By Paul Goble
For 30 years, Moscow has worked to keep the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan going so it can play one side against the other in the South Caucasus to maintain Russia’s dominance there. But this strategy has a limit: Moscow doesn’t want to be drawn into the fighting itself or have outside actors like Turkey, Iran or the West enter the fray.
Russia’s multiple interests reflect its conflicted position, but there is one country in the region that is even more conflicted, although it is typically ignored altogether. That is Iran. When the USSR collapsed, the West successfully excluded Iran from the Minsk Group, even though Tehran has genuine and serious interests in the region.
But if Iran has interests – excluding other outside powers, especially Turkey, maintaining stability in its own backyard, and promoting the expansion of the Shiite Muslim world – it also has serious problems in promoting them because some of its goals conflict with others, Gevorg Mirzayan, an ethnic Armenian specialist on the region at Moscow’s Finance University.
In a commentary for Vzglyad, he notes that “the majority of experts somehow forget that in the list of those who suffer [because of the conflict] is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and that suffering, the result of conflicting goals explains Tehran’s often confusing public positions (vz.ru/opinions/2020/10/7/1063992.html).
According to Mirzayan, “Tehran is trying to sit at one and the same time on several stools, to avoid provoking a rising within its own country, to prevent the Caucasus from falling under Turkish interests, and to avoid being dragged into a war and resolving the Karabakh conflict.”
For Iran, “the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is not a foreign policy issue so much as a domestic one,” the Moscow scholar says. “Almost a quarter of the population of the Islamic Republic consists of ethnic Azerbaijanis” – there are in fact twice as many Azeris in Iran as in Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, Iranian officials began by celebrating Azerbaijani triumphs.
But “on the other hand, an Azerbaijani victory in this war would represent a serious threat to Iran,” not only because it would likely lead to risings among its own Azeris but also to a new effort by Baku to promote “a greater Azerbaijan.” As the Iranians recognize, this is a greater threat to their country than the Americans or the Israelis, Mirzayan argues.
That is because the ayatollahs know that “ethnic nationalism could split the Islamic Republic just as it split at one point the much more ethnically monolithic Soviet Union.” And because that is so, Tehran has not put all its eggs in the Azeri basket but has helped supply Armenia from its territory, unofficially of course and always denied.
But Iran has another foreign policy concern which explains its shift away from backing Azerbaijan at the start of the conflict to a more neutral position now. Tehran fears that an Azerbaijani victory would allow Turkey to expand its influence in the region and thus weaken Iran. Indeed, it views Turkey as one of its mortal enemies.
(A second Vzglyad commentator says that there is yet another reason for Iran’s shift: many in the Iranian capital suspect that Israel has been arming Azerbaijan not so that it can defeat Armenia but so that it will be in a position to put pressure on Iran (vz.ru/world/2020/10/7/1063965.html).
The upshot of this complex of competing interests, Mirzayan argues, is that Tehran has come out in support of a plan very much like the one Moscow is pushing: calling for Armenia to hand over six districts to Azerbaijan but requiring in exchange that Azerbaijan recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as being independent of Baku (ria.ru/20201005/karabakh-1578273339.html).
According to the Moscow analyst, no one can dispute that the Iranian variant … is not only the best but the only basis for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The only problem is that neither the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, nor Armenia, nor Azerbaijan is in agreement with it.” Each expects it can do better by not agreeing but continuing the fight.
The real question now is whether Iran may finally be in a position to help promote such an outcome. It certainly has an interest in ending the conflict without a big victory by either side or by Turkey. And it has leverage because of its land border with Armenia. Whether other powers or the participants will agree to it having a role, however, very much remains to be seen.