After the “policy of neighborliness”, the most important concern that puts the issue of the Caucasus at the top of Iran’s foreign policy agenda is the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the threat of the outbreak of a war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan following a new flare-up of tensions in Tovuz District in July 2020.
Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the formation of three independent states of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in the South Caucasus, the region is still playing a role as a single entity in the security and interests of its neighbors, including Iran, Turkey, and Russia, and in the international politics. Therefore, the Caucasus has significance, simultaneously at three distinct levels, in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy.
- Bilateral Relations: Under this principle, Iran has pushed for the promotion of relations with the three states in the South Caucasus according to the policy of neighborliness. While both the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia have the advantage of common border with Iran, the relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan, a Shiite country with a long common land border and maritime boundaries with Iran, have great importance, as Iran sees no limits to the expansion of ties with this northern neighbor.
- Regional Relations: Iran’s relations with the three Caucasus nations are affected by the major developments and regional rivalry. Rather than covering the Caucasus states, the range of the rivalry is marked by its impact on the security and interests of the surrounding countries. Despite the significance in the bilateral relations, a series of issues are affected by the regional level of the Caucasus developments, including religion, ethnicity, regional crises such as over Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Chechnya, the Caspian Sea legal regime, trade, energy carriers, oil and gas transfer routes, transit and transportation networks, as well as power transmission and telecommunication lines.
- International Politics: The Caucasus is a bridge connecting Asia to Europe. The region is situated at the crossroads to the Islamic and Christian countries and forms the boundaries of two separate areas of human culture in terms of culture and civilization. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy on the Caucasus is affected by this factor too. Three approaches, namely Islamism, Atlanticism, and Eurasianism, and the alliances formed within such a framework have increased the significance of this level for Iran.
While the Republic of Azerbaijan is the most powerful country in the Caucasus in economic and military terms and enjoys military support from the Armed Forces of the friendly countries, it does not see any military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenia, which benefits from Russia’s military support, is facing conflicting views about a solution to the dispute. In Armenia, one group is trying to maintain the status quo, while another group is after the establishment of stability and return to normal living conditions. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s warring sides are aware that a starter of war would not be the one to end it. The intertwined geography of the Caucasus would cause the warring sides and the region irreparable damages within a short span. The confrontation between the security and military forces along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh front for a long time is per se a source of tensions. A human error or opportunist policy might ignite the flames of war. But what is the solution?
There are two general scenarios in addressing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Firstly: The two warring sides should address the problem without interference from the third parties. Such an approach is supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia have considered different solutions over the past 28 years. The two sides have sometimes found a mutually acceptable solution, but it has been shelved because of interference from the hardliners. An example was the plan for granting Nagorno-Karabakh the highest degree of autonomy as a federation or confederation of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The solution appeared to be achievable under the tenures of Heydar Aliyev and Levon Ter-Petrossian, but an incident in Armenia prevented its implementation. The leaders of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia are more familiar with the views of each other. Those opinions could be pursued based on principles including the liberation of occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan and determination of the Nagorno-Karabakh’ legal status, and result in the landmark and historic agreements in the Caucasus.
Secondly: The two sides of the conflict should form possible alliances and use the capacity of regional and trans-regional actors to achieve their purposes. Such method has been practiced for the past 25 years. It is clear how alliances are formed. A Persian proverb says “no cat would catch a mouse for God’s sake”. The Caucasus is a small area and has no capacity for major confrontations. The battlefront is not distant from the capitals and major facilities of the two countries. In both countries, the opposition parties are impatient to take advantage of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to cause a “change”. The arms sellers may be seeking to upset the balance and fan the flames in the region. In that case, the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh will immediately turn into a proxy war, and the elements that are supposed to prevent the spread of a major catastrophe in the Caucasus will themselves get entangled in such battle. As a result, the region will possibly see another humanitarian and economic disaster. The bitter experience of a limited war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 is ahead of us. The main reason that ignited the flames of that war appears to be the US’ provocative intervention in the Caucasus. The war resulted in the violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity and a crisis in the relations between two major countries in the Caucasus and added a further complication to regional stability and security.
Iran needs to remain vigilant and continue thwarting the targeted provocations that aim to entangle Tehran into a war in the Caucasus. In a region where two armies armed to the teeth are arrayed against each other, that would be a major responsibility serving the collective interests. As a country that has the capacity for direct influence on the two warring sides and would benefit from the Caucasus peace more than a war, Iran should actively pursue the responsibility. The actors fanning the flames of war must accept responsibility for its dire consequences. At one juncture, the Islamic Republic of Iran began hopefully to mediate in the dispute with the presence of Yagub Mammadov and Ter-Petrossian. Thereafter, when the Armenian forces continued to advance into the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territory, Iran provided full support for the Republic of Azerbaijan at the request of Heydar Aliyev to boost Azerbaijan’s deterrent power. After the Caspian Sea oil case received attention in 1994, the initiative of co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group was put into practice, and the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia adopted a different approach to solving the problem, or more exactly, to freeze the dispute. At the request of Baku, Speaker of the National Assembly of Azerbaijan Rasul Guliyev stepped in this time, sent a written letter in acknowledgment of the Iranian advisors’ help, and asked for the termination of their mission. Afterward, Iran has preserved its principled policies, has always stressed the need for direct negotiations for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and has expressed readiness to contribute to the process of peace and stability. The necessity of respecting territorial integrity is the main axis of Iran’s stances on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that interference from the parties outside the region would threaten regional peace and complicate and drag out the settlement process. Conversely, regional cooperation could provide a good basis for helping the parties involved in the conflict to resolve the dispute peacefully. At present, the trilateral Iran-Turkey-Republic of Azerbaijan initiative and the Iran-Republic of Azerbaijan-Russia initiatives are in progress and could serve those purposes. The growing relations among Iran, Turkey, and Russia seem to be another opportunity for the establishment of peace and stability in the Caucasus.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)