Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 17 Issue 2
Author: Silvia Boltuc
The recent resurgence of geopolitical tensions in the South Caucasus, exemplified by the Azerbaijani attack on the autonomous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has reignited discussions surrounding the mediation role played by global powers. Traditionally, this mediation has been predominantly shared between Russia, representing one side, and various European actors on the other.
However, a noteworthy transformation appears to be underway, with Iran increasingly emerging as a significant player in this arena. This shift in mediation dynamics points to an evolving geopolitical landscape in the region, driven by the complex interplay of regional and international interests, which this analysis will delve into.
The emerging alliances, changing power dynamics, and potential ramifications for the broader South Caucasus region will be the focal points of our examination.
On October 23rd, 2023, Iran played host to a significant diplomatic event involving the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Iran. This meeting took place approximately one month after Azerbaijan successfully gained control of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh region.
Notably, this event marked the second gathering of the 3+3 regional platform summit known as “Time for Peace, Cooperation, and Progress in the South Caucasus.” The inaugural 3+3 meeting had transpired in Moscow in December 2021.
The meeting held particular significance as it marked the first direct encounter between Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov, since Azerbaijan’s swift military offensive resulted in the recapture of the disputed region. This military action had prompted the mass displacement of the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians.
In response, Yerevan accused Baku of conducting ethnic cleansing, whereas Azerbaijan asserted Armenians had left the region voluntarily and were welcome to return. It is important to note that the historical backdrop of two wars over the past three decades between Armenia and Azerbaijan, coupled with the inability to secure a lasting peace agreement despite sustained international efforts by the United States, the European Union, and Russia, lent significant gravity to this meeting.
During the 3+3 format, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian described the requirements for lasting peace, in whose absence a peace deal could be vulnerable. The main points he stressed were mutual respect of states to national sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of each other. In particular, he underlined that the path to peace is the way of dialogue and negotiation. Using force or the threat of force cannot lead to lasting peace, according to the diplomat.
Amir-Abdollahian outlined Iran’s strategy to attain peace, stability, and promote the flourishing of the region, emphasising on the following points:
- Trans-regional mechanisms have hindered regional peace and interests for nearly three decades. It’s time for regional governments to initiate a new experiment using their own capacities to promote the well-being of their populations and achieve peace.
- Establish road and rail transport networks in the Caucasian region, providing the groundwork for economic cooperation.
- Develop North-South and East-West transport corridors in the area.
- Creation of a comprehensive transportation roadmap benefiting all regional countries, with a proposed meeting of transport ministers. Iran is willing to host this meeting.
- The energy sector offers another opportunity for collaboration, including synchronising power grids and establishing transmission and energy supply networks among regional nations.
- Expanding regional cooperation to fields like customs and trade, agriculture, knowledge and technology, cultural exchanges, and people-to-people interactions can foster greater convergence and prosperity in the region.
- Facilitating people-to-people interactions between regional countries is of particular importance in promoting an atmosphere of peace and convergence.
In a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting, all participants expressed their commitment to respecting the territorial integrity of the countries within the region.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reacted positively to the October 23rd, 2023, 3+3 format in Tehran. Miller stated that the United States welcomes any kind of goodwill engagement that contributes to peace in the South Caucasus, regardless of where these negotiations take place or who hosts them. Still, Miller underlined that the U.S. has not found Iran and Russia to be reliable partners.
South Caucasus, Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation and Iran:
On September 19th, 2023, Azerbaijan initiated what they termed “local anti-terrorist measures” in Nagorno-Karabakh, to reestablish the constitutional order. This move followed several months of Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor, which had led to a severe shortage of critical provisions, such as food, medicine, and energy supplies, exacerbating the existing humanitarian crisis. The European Parliament adopted a resolution accusing Baku of engaging in ethnic cleansing.
The offensive by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and the perceived inactivity of Russian peacekeepers have prompted severe accusations from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan directed at the Kremlin, distancing the Armenian central government from its historical ally.
On Monday, September 11th, 2023, Armenia and the United States started a joint military training exercise, signalling Yerevan’s shift away from Moscow. However, it should be emphasised that Armenia has taken part in NATO exercises on multiple occasions, despite being a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
France has also entered the dynamics of the Southern Caucasus, demonstrating firm support for Yerevan by condemning human rights violations in Artsakh committed by Azerbaijan, while affirming Armenia’s right to defend its territorial integrity in the Syunik region.
Notably, France, which boasts Europe’s largest Armenian diaspora community, has heightened its diplomatic involvement in the region. In response to the potential risk of Azerbaijan launching an attack on the southern region of Armenia, substantiated by President Aliyev’s recent statements regarding the use of force to gain control of what Baku’s refers to as the Zangezur Corridor, France took proactive measures, including the deployment of a military attaché to the French embassy in the Armenian capital.
Notably, key European and U.S. representatives, who had long been strategic partners with Azerbaijan, have voiced their concerns over Baku’s methods and accused the country of engaging in ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of its military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh.
In October 2023, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly cautioned lawmakers that Azerbaijan might launch an invasion of Armenia shortly and emphasised that the United States does not intend to extend a longstanding waiver permitting military aid to Baku.
On October 23rd, 2023, during a press conference, the French Minister of Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, conveyed to his Armenian counterpart, Suren Papikyan, that despite Armenia and France not being members of the same military and political alliances, Paris is committed to maintaining a defence relationship.
This commitment includes the provision of military equipment, such as air defence systems, to Armenia. This support is in response to growing concerns that Azerbaijan may further extend its military actions, following the recent seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, and target Armenia’s Syunik Province.
Additionally, France will be involved in the training of Armenian soldiers and will assist Yerevan in auditing Armenia’s air defence capabilities to identify any potential vulnerabilities.
Another vital actor advocating for Yerevan’s right to maintain its sovereignty was Iran. In October 2022, Iran inaugurated a consulate general in Kapan, situated within Armenia’s southernmost Syunik Province, marking a significant geopolitical move.
This development carries substantial implications, as it not only establishes Iran as the first country to open a diplomatic mission in an area coveted by Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, but also serves as a clear signal Iran is prepared to intervene in the event of any potential attack by Azerbaijan against Armenia.
Iran’s expanding role as a regional mediator has taken centre stage, especially in the aftermath of the peace talks in Granada organised by the European Political Community (EPC), which proved ineffective due to the absence of Azerbaijani and Turkish representatives.
The recent meeting in Tehran has showed its ability to secure foundational agreements that can contribute to the ongoing peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
What sets Iran apart is its positive relationship with Russia, a pivotal player in the regional dynamics, and its concerted efforts to improve relations with Azerbaijan, despite occasional political frictions.
Conversely, for Yerevan, Iran may appear as a more reliable mediator when compared to Western nations, which have maintained controversial relations with Azerbaijan, including military cooperation, while advocating for Armenia’s territorial integrity and the safety of Artsakh’s Armenians.
During the recent meeting in Tehran, Iranian diplomats have underlined the responsibility of regional actors in managing de-escalation and peace negotiations. This underscores the evolving and nuanced dynamics shaping regional mediation efforts in the South Caucasus.
On one side, Tehran is willing to maintain its strategic border with Armenia. On the other side, by underlining that the Caucasus should not become the arena of competition, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi suggested that the presence and influence of foreign powers further complicates the security dilemma in the region and delays peace.
Indeed, President Raisi had previously held meetings with Armenia’s national security advisor and Azerbaijan’s special presidential envoy, announcing the Islamic Republic’s resolute opposition to the opening of the Zangezur Corridor in the Caucasus region. In both meetings, the President stated that the Zangezur Corridor would be a NATO foothold, a national security threat for regional countries, which is why Iran strongly opposed it.
NATO countries, in fact, are actively pursuing access to the Central Asian markets and energy resources by establishing critical connections through Turkey and Azerbaijan, ultimately reaching Turkmenistan.
The opening of the Zangezur Corridor will undoubtedly reduce the length of the current route, which is currently compelled to pass through Georgia, thus furthering the U.S. and Europe’s goal of creating a regional corridor linking Europe to the Central Asian Turkic nations.
The so-called Middle Corridor project, originating in Turkey, aims to supplant the Northern Corridor that passes through Russia. Despite Armenia falling victim to this international competition, it could still benefit from this project if Yerevan successfully keeps control over the transportation route through Syunik and gains access to the Turkish-led corridor.
From Iran’s perspective, this outcome holds no advantages, as it would cause the country’s exclusion from the Eurasian corridors that facilitate connections between Asia and Europe. Iran would also lose its essential link to energy supply networks and its vital connection to Russia through Armenia.
Another critical meeting was the diplomatic encounter in September 2023 between the Ambassadors of France and Iran to Armenia, namely Olivier Decottignies and Mehdi Subhani, which implies that Paris and Tehran are emerging as pivotal contributors to the preservation of stability along the internationally recognised borders of the Republic of Armenia.
While they have not divulged the specific details of their conversation, it is conceivable that France and Iran may have coordinated their efforts concerning the Southern Caucasus region.
Evidently, Iran has emerged as the singular actor to foster constructive relationships with all the directly involved stakeholders in the dynamics of the Southern Caucasus, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, and France.
While regional competition exists between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran, and the Western world maintains complex relations with Tehran, Iran possesses the potential to serve as a strategic mediator.
Although the interests of international players may lean toward Azerbaijan’s aim of establishing the Zangezur Corridor, which would benefit the Middle Corridor and a NATO member, namely Turkey, potentially at the expense of Russia, Iran could pursue a more balanced approach.
This is underlined by Tehran’s many cooperation agreements with both Baku and Yerevan. Despite the substantial influence of multinational corporations like British Petroleum in strengthening Azerbaijan’s position in the Caucasian landscape, the presence of Russia and Iran in the Caspian Sea region obliges the Turkish bloc to carefully maintain equilibrium while considering the interests of these two significant players.
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