Opinion | Iran, a loser in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War?

29 April 2021

While some have claimed that Iran ‘lost’ vis-à-vis its regional rivals in the region during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, a closer look reveals that Tehran is not only eager to make the most of the new political settlement — but that it may very well succeed in doing so. 

During the 44-day war that broke out on 27 September, Iran again came into the focus of the world’s attention, but this time not as a regional power in the Middle East — but as potential power in the South Caucasus power. After the war’s end on 9 November,  some experts claimed that the Islamic Republic — through its inaction —  had joined the ‘losers club’ in this war, in contrast to the war’s ‘winning’ regional powers, that is, Russia and Turkey.

That argument goes something like this: the conflict has strengthened the role of Russia and Turkey (both regional power rivals of Iran) in the new security architecture of the South Caucasus; the planned transit corridor project that connects Turkey and Azerbaijan excludes Iran; and Israel, by dint of military cooperation with Azerbaijan, has now attained a larger influence in the region.

While at a glance this might seem to be the case, anything more than a cursory look shows us that it is far from the truth. In fact, the new geopolitical conjuncture has opened a way for Iran to play an expanded role in the region — both with Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Iran’s position in the war

Iran, which has instability and threats on its border with Afghanistan and Iraq, had been enjoying the relative stability of the status quo on its northern borders for 26 years.

For the country, which suffers from severe Trump-era sanctions and is involved in multiple geopolitical and military ventures in the Middle East, a deterioration of the situation on yet another part of its border, was, naturally, undesirable. 

It took Iran four days to accept that the recent outbreak of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia was qualitatively different from previous skirmishes. On the fourth day of the hostilities, realising that the usual quick end was not in the offing, Tehran shifted its diplomatic rhetoric from an emphasis on its neutrality and willingness to mediate between parties to stress that it sided with Azerbaijan.

Iran’s statements evolved from focusing primarily on inviting the parties to a ‘ceasefire’ to supporting the ‘taking Azerbaijani lands from Armenian control’. 

Now, despite the change in rhetoric, it would be incorrect to say that Tehran shifted from an allegedly pro-Armenian stance to a more explicitly pro-Azerbaijani one. Indeed, Iran never recognized the lands in and around Karabakh as an independent entity, and always insisted on the validity of the 1993 UN Security Council resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh (as has happened under the 9 November trilateral peace declaration).

An expanded role in the region?

The joint statement on 9 November also established a Russian peacekeeping force in the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh still under Armenian control and stipulated that ‘all regional communications’ be unblocked. According to the agreement, Azerbaijan will get a land connection to the exclave of Nakhchivan and onwards to Turkey while Armenians will be able to use the Russian-controlled Lachin corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite not naming it directly, this declaration does not exclude Iran, and in actuality, involves it in several immediate ways. 

First, a border with a ‘de facto state’ (Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh) has been replaced with a ‘de jure state’ (the Republic of Azerbaijan) as the peace accord recognises the restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty along a portion of the northern banks of the Aras River, hitherto controlled by Armenian forces. These territories include bridges, a reservoir, and hydroelectric and irrigation facilities — which, due to its new legal status will be open for possible Iranian development. Indeed, there are plans for talks between Tehran and Baku about cooperation in the development of this area, which would be, for all intents and purposes an  expansion of the Iranian role into a territory it was previously excluded. 

Second, the outcome of the autumn war means that Iran and Azerbaijan can now jointly start using the Khoda-Afarin Dam, in Jabrayil District, on the Aras River, which straddles their mutual border. This dam was built in 2008 with Tehran’s financial support, but the area’s legal status (or rather, lack there-of) prevented the Islamic Republic from actually exploiting this facility. On 14 December 2020, however, Iranian and Azerbaijani representatives of the Joint Technical Commission on the Khoda-Afarin Dam held a meeting in Nakhchivan to discuss the mutual operation of the hydropower plant. Nor will Iranian investment likely be limited to these border areas, in his meeting with Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on 25 January, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev invited Iranian companies to join in the reconstruction of the reclaimed districts.

The reopening of trans-regional transportation routes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as called for in the tripartite peace declaration — goes beyond the two named countries. The opening of these routes allows for the creation of North-South and East-West corridors that include Iran as well as establishing a railway between Iran and Armenia (through Nakhchivan).  

In this vein, Iran has been envisioned as a key partner Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “6-country regional cooperation platform” initiative. As a result of the strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkey (not least in Syria), Iran appeared to initially be  sidelined from the initiative, but recent happenings at the diplomatic level appear to show a significant shift — in particular, the meeting between the Iranian and Turkish Foreign Ministers in January in which the 6-country regional platform was discussed.  

[Read more on OC Media: Is an interconnected Caucasus on the horizon?]

State-run and state supported media in Iran also appear to have been influenced by this shift. While the military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh were described as a ‘threat to national security’ in the news during the war, Iranian media has been using more positive language about Azerbaijan in recent months. Perhaps the best example of the extent of the shift, is a recent article published last month by an analytical outlet close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which seeks to debunk claims about the presence of Syrian mercenaries during the war. During the conflict itself, Iranian officials had repeatedly denounced the participation of ‘takfiri’ [Sunni extremist] fighters from Syria on the side of Azerbaijan.  

It is crucial to note that for Iran, it was imperative that only to Russian peacekeepers were stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh following the trilateral agreement, not the Turks. Without a doubt, the increasing role and power of Ankara in the South Caucasus is undesirable for Tehran. The deployment of the Russian peacekeeping mission on the line of contact and Armenian control over part of Nagorno-Karabakh eliminates this possibility for at least five years. And the announcement of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s readiness to facilitate the movement of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh in the immediate wake of the agreement should be interpreted in this respect.

The new conjuncture in the region promises new opportunities and additional concerns for the Islamic Republic. These opportunities and concerns largely depend on the development of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If a lasting peace is achieved and normal, or at least stable, relations are established between the two countries, this will also be in the interest of Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran, which has taken a more proactive policy in its relations with Azerbaijan, seems to insist on reclaiming any opportunities it lost during the war and to press it’s advantage in the new regional order. Most likely, this will mean expanded cooperation with Azerbaijan and a move to play a larger role in the South Caucasus.  

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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