(Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and President of the NKR Bako Sahakian accompanied by the RA Minister of Defense Seiran Ohanian and high-ranking military commanders visited the defense positions-November 13, 2010)
As the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power, Tehran has been trying to show the West its fair intentions over halting its nuclear operations. Winning the initial trust from Western nations, Iran’s foreign policy has become diffusive with various engagement initiatives. Iran’s recent efforts to step up its involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process are in line with this strategy.
The recent escalation of shootings on the contact line between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, has enthused Iran to once again address its mediating mission; this time with Turkey in tow. Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan commented about resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hand in hand with Turkey, using regional capabilities. In the context of the recent warming of ties in the Iranian-Turkish relations, the statement serves as an attempt, though abortive, to remove the global players— US, Russia, and France (EU) as the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chair countries— from the region. The main target of this policy may be the US, which through its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, and withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year is decreasing its attention and influence over the Middle East.
Iran has never hidden its intentions to mediate the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Azerbaijani aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh, a security vacuum was created in the Caucasus. Iran intended to fill it in order to become a regional player but it lacked the resources to compete against Russia, Turkey and the West. In 1990s during the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenians and Azerbaijan, Iran organized negotiations for high-ranking delegations from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Tehran, however no sustainable results were achieved.
The attempts to intervene in the negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh have also been a priority within Turkish foreign policy for many years. The two states’ shared pan-Turanist ideology explains the Turkish support of Azerbaijan and the “one nation, two states” slogan. The two countries have historically surrounded the Christian country of Armenia in an Islamic wedge, and to this day Armenia suffers from a dual blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
A very similar geopolitical reality applies to Israel, a country in a hostile region that is surrounded by Muslim states. Despite the political and military ties with Israel, Azerbaijan, the little brother of Turkey - infamous for its anti-Semitic ideology - will never help Israel in a potential war against Iran. The blowback from such a move would also be astronomically high for the regime in Baku. Indeed, officials in Tehran have threatened to level Baku to the ground should Azerbaijan help the West or Israel attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Of course even if Iran didn’t flatten Baku, they would undeniably switch their support to Armenia regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
With that said, both Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities have stated numerous times that they would never allow a hostile action against Iran. Even going out of their way to claim that in the context of global threats, Israel’s alleged nuclear warheads are more of a threat to regional stability. This is in lockstep with Ankara’s recent position in regards to the Turkish-hosted NATO early-warning radar system, which Turkish officials claim is not intended to protect Israel from third party attacks; the likeliest source of these attacks of course coming from Iran or one of its proxies in Lebanon or Syria.
Stemming from the ground of Turkish strategic interests in the region, official Tehran believes that by tacking on with Turkey to mediate the negotiations their chances of achieving that goal will improve.
Iran’s intentions are conditioned by several reasons, at least a few of which are in conflict with Ankara’s goals. This policy can be summed up as keeping the status quo intact, international peacekeepers out, and Baku down.
Iran is very much concerned about the potential secessionist movements of the Turkic-speaking population (Azari) in northern Iran, who have received support from the Aliyev regime for several years. Azerbaijani parliament even discussed a proposal on changing the name of the country to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan in 2012, thus reaffirming Baku’s territorial claims against Iran. Nagorno Karabakh conflict escalation and the asymmetric developments in the settlement process would enable Azerbaijan mounting a serious threat to Iranian territorial integrity.
Another concern of Iran is related to the potential escalation of the Karabakh conflict, which can then lead to the deployment of peacekeeping missions from Russia and/or the U.S. near Iran’s borders. The last thing officials in Tehran wish to see is their northern border hosting foreign troops, thus encircling their state fully. Iran has always perceived this as a threat to its national security, and ability to project power.
In order to ensure that the status quo remains in force, Iran would ideally like a seat at the mediators’ table to keep tabs on the possible trajectory of any settlement formulas being discussed.
Official Yerevan understands Iran’s mediation motivations, and although Iran serves as one of Armenia’s two sole outlets to the world, and has kept a neutral stance regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran should not and will not become a mediator.
This would only add another party that has its own agenda in the region; hence another factor to consider when tabulating Armenia’s geopolitical calculations.
The Nagorno-Karabakh issue is not a geopolitical lab rat for states to experiment upon applying different chemicals, such as what Iran or Turkey would like to do.
Any attempt of changing the co-chairmanship format will bring to the settlement process unnecessary complications, and possibly open the door of bringing the settlement process to such biased organizations as the United Nations General Assembly, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, thus hindering the negotiation process.
While it is obvious that the U.S. would not allow Iran to become a mediator, Russia is equally opposed to the notion as well.
Russia and Iran may have some overlapping interests but they remain geopolitical rivals and have been such since the 18th century. Like the West, Russia is also worried about Iran’s nuclear program, since the possession of an atomic weapon would provide Iran more influence in the world.
Additionally, Iran and Russia are competing against one another in the natural gas sector as well. By proven natural gas reserves Iran ranks second to Russia.
It should be remembered that Russia clearly demonstrated its concern with Iranian ambitions to transport natural gas to the European market via the Caucasus in the mid-2000s, when Armenia and Iran were negotiating on building a natural gas pipeline with the option to extend to Georgia and perhaps on to Europe. Under Moscow’s influence the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline’s (which was included in the INOGATE program) diameter was reduced from proposed 700 millimeters to 420 millimeters, thus aborting any chance of the pipeline developing into a notable regional conveyor of gas.
Thus, any sort of outside mediation attempts are built on wobbly ground.
However, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairmen should be cautious about Iranian and Turkish attempts of mediation; precisely because the Co-chairmen’s policy of false parity or pampering of Azerbaijan creates an opportunity for outside criticism and increases the appetite of other states to interfere in the Karabakh conflict settlement process.