Iran’s peace initiative on Nagorno-Karabakh: impossible not to decline, impossible not to offer

Iran’s peace initiative on Nagorno-Karabakh: impossible not to decline, impossible not to offer


Text: Tigran Zakaryan


The ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh has been a major shock in - among other ones - geostrategic terms for the regional and global players. The format of the conflict and its resolution, familiar since the ceasefire of 1994, was changed under the aggressive intrusion of Turkey, which now openly vies for regional supremacy in the South Caucasus eying for Central Asia. 

This raises concerns among regional powers, namely Russia and Iran. Foreign Ministers of both countries had several talks since the start of the crisis on 27 September, invariably expressing concern over the “engagement of radical militants from illegal armed groups in Syria and Libya” in the conflict.  
The transfer of the very islamists Tehran fights in Syria, to its doorstep bodes ill for Iran. The Azerbaijani use of drones produced by Tehran’s archrival Israel in areas close to the border – occasionally flying into Iranian air space and getting shot by the air defense of the latter – only increases those concerns. 
Iranian territory bordering the conflict zone was repeatedly shelled during the Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting causing infrastructure damage and even a reported case of civilian casualty. With the local Turkic-speaking populations expressing their support to Azerbaijan and criticizing their own government, Iran had to take some action first of all to ensure the security of own people.

After some initial warnings on the unacceptability of accidental shots and shelling into its own territory, Tehran deployed troops, including its elite Revolutionary Guards Corps along its whole northern border, including Nakhijevan, where as it is known no military operations were ongoing and conducted drills as a sign of its determination. 
Tehran supported its defensive military posture by statements in the same vein on the diplomatic stage declaring that changes in the “geostrategic borders” will be unacceptable, which many observers in Armenia interpreted as a warning against possible Turkish-Azerbaijani encroachments against Armenia’s sovereign territory in the Meghri sub-region, bordering Iran. 
Tehran in view of the three consecutive failed ceasefire attempts, promoted by the OSCE Minsk group co-chairing countries Russia, France and the USA, with Turkish aggressive attempts at their derailment, came up with an idea of modifying the formula of the mediation. The basic idea behind it is the Iran-Turkey-Russia trio, which according to Tehran could work in stabilizing the region, just like it worked in Syria. 
In order to promote this initiative Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi visited in turns Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia and Turkey holding talks with respective officials. 

Abbas Araghchi

In Yerevan Araghchi refrained from uncovering details of the proposed plan, however from other sources it becomes evident that it is based on the notion of territorial integrity, involving a return to Azerbaijani control the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, blurred ideas of ensuring “security to the minority” and the involvement of the three named regional powers in the peace process, possibly rejecting other “extra-regional” ones. 
In fact there is a record of Iranian peaceful irresolution initiatives on the Karabakh conflict in the war years of 1992-1994, which largely failed also by the efforts of Russia and other global powers, particularly the USA. For decades Tehran was cornered in the regional competition for the influence in the South Caucasus by other players, and the resumed hostilities against the backdrop of the US general withdrawal from the region, EU’s lack of leverages of influence and Russian’s certain limitations of interfering, this particular moment seems to be opportune for returning to the scene.   
The current war did change and is still changing the geostrategic map of the region and this urges Tehran to hurry up with its initiatives before the war is over not to lose the South Caucasus and particularly Azerbaijan to Turkey which can pose a most serious challenge to national security of Iran due to the pan-Turkist ideology shared by Turkish, Azerbaijani political elites and a considerable portion in its numerous Turkic-speaking minority in the northwest of the country. Moreover in case Ankara succeeds in the execution of its projects in the South Caucasus, it can and would certainly go further to the East. The first signs of this became evident with the very recent visits of the Turkish defense minister in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during which military and technical cooperation agreements were signed, while the Turkish statesmen and media highlighted an eventual plan of establishing a military bloc with Azerbaijan and Central Asian states. Eventually this will become an even bigger threat to Iran’s security and failing to check Turkish advancement in Azerbaijan would result in quite serious repercussions in this respect. 
Ultimately, Tehran has to intervene for the internal audience’s different segments. One of those is the pan-Turkist one – by highlighting the role of Turkey in the peace process and admitting Azerbaijani “territorial integrity” – while on the other extreme are loyalist Iranians and nationalist Persians who would most likely feel satisfied with Iran’s pro-active stance on regional transformations and promptness to face a Turkish advance along its northern border. 

Բնութագրությունը հասանալի չէ

Iranians watching the Artsakh war from their side


Looking at the Iranian initiative from Armenian angle, it is unacceptable just as any initiatives, which are promoting a status of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Most probably Tehran understands Armenia’s dissatisfaction with the project, still, as it happens in many cases of conflict mediation by bigger powers, what matters more for Iran is its own participation in the peaceful settlement process, a position, which was systematically denied to it for decades. 
The Iranian initiative might be welcomed by Ankara in case it feels its own positions versus Russia as not too secure (with the hope of playing out Tehran against Moscow) while the project becomes totally unnecessary and detrimental to the Turkish national interest in the South Caucasus in case its positions in the region are strong enough. Thus in a bizarre twist of the cause-and-effect relationship, it can be inferred that Tehran would be interested in Armenia’s military sustainability even if it implied Yerevan’s rejection of the Iranian peace proposal. 
Mastering the meticulously honed diplomatic parlance of the Iranian state and its different branches could help the Armenian political elite and experts to understand more thoroughly (although there are indications that they realize it to some degree) the true value of Tehran’s initiatives as well as to be able to articulate concepts in the same language. Home to multiple and numerous ethnic minorities, Iran cannot support self-determination principle as it would backfire at home first of all and this is the policy that Iran is following on multiple areas in the world, including the Middle East. On the other hand Tehran cannot fully deny Turkish role, first of all because of the realities on the ground and not the least because of its strategic interest in Ankara in facing the West, particular in circumventing the US-imposed sanctions. 
Given all the above-mentioned circumstances, Tehran is unlikely to be frustrated at Yerevan’s expected rejection of the plan, which was conceived more as a token of involvement rather than for implementation.