbaijan during the war. As Azerbaijani troops encroached into Armenia's territory on 12-13 May 2021, foreign minister Zarif paid visits to Azerbaijan and Armenia again underlying Iran's conviction that the territorial integrity of states should be respected.

What do Iran's actions during and after the 2020 Karabakh war tell us about Iran's fundamental goals?

First of all, it should be noted that the region is much less critical for Iran than the Middle East. Iran concentrated its main diplomatic, intellectual and military resources on the Middle East, while the second tier personnel dealt with the South Caucasus. Armenia exaggerated the role of the Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) Republic in Iran's policy to thwart the spread of pan-turkism and secure stability in the Azeri-speaking regions of Iran. Iran understands the potential danger from separatist movements, which external powers, such as Israel, may well exploit. However, Tehran has decided that the best way to prevent such an outcome is to foster relations with Azerbaijan and with Turkey and not to antagonise them. While Armenians were thinking that Iran will prevent any change to status quo in Karabakh, either by using military force to prevent the advancement of Azerbaijani troops, or by deploying Iranian troops in the territories of NKR to establish a security zone, Iran was actively adapting to the new reality in the region. Iran had zero intention of antagonising Azerbaijan and Turkey by starting a military campaign against Azerbaijan.

For the time being Iran is satisfied with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. Tehran views this as a guarantee that Russia is not leaving the region, and this is for Tehran of the utmost importance. Tehran knows Russia and Turkey well, and can navigate between them.  But the absence of Russia from the South Caucasus will create a vacuum which may result in a significant increase of the US influence, posing a formidable challenge for Iranian vital national interests. 


source: This op-ed was prepared for KarabakhSpace.eu by Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, meets Armenian caretaker prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan; Office of the Prime Minister of Armenia


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