Iran in the South Caucasus – A Keystone to Nagorno-Karabakh?
The Republic of Azerbaijan occupies a key geostrategic position in the region of the South Caucasus. Lying at the geographical crossroads, this country is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and controls large reserves of hydrocarbon energy resources in the basin.
This geographic location and geoeconomic importance of the area not only creates opportunities, but also generates threats, or at least challenges.
The South Caucasus is a region of conflicts, some of them frozen. For example, there are the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where separatists supported militarily by Russia proclaimed their internationally unrecognized sovereignty from Georgia.
There is also the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is not quite frozen, as far as soldiers and officers are dying on both sides almost every day, and both sides routinely employ artillery, mortars, and rockets.
The lukewarm conflict
Although a great number of officials, professors, and analysts worldwide tend to call this conflict “frozen”, it rather falls into the category of low-intensity conflicts. At the same time, the so called “April War”, which lasted three days in early April 2016, showed how fragile even this low-intensity status quo is. During a limited scale military operation on April 2 – 5, 2016 Azerbaijani Armed Forces returned control over 2000 hectares of territories in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian sources offer another figure – 800 hectares) which had been lost before the 1994 ceasefire agreement. Although the fighting was mainly limited to two distinct areas of the frontline and, according to number of sources, only two Azerbaijani brigades took part in the operation, the military assets used also included aviation, tanks and armoured cars, artillery and mortars, surveillance and attack drones.
The most important thing here is that both sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have made the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh the cornerstone of their foreign policy and national security rationale.
Furthermore, the conflict is far from resolution and the time from April 2016 until today was also “rich” with a number of skirmishes on the frontline, with human causalities on both sides. The most important thing here is that both sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have made the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh the cornerstone of their foreign policy and national security rationale. In order to observe that it is enough to offer a short glimpse to the systemic documents framing national security rationale of these countries – the National Security Strategy of Armenia and the National Security Concept of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the situation has turned into a zero-sum game.
But the conflict exerts also a strong influence on their behaviour in the wider context. The South Caucasus is surrounded by three large and important regional players – Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Due to the geostrategic location, a number of other actors, like the United States, the European Union, and Israel, have their own interests here, which makes both sides of the conflict sensitive to any manipulations from outside players promising either security guaranties and status quo, as in the case of Armenia, or return of the territories, as in the case of Azerbaijan. So far, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan’s territory – even Armenia has not recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”.
As it had already been mentioned, one of the key regional players is Iran. The last years have been marked by new trends concerning Iran’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Of course, the first explanation for this can be attributed to the developments in relationships between Iran and the West on one side (negotiations and agreements on Tehran’s nuclear program) and Iran and Russia on the other (particularly cooperation in Syria).
As is the case with Turkey, there is much in terms of history, culture, religion, and also ethnos in the South Caucasus tracing back to the ancient and medieval Iranian past. Even a brief description will take much more space and detail than the scope of this article will allow. In a nutshell – the region has been influenced by this colossal culture for thousands of years, even before the rise of Islam.
Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan, however, are far from being definitely good or definitely bad. They are rather unstable – from the peak of tensions and “verbal warfare” on the eve of the Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan in 2012 to the current warmth and prospects for cooperation in various areas.
Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan, however, are far from being definitely good or definitely bad. They are rather unstable – from the peak of tensions and “verbal warfare” on the eve of the Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan in 2012 to the current warmth and prospects for cooperation in various areas. And there is much in the background – 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis living in in the North-Western part of Iran (the number may be even higher, depending on the inclusion of further Turkic ethnics that are regarded as originally Azerbaijani when counting), with a certain level of underlying irredentist Nationalism, Azerbaijan’s military cooperation with Israel, which some officials and experts in both countries call strategic partnership or even alliance from time to time, or Iran’s close relationship with Armenia, mostly in economic areas.
Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh
When it comes to the resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tehran’s foreign policy vision is not that much different from other conflict spots in Iran’s neighbourhood – “none of these conflicts can find peaceful resolution without Iran’s participation in the process”, says the doctrine. This, however, is not that simple. Although the resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has always been a topic of discussions and cautious statements from officials on all levels during meetings with counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan, in general Iran has been rather isolated from the mediation process. And the reason is not only that there is a sort of existential mistrust between Tehran and Baku. The major scope of the mediation around the conflict goes through the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France, with the major role belonging to the Kremlin. Iran’s role and place on the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is rather different – to work within the bilateral framework.
In this respect, Iran is in a more advantageous position than Turkey, because, as Azerbaijan’s arch-ally, it has no relationships with Armenia whatsoever, whilst Iran develops relationships with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, recent strategic developments in Russian – Iranian relations and the role and place of Azerbaijan in that framework open new opportunities. In late September 2014, when Moscow engaged in military operations in Syria, some sources in Russia announced that Russia warplanes flying to Latakia (Syria) to support President Assad flew through Azerbaijani airspace. With Iran’s support to Assad and vital interest to neutralize the ISIS threat, there is little doubt that Tehran did not notice this friendly act from Baku.
In September 2014, prominent Iranian religious scholar Ayatollah Houssein Nuri Hamadani visited Azerbaijan. Bearing in mind the traditional suspicion of the secular Azerbaijani political elite to anything related to political Islam, the visit was unprecedented and the first of its kind in many years.
Current positive trends in bilateral relations started with a series of mutual visits, including those on the very top level. President Aliyev has visited the Islamic Republic in April 2014. That was his third official visit there. But, this time, Aliyev was accompanied by a huge group of Azerbaijani ministers, officials, and business people. After that, in September 2014, a prominent Iranian religious scholar Ayatollah Houssein Nuri Hamadani visited Azerbaijan. Bearing in mind the traditional suspicion of the secular Azerbaijani political elite to anything related to political Islam, the visit was unprecedented and the first of its kind in many years. It lasted for a week and included trips all around the country, meetings with local religious communities, and visits to mosques and madrasas. It was an acknowledgement of sorts from Baku to the major tool of Iranian soft power all around the region – the mujtaheed clerics and Shia networks.
In November 2014, it was Tehran’s turn for a top level visit – President Hassan Rouhani visited Baku. Besides meeting President Aliyev and a number of other high-ranking officials, Rouhani delivered a speech to the Parliament of Azerbaijan. He signed several memoranda of understanding, in which, as during Aliyev’s previous visit to Tehran, cooperation in several areas was emphasized. During Rouhani’s Baku visit the parties weighed in on the significance of the “North – South” corridor and decided to speed up the construction of a railway from Qazvin to Rasht (Iran) and then to Astara (Azerbaijan). Works on the Azerbaijani side are already completed. This project is of a great geopolitical importance, and is more than just part of the Iran – Azerbaijan cooperation. Russia is also very interested in this project, considering it part of the “North - South” strategic transportation corridor, and proposes its acceleration. With that, Russia would be connected in the cheapest way to the Persian Gulf via Azerbaijan and Iran.
April 2015 was marked by another visit. Iranian defense minister, Brigadier General Houssein Dehqan visited Baku and conducted meetings at high level, including President Aliyev. Dehqan voiced Iran's readiness to expand cooperation with Baku in various defense and military fields, and underlined that Iran is ready to enhance the level of defense and provide required military equipment to the Azerbaijani army. The major result of the visit was establishment of the Joint Commission on Cooperation in Military Area between two states.
Threading the needle
Immediately after the April War, one of the retired Azerbaijani generals, Yashar Aydemirov, claimed in one of his interviews that Iran had been providing Azerbaijan with weapons which had been successfully used during the April War.
Of course, the major supplier of weapons both to Armenia and Azerbaijan is Moscow, and this leverage, together with a number of other dependencies of both on Russia, plays considerable role in Russian engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh. On the other side, Azerbaijan has long-term and stable military cooperation with Turkey and, what is most irritating for Tehran, with Israel. Israel supplies Azerbaijan with weapons, including complex missile systems, radars, artillery and rocket artillery, drones, etc. During the April War of 2016, Israeli “Harop” kamikaze drones exported to Azerbaijan were tested for the first time in real battlefield conditions and proved their extreme effectiveness, as well as the Israeli made “SPIKE-LR” anti-tank missiles (according to various sources 14 of 17 Armenian tanks destroyed on the frontline were destroyed by Azerbaijani infantry armed with “SPIKE-LR” – to compare with only two Azerbaijani tanks damaged by mines during these three days of active fighting). Nevertheless, the most interesting angle in this respect came from the other, rather surprising direction. Immediately after the April War, one of the retired Azerbaijani generals, Yashar Aydemirov, claimed in one of his interviews that Iran had been providing Azerbaijan with weapons which had been successfully used during the April War. He mentioned 122-mm D-30A howitzers, 107-mm YARS rocket artillery systems, as well as 60-mm mortars and a number of other military equipment. These weapon systems are not anything special, new or rare. But the fact is interesting in itself, as a symbol. Was that the result of Dehqan’s visit to Baku? It is hard to say. But ambiguity around the issue diminished after indirect hints from the uppermost levels of power. A few weeks later, President Aliyev himself mentioned Iran as one of the key military partners of Azerbaijan, when speaking in public during one of his trips outside the capital.
Iran and Russia are central to the two most promising prospective frameworks relevant to possible peaceful resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In parallel, Iran continues bilateral relations with Armenia, mainly in the economic sphere. Iran is the vital strategic partner of this country, probably the most important after Russia. This is reflected in the National Security Strategy – Iran and Georgia are the only “ways out” for Yerevan. Nevertheless, in terms of bargaining power, Armenia is far less attractive than Azerbaijan from Tehran’s perspective. Iran and Russia are central to the two most promising prospective frameworks relevant to possible peaceful resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh. The first is the Russo – Turkish cooperation on Syria. It is still questionable how long this cooperation will last, but the fact is this framework is in Azerbaijan’s interest. The second – the Russo – Iranian cooperation, again on Syria, also fits Azerbaijan’s assertive foreign policy aimed at devaluing Armenia’s regional partnerships and continuous isolation of this country in order to pressure it on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was not incidental that the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh was discussed during the trilateral summit in Baku, when Putin, Rouhani, and Aliyev came together in order to discuss a number of issues, from cooperation on regional security (including Syria) to strategic geoeconomic projects like the “North – South” corridor. The fact that the summit took place in Baku was also symbolic.
It looks like the global context is leading Azerbaijan to jump on the bandwagon with this Moscow – Tehran axis. And this framework, rather than direct involvement in mediation, is the platform through which Iran’s interests can be taken into account in the resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Time will show how sustainable this framework will be, but, for now, there is more that Iran can count on gaining from relationships with Azerbaijan, independent and bargaining, rather than with Armenia, dependent fully and exclusively on Russia with little else to offer. Existential fears and jealousy can be replaced by pragmatic interplay of synergies. But what will be the cost?
 Iranian President Rouhani Makes First Visit to Baku: http://www.rferl.org/content/rohani-iran-azerbaijan-visit-/26686478.html
 Positive Outlook of President Rouhani’s Baku Visit: http://en.mehrnews.com/news/104628/Positive-outlook-of-President-Rouhani-s-Baku-visit
 Яшар Айдемиров: Приобретенные в Иране вооружения успешно использованы против армянских оккупантов (Weapons bought in Iran were successfully used against Armenian aggressors): http://www.vesti.az/news/291226.
 Путин, Алиев и Рухани сообразили на троих (Putin, Aliyev, and Rouhani made a tripatriate deal): http://www.mk.ru/politics/2016/08/08/putin-aliev-i-rukhani-soobrazili-na-troikh.html.