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Will Iran’s and Russia’s Meddling Start Another War in the South Caucasus?

Amidst recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the specter of globalization of conflicts arises. No sooner have the foreign ministers dispatched to Washington from Baku and Yerevan to attempt to break the impasse over the ongoing normalization efforts, than Russia has issued a statement asserting that the only possible legal framework to the final peace agreement was one where Moscow was the guarantor of peace through the contingent of its peacekeepers. The Kremlin has been relatively mute on the recent efforts by Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev to force the issue of trust building measures through the unilateral installation of a checkpoint in Lachin, a humanitarian road connecting Armenia to Karabakh, where an Armenian community of separatists still resides.  This development follows an earlier suggestion from Baku for a bilateral creation of checkpoints in Lachin, which could bring to an end provocations by unvetted third parties and circumvent the abuse of authority by the Russian peacekeepers.

Over the course of the two and a half years following Azerbaijan’s reclaiming of its territories in the Second Karabakh War, the issue of third party involvement as an obstacle to peace has become paramount. Both sides, but in particular Baku, have come to complain bitterly about the ineffectiveness of the peacekeeping presence which was supposed to safeguard the peace between the two neighbors for five years after the signing of the initial peace agreement. More recently, Russia’s role in the South Caucasus has become particularly concerning. Moscow has always been seen as particularly close to Armenia due to historical support and military ties, though it has had trade and cultural relations with both countries. 

However, the Kremlin’s quest for treating Azerbaijan as a sphere of influence, and not merely as a partner, has increasingly come to irk both the population and the government. Some examples of that include the Russian Federation’s Foreign Ministry’s continued usage of the outdated term “Nagorno-Karabakh”, which hearkens back to Moscow creation of the “Artsakh” enclave in Karabakh in the 1980s as part of its strategy of creating and exacerbating divisions among various ethnic communities and autonomous republics to avoid independence movements and uprisings, and as a way of maintaining centralized control.  Another example includes the apparent Russian state backing of the formerly dual national Russian/Armenian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who is thought to be behind the gold smuggling from Karabakh, possibly in support of the Russian military efforts in Ukraine. In light of the ongoing illicit mining and smuggling, the dubious role of the peacekeepers has been once again called into question.  But Russia is not the only regional power seeking to project power at the expense of the smaller countries.

As the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to escalate, Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan recently raised eyebrows vowing to recognize Baku’s sovereignty over Karabakh, in exchange for Azerbaijan’s commitment to recognize Armenia’s borders and sovereignty. Azerbaijan liberated approximately 20 percent of its territory occupied by Armenians for nearly 30 years after a 44-day war in 2020; however, a separatist self-proclaimed enclave of Karabakh-based Armenians, called Artsakh, remained a point of contention since the signing of the trilateral peace agreement.  Despite Yerevan’s capitulation, disputes over the demarcation and delimitation of borders, the opening of communications and strategic trade routes and humanitarian roads, and other issues, remained unsorted, preventing the final version of the agreement between the two countries, both considered allies of the United States, from being signed. Since the end of the Second Karabakh War Baku rose rapidly as a major energy exporter to Europe, signing several agreements with the EU, and rising to the rescue amidst the global energy crisis, exacerbated by the impact of the war in Ukraine. 

Armenia, for its part, continues to rely on significant and historic numbers of active diaspora communities in the US, France, and other countries for political and financial support, and for representation of its regional interests. The bilateral relations between the two neighbors, challenged by the revanchist sentiments among a segment of the Armenian population, the fervor of the diaspora lobbies, and by political discourse of the Karabakh Armenians, have been further complicated by the recent geopolitical context: the weakening presence of Russia in the South Caucasus, the growing closeness between Armenia, Qatar, and Iran, and Tehran’s increasingly open tensions with Baku. The latter have ranged from the limited military and political support of Armenia during the Second Karabakh War, to attacks on Azerbaijan’s embassies, rhetorical threats, and intercepted espionage and terrorism recruitment operations inside Azerbaijan’s borders. Armenia has grown closer to Tehran over various issues ranging from trade, energyand transportation, to security and defense matters. A recent agreement allows Iran to transfer its drones to Russia through the Armenian territory and provides for the training of the Iranian forces in Armenia. 

Iran’s hostility to Azerbaijan has grown more conspicuous since the Second Karabakh War. Several factors play into Tehran’s distrust of its neighbor. First, Azerbaijan provides a fine example of a Shia majority state where religious and ethnic minorities coexist peacefully, where the country enjoys relative prosperity, and is growing diplomatic and social relations with the Western world as well as with the Middle East. Baku’s rising international prominence lies in stark contrast to Iran’s disrepute related to its human rights abuses, embrace of terrorism, corruption, economic mismanagement, foreign meddling and nuclear threats.  Although Iran is rapidly normalizing with a host of Middle Eastern states, its aggressive regional position will remain a subject of controversy, sanctions, and criticism for the foreseeable future.

Second, the Islamic Republic’s 80 million person population includes approximately 30 million citizens of Azerbaijani descent, who, on the other hand are active in the Iranian military and government institutions, but on the other hand face discrimination, cultural oppression, and the carefully cultivated suspicion from the minority Fars population. Tehran suspects and accuses Azerbaijani communities of dual loyalties to Baku and seeks to undermine the neighboring state in an effort to discourage thoughts of an uprising, abandonment of the state, or mass escape to Baku. It is also for that reason that Iran targets Azerbaijanis for recruitment for foreign terrorism operation – to sow distrust between Baku and its brethren in Iran.

Finally, Azerbaijan’s positive – and blossoming – diplomatic relations with Israel irk Iran to no end; the overwhelming majority of recent threats and accusations referred to Israel’s political support and military assistance during the Second Karabakh War, and the allegations of an Israeli military presence near the borders with Iran, with Tehran alleging that Azerbaijani territory is being used by Israel for military attacks and intelligence operations against the Islamic Republic. Tehran quite simply perceives Baku’s warm peace with Israel as a direct threat to its own existence. Ironically, the more Iran threatens Azerbaijan and attacks the relations, the more Baku has taken steps to advance both the military and the political ties.

Recent incidents, such as renewed deadly border clashes, added to the speculations that the political process in the South Caucasus is on the verge of failure, which could subsume additional resources, bring in third party actors into the quagmire, and to split the international community struggling to remain united around the Ukraine-related issues. Another recent incident involved the burning of the Azerbaijani flag during a weightlifting competition in Armenia. Azerbaijan withdrew from the European Weightlifting Championship in Yerevan after an activist ran up on stage during the opening ceremony, grabbed the Azerbaijani flag, and set it on fire, engendering outrage. He was arrested, but later released without charges, which led to condemnations from the public in Azerbaijan and a campaign pushing for boycott of Armenia’s participation in international athletic events. 

The act of vandalism underscored the escalating animosity despite the gestures from Pashinyan’s government indicating willingness to continue the talks and to accept conditions for the final peace agreement. The recently released videos indicating torture and abuses of two captured Azerbaijani POWs filmed while in Armenia’s custody while accidentally wandering over the border highlight the disconnect between Pashinyan’s promises and the reality on the ground. Allegations that the Armenian military echelon praised the individuals involved in these abuses led to protests and to call for an international investigation into violations of the Geneva Conventions, to which both Armenia and Azerbaijan are signatories. These episodes demonstrate the fragility of the peace and relay concern about the continuing indoctrination of the Armenian public against their neighbor. Both Baku officials and the public question the culture of impunity against perpetuation of anti-Azerbaijani activity and violence. Can the negotiations succeed if such an atmosphere is fostered and such disruptions are welcomed or tolerated by the authorities?

In this context, Pashinyan’s comments are noteworthy because they are the strongest indication to date that despite the paradoxical political moves by Armenia, Yerevan is committed to settling the differences with Baku and integrating the South Caucasus. By calling on both EU and Russia to ensure that peace holds, Pashinyan may be indirectly acknowledging that his seemingly contradictory, inconsistent, and uneven policies are brought forth due to the pressure of multiple parties. These include foreign lobbyists, loud-mouthed hawks inside the country, and countries like Iran which Armenia has courted to balance out Baku’s close relationship with Turkey – but which has turned into a very dangerous friend. Iran may be looking to turn Armenia into another regional proxy, but as usual, Iran does not care at all for Yerevan interests or Armenian lives. Pushing the small country into a war it cannot afford without having to be directly involved in it is an ideal scenario for Tehran if it irks the United States, disrupts Baku’s economic competition to Tehran’s oil and gas, and creates a chaotic scenario ideal for recruitment, indoctrination, and the export of Islamic Revolution. Despite Armenia’s interest in Iran’s drones and participation in Iran’s drone tournament, it still has a long way to go before being competitive with Azerbaijan’s modernized military. Regional integration may be the only way Yerevan can avoid falling prey to Iran’s self-serving hegemonic ambitions. In light of these developments, the increasingly complicated regional dynamics in the South Caucasus call for strong mediation and diplomatic incentives by credible actors. Russia has initially picked up that mantle, but as a result of losing power and having had to recalculate its presence in Ukraine, has become less of a regional presence. The European Union has tried to take over the mediation effort. For a while, this initiative appeared to be gaining some steam; however, the political ambitions of President Macron in France had gotten in the way, disrupting the mutually acceptable format. Macron, having suffered political losses in West Africa, and having met similar defeat to his vision of restoring broad French influence in the Middle East, has put South Caucasus as a relatively easy target due to the significance of the French Armenian diaspora. At Macron’s urging, PM Pashinyan demanded the presence of France in the room at the mediated talks with Azerbaijan, which Baku rejected. With Brussels having failed at enforcing unity, Washington, despite domestic political disarray and assorted foreign policy conflicts of interests, is becoming more active on the mediation stage, with various officials traveling back and forth to and from South Caucasus and Washington, and assorted talks being held at various locations. Still, unless Washington is willing to dedicate the time, effort, resources, and political consideration necessary to resolve the conflict, this effort will suffer yet another predictable defeat due to the proliferation of intervening factors, and apparent lack of political will among some of the participants.