The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war has significantly changed the South Caucasus’s power balance. Armenia was significantly weakened, while Azerbaijan and Turkey won a remarkable victory. Russia seemed to monopolize the peace process due to the November 10, 2020, trilateral statement and subsequent Armenia – Azerbaijan – Russia leaders’ summits of January and November 2021. However, since late 2021 an intensive Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation process has been underway under the facilitation of the EU, which culminated in the October 6, 2022, statement endorsed by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Presidents of France and European Council. The adoption of the Prague statement and the involvement of the US in the negotiation process seemed to bring the signature of the Armenia – Azerbaijan peace treaty into reality. At the same time, the war in Ukraine distracted and weakened Russia, pushing Kremlin to a secondary role in the peace process. However, as in many other conflicts, Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation process has its ups and downs. After the Prague statement, Armenia and Azerbaijan could not move forward, while the blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijan stalled the peace process.
The primary actors in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement process are Russia, the EU, Turkey, and the US. However, Iran, as a regional power that shares land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan, has its interests too. In the period between the first and the second Karabakh wars (1994-2020), Iran’s position was ambivalent. It publicly supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno Karabakh, but simultaneously developed friendly relations with Armenia. Bilateral economic ties were burgeoning, and in 2007 the two countries launched Iran – Armenia gas pipeline.
Before the 2020 war, most Armenian experts and political circles were sure that Iran had vital interests in keeping the status quo in Nagorno Karabakh. This conviction was based on the idea that the 130 km of border between the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Iran, which separated Azerbaijan from the Syunik province of Armenia and the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic, played a significant role for Iran, acting as a buffer between Azerbaijan and Turkey and thus preventing the realization of pan-Turkism dreams. Some Armenian experts were even arguing that in case of the war in Nagorno Karabakh, if Azerbaijan sought to take control over that 130 km strip of land, Iran would enter the war to prevent the military victory of Azerbaijan. The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war was a cold shower for such thinkers. Iran not only did not send its troops to prevent the advancement of Azerbaijani troops along the Araks river, but on November 3, 2020, during a televised speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei stated that all Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia should be freed, and all these lands should be given back to Azerbaijan. He also added that the safety of all Armenians living in those lands should be ensured, international borders should be respected, and the two sides should not transgress against the borders of other countries.
Since the end of the 2020 war, Iran’s policy in the region has been based on two primary principles. The regional powers should solve the problems of the region without the involvement of external players, and international borders should be respected. It should be noted that while speaking about regional and external powers, Iran views Russia and Turkey as regional actors who have the right to take part in the conflict settlement process, while the US, the EU, and Israel are external players, which should refrain from interfering the regional issues.
What do these two principles mean for the region and for ongoing Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation process? First of all, Iran supports Russian mediation in the conflict settlement process, as well as the launch of the 3+3 (3+2) format with the participation of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as the main platform for discussion of the region’s current situation and future developments. In this context, Iran is concerned about the growing role of the EU and the US in facilitating Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations and the prospects of deploying the long-term EU observation mission in Armenia.
However, its primary concern relates to the growing Israel – Azerbaijan cooperation in different areas, including intensive ties in the defense sector. Azerbaijan started to buy weapons from Israel at the beginning of the 2010s. This process continued during the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war and moved on after November 2020. In early October 2022, Israeli defense Minister Benny Gantz made an official visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with President Ilham Aliyev and his Azeri counterpart, Zakir Hasanov. Gantz’s visit focused on security and policy issues, with the aim of fostering defense cooperation between Jerusalem and Baku, according to his office. Iran is worried that Azerbaijan is on its way to being transformed into an Israeli outpost, providing almost unlimited access to Israeli defense and intelligence services. As a warning message to Azerbaijan, Iran organized two large-scale military drills along the Iran – Azerbaijan border in October 2021 and recently in October 2022, including practicing crossings of the Araks River.
In recent months, Iran – Azerbaijan relations passed through intensive tensions. On November 2, 2022, Azerbaijan arrested 19 citizens it accused of being trained and funded by Iran to spy for its intelligence services. On November 7, 2022, the Iranian intelligence ministry stated that an Azerbaijani citizen was the main organizer and coordinator of the October 26, 2022, terror attack in the Shah Cheragh mosque in the Iranian Shiraz province. Days later, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassador of Azerbaijan to Tehran to protest the propaganda campaign waged by the country’s officials and media against Iran. On November 11, 2022, during his speech at the 9th Summit of the Organization of Turkic States, President Ilham Aliyev stated that most of the 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan were deprived of opportunities to study in their mother tongue. It was a thinly veiled hint toward Iran and only added concerns in Iran that Azerbaijan may be used to sow instability in the northern parts of the country. On November 14, 2022, five more citizens of Azerbaijan were arrested for high treason for working with Iranian intelligence.
Tehran also views the potential change of borders in the region, in particular, the possible Azerbaijani control over parts of the Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions of Armenia for the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor” negatively. If Azerbaijan realizes its threats to open the corridor by force, Iran may lose the opportunity to reach Russia and the Black Sea via Armenia and Georgia. Since 2016 Iran has been actively pushing for the establishment of a “Persian Gulf – Black Sea” transport corridor via Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece, to establish a new Iran – Europe route. Any actual change in Armenia’s borders and the Azerbaijani control over the swaths of Armenian territory may jeopardize that project. Another danger from Azerbaijan’s takeover of parts of Armenia’s territory could be the intensification of Azerbaijani rhetoric about the protection of the rights of millions of Azerbaijanis living in Iran and, in general, the rise of pan-Turkic sentiments in the parts of Iranian population, which may further destabilize the situation in Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran is not against the restoration of communications in the region, including routes from Azerbaijan to Nakhijevan via Armenia and Armenia to Iran via Nakhijevan. If communications are opened without actual changes in the borders, it may facilitate the establishment of the “Persian Gulf – Black Sea” transport corridor by creating a direct rail link between Iran and Georgian Black Sea ports via Nakhijevan and Armenia. Another option would be to establish a railroad link between Iran and Russia via Nakhijevan, the Syunik region of Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Iran is also concerned by the potential weakening of Russian positions in the South Caucasus as a result of the war in Ukraine. From the Iranian perspective, in that case, the vacuum of power strategically will be filled by the US, which on the ground would mean more Israeli and Turkish influence in the region. These developments will be detrimental to Iran’s interests. Given the intensifying Russia – Iran cooperation after the start of the war in Ukraine, including the export and import of armaments, Iran views Russian presence and influence in the South Caucasus as a positive factor from the Iranian perspective. In this context, the growing tensions between Armenia and Russia and the potential U-turn in Armenia’s foreign policy from pro-Russian to pro-US and anti-Russian direction makes Iran nervous. Tehran understands that if Armenia leaves the Russian zone of influence and pushes the Russian military base and border troops out of Armenia, Iran will have the second anti-Iranian outpost near its borders along with Azerbaijan.
Summarizing the assessment of Iran’s policy in the South Caucasus after the end of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, it should be noted that Iran currently pursues a status quo policy rather than revisionist ambitions. Tehran is interested in keeping the current balance of power, where Russia is an influential player through its military presence in Armenia and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh. Iran would like to restrict the involvement of other actors’ involvement in the region, in particular Israel and the US. Tehran supports the 3+2 regional format, viewing it as a valuable tool to provide regional stability and prevent the external players’ influence. The top concern for Iran is the growing Azerbaijan – Israel partnership and the potential transformation of Azerbaijan into an anti-Iranian outpost.
It is challenging to assess Iran’s reaction in case of the new large-scale attack of Azerbaijan against Armenia to occupy part or whole of the Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions of Armenia and to establish the “Zangezur corridor.” However, the direct military action of Iran against Azerbaijan, either by sending troops to Syunik or attacking Nakhijevan or any other bordering region of Azerbaijan, is less likely. A more realistic option is the supply of weapons to Armenia, including drones and mid-range land missiles.
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, Senior research fellow, APRI Armenia