By Paul Goble
In Baku, the governments of Azerbaijan and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the opening of a transportation and communication corridor passing between Azerbaijan proper and its Nakhichevan autonomy some five kilometers south of the border between Armenia and Iran.
Because this route in fact duplicates the one that was agreed to by Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020 but about the opening of which no progress has been made, Azerbaijani officials say that it has the potential to become “a sensation” for the entire region (azertag.az/ru/xeber/Novyi_koridor_cherez_Iran_i_ruhnuvshie_nadezhdy_Armenii-2049767).
On the one hand, it means that Azerbaijan and beyond it Turkey gain the land link they have long sought between the exclave and Azerbaijan proper. And on the other, it reduces the leverage Yerevan and behind it Moscow have on Baku on other matters including Qarabagh and the Lachin corridor, even as it involves Iran more deeply in the region.
By the MOU, the two sides committed themselves to prepare within a month a formal agreement about the opening of highways and railways through this corridor and complete the necessary work on bridges and roadways as rapidly as possible over the course of the next year or so.
Azertag pointed out that “this new corridor has as its goal not simply connecting Nakhichevan with the rest of Azerbaijan but it will become part of a region-wide transportation and logistical structure linking in a broader sense East and West and Europe and Asia” and that “it will completely change the entire regional transportation architecture.”
Three things remain to be seen. First, how will the West, which has long sought to isolate Iran, react. But because Baku and Tehran say they will finance the necessary infrastructure in the corridor on their own, the ability of any outside power to block the opening of the corridor is limited.
Second, how will Moscow react. Will it seek to cause trouble among the ethnic Azerbaijanis of Northern Iran to get Tehran to back off, or will it instead accept this loss of its leverage because it has lost the whip hand on this issue, one it thought it had gained after the 2020 war.
And third, will this corridor open the door for broader cooperation between Azerbaijan and Iran, something that would allow Baku to continue to pursue its multi-vector foreign policy but that would almost inevitably raise questions in Western capitals about Azerbaijan’s readiness to work with the West on Iran.