Stagnation in Nagorno-Karabakh Presents a Chance for Tehran

On October 27, precisely one month after the war broke out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Tehran dispatched its deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi to the capital of Azerbaijan.

In Baku, the Iranian envoy discussed an initiative with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and other Azeri officials to end the relentless conflict in the mountainous enclave between Azerbaijan and Armenia over territories that Tehran still deems to be occupied by Armenian forces.

“We always support Azerbaijan’s efforts to liberate its occupied cities and areas,” Araghchi said in Baku. “The territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan and other countries in the region, and the inviolability of borders are an important and irreproachable principle that must be respected,” he added.

From Baku, Tehran’s envoy then flew to Moscow, which stands out almost alone as Armenia’s supporter against Azerbaijan. In Russia, like in Azerbaijan, the initiative appeared to draw appreciation, as Moscow openly said later that it would welcome the initiative presented by Tehran.

A Viable Balance

After weeks of reticence, Russia finally took a stand favoring Armenia, with which it has significant military deals, whereas Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan seems to know no setbacks.

Unlike Russia and Turkey, however, Iran has more or less equidistant relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and it sees a space to fill in the gap left by the two belligerents’ refusal to commit to peacemaking.

Heavily affected by economic sanctions as it still grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Tehran could at last bring its diplomacy to restore its reputation on a regional and global scale.

As far as religion and ethnicity are concerned, Iran is doubtless closer to Azerbaijan than it is to Armenia. The majority of the Azerbaijan’s population are Shia Muslim, while the Azeri people constitute the largest ethnic minority in Iran.

Armenia, on the other hand, is one of Iran’s most strategic allies in the region as well as an essential trade partner. In 2018, trade relation between the two countries hit an all-time record high, despite the economic sanctions imposed on Tehran.

Moreover, Iran borders both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and, in addition to its cordial diplomatic ties with both sides, Tehran has a history of mediation in the two countries’ decades-long conflict.

Iran’s Conundrum

If Iran has managed to safeguard equal relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, it surely did so on account of the fact that it needs both countries equally — not least in a context of global discontent and economic sanctions.

On October 1, four iranian political representatives from provinces highly populated with Azeri ethnic groups released a joint statement that declared full support for Azerbaijan, claiming the war was an act of aggression from Armenia. Yet, that same day, Iran also reportedly opened its airspace for Russian military supplies bound for Armenia.

In addition to Turkey, which has long been at odds with Iran in Syria by supporting the opposition of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Israel – Iran’s regional arch foe – has also provided significant help for Azerbaijan, with which it has long established economic, military and intelligence cooperation.

Some even expected that Azerbaijan’s relation with Ankara and Tel Aviv would push Iran to stand with Armenia. Yet, in that case, Iran could easily face unrest among its Azeri population, as one of its major concerns regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a potential spillover of violence into its own national territory.

Moreover, energy cooperation with Azerbaijan, notably in the Caspian Sea, could prove essentially beneficial to Iran in the event that economic sanctions are lifted. Tehran also hopes to join the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline to export energy to EU countries. All the same, Armenia has proved to be a strategic help for Iran to circumvent international sanctions imposed on its energy and banking sectors.

The Minsk Group’s Failure

After his visit to Azerbaijan and Russia, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi traveled to Armenia, where he met with the country’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and discussed the human rights of the Armenian ethnic groups living in the disputed territories.

Echoing Russia, Armenia also said it would welcome Iran’s initiative to end the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting, for which Iran vehemently blames the Minsk Group – save Russia.

“Some of the member countries of this group are not even in the region and their inefficiency has been proven,” Araghchi said in Armenia, conspicuously pointing an accusing finger at France and the United States, who, he added, have “no real desire to establish peace.”

The Iranian envoy then traveled to Ankara, where he met Turkey’s Foreign Minister Sedat Onal.

So far, reports suggest that thousands of people, with civilians among them, have already died in the conflict, as three ceasefire agreements have been breached. Unlike Russia, Iran is less likely to pick one side at the detriment of the other. It could thus bring about the needed neutrality, a sine qua none for ending the conflict.