Azerbaijan-Iran crisis and Tehran-Yerevan’s new transit route
Geopolitical Report Volume 12 Issue 7
Author: Silvia Boltuc
The growing tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan (backed by Turkey) might destabilise the Caucasus and create problems for the transit corridors which cross the region. In this context, Tehran might establish a new transportation route with Armenia to counter the Azerbaijani project of the Zangezur transit corridor.
Iran and Armenia are facing the Azerbaijani threat of an annexation of the Syunik region. The conquest of this region would grant Baku a direct link to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic and would block Iran’s access to Armenia. For Tehran, isolated from Turkey and Azerbaijan, that strip of land represents an essential connecting corridor to Europe. Yerevan strongly affirms that the trilateral agreement signed on November 10th, 2020, thanks to the Russian mediation, mentioned unblocking of communications in the region, not a corridor. In mid-December 2020, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reached an oral agreement with Azerbaijan, up to a 21-kilometre section of the interstate Armenia–Iran highway passing from Goris to Kapan fell under Azerbaijani control. The reason was to comply with some Azerbaijani requests to pacify the Syunik region, even if this meant losing some of the advantages guaranteed by the trilateral agreement signed in November. Both sides agreed that Azerbaijan would allow the free flow of Armenian cars from Goris to Kapan without any passport or customs control. Still, Baku violated the agreement by effectively controlling the road connecting the Iranian border with Yerevan.
The Armenian Foreign Affairs Minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, and his Iranian counterpart met several times after Iran offered financial and technical support to Armenia for building a new 550 km route avoiding Azerbaijan. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) will finance the project with 500 million dollars. Iran’s Deputy Minister of Transport has already visited Armenia to oversee the route that will cross the country from the southern border with Iran to its northern border with Georgia by 2022.
The movement of Iranian and Azerbaijani troops to the border separating the two countries marked an escalation in relations between the two countries. If, on the one hand, it seems that they do not want to reach a confrontation but only stretch their muscles, Iran continues to reiterate that it will not tolerate the presence of the Israeli ‘regime’ near its borders, referring to the growing cooperation in defence matters between Baku and Tel Aviv, because 69% of the weapons purchased by Baku in the last five years coming from Israel. On the other hand, Baku’s strategic goal is to demonstrate to Iran and its possible allies that Armenia is unsafe enough to be viewed as a potential alternative route for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). In 2016, another corridor was proposed, the Persian Gulf – Black Sea Corridor, connecting Iran with Europe via Armenia, Georgia, the Black Sea, Bulgaria and Greece, which could be a branch of the INSTC. China and India were also interested in this corridor. Beijing aimed at including the corridor in the Belt and Road Initiative. On the contrary, India knows that incorporating it in the INSTC could benefit the port of Chabahar.
When the Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar met the Armenian Foreign Affairs Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, the two parties expressed their interest in using the Iranian port of Chabahar for their trade routes, being the port already part of the INSTC (Geopolitica del porto iraniano di Chabahar). The everyday use of Chabahar within the INSTC corridor, a project on which they are already working with Russia, will open new roads towards the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Iranian port has a highly strategic position and being a deep-water port with access to international waters, and it can accommodate large cargo ships. In addition, an international airport in Chabahar might be on the discussing table.
Looking at the broader picture of the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, it is possible to stress that the US-led troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is only one of the concerning scenarios for the corridors that cross Eurasia, such as the Russian North-South International Transit Corridor (INSTC) and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Growing tensions between the regional powers and the changed relationship with Europe of some of them influenced these countries’ economic strategy and alliances. The Western sanctions have pushed Russia to the East. In addition to the financial collaborations, the Russian Federation finds itself dealing with a region strongly destabilised by the US withdrawal and by the rivalries of regional actors. The possible conflict between Tajikistan and Afghanistan led by the Taliban (The effect of terrorism in Afghanistan on Russian-Tajik relations) or Baku’s appropriation of the Nakhchivan corridor are just some of the scenarios in which the Kremlin could be involved.
The changed situation in Afghanistan cast a shadow on the port of Chabahar, a trilateral project based on the collaboration between Kabul, Tehran and New Delhi. It is impossible to know if the country will exploit the port and the infrastructures built to connect the port facilities to some Afghan cities. However, the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seems to seek continuity in the economic strategy of the previous leadership, facing the need for the country’s financial stability. The General Director of the West-Asia Department of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Seyed Rasool Mousavi, announced a meeting between Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries (Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), as well as Russia in Tehran in the near future. This meeting will follow the previous quadrilateral meeting held between the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SCO summit. The involvement in the Chabahar port’s activities will depend on the relation between Pakistan and Tehran, between the Taliban and the two countries (having Pakistan the Gwadar port, considered the crown jewel of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a direct competitor of Chabahar) and the involvement of India in Afghanistan and Iranian projects.
Turkey and Azerbaijan are pursuing similar corridors that would cut off Armenia and the country’s links with Iran. Considering the Russian-Iranian increasing relations and being Armenia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Azerbaijan-Turkey front should carefully consider the implication of a confrontation. Russia might be forced to intervene on the Iranian-Armenian side facing a NATO member, Turkey, which will cause an escalation in the conflict.