In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, believes that informing Tehran of the results of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border commission, creating a complementary agreement to clarify Article 9 of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement for clarifying Zangezur corridor and continuing the meeting of 3 + 3 format can reduce Iran’s concerns about the border tensions between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan and also help peace and stability in the South Caucasus.
As a result of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, two important border developments took place in the South Caucasus region. The first development was on the common border of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan. With the return of Jabrail, Fizuli and Zangilan districts in the south of Nagorno-Karabakh to the rule of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 132 km of the Aras River border strip between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan was established. Therefore, Iran’s 750-kilometer border with the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region was completed three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, with the return of Zangilan, Ghobadli, Lachin and Kalbijar in the west and southwest of Nagorno-Karabakh to the rule of the Republic of Azerbaijan, this part of the borders of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan was completed after three decades.
However, there was no particular problem in determining the 132-kilometer border between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan after the Second Karabakh War, and the process of completing the Khoda Afarin Dam and its power plant, which was located on the same 132-kilometer border, began with the participation of Iran and Azerbaijan. But the definition of the new borders of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan due to the long-standing tensions between the two countries and the ambiguities of the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement, especially in Article 9 regarding the access route of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, has caused conflict between the two countries. However, for the various reasons and evidence that will be mentioned below, the differences and border tensions between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia are not limited to the two countries and their scope and dimensions include Iran. For this reason, the Iranian government has been closely following these developments over the past year. An important part of the media space and the Iranian elite have also been aware of the issue of border developments and communication lines in the north-western borders of the country. However, the question is what are Iran’s perceptions of the border tensions between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia? How does Iran view these developments? And what issues have caused concern for Iran?
Iran’s first perception and concern is the negative impact of tensions and border disputes between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia on the transit route of Iran through Armenia. The problems that have occurred for Iranian trucks on the Goris-Qapan road is a clear example of this concern. A problem that did not exist before the Second Karabakh War, but in the post-war space created problems for Iran’s transit. In fact, 21 km of the 400 km route from Norduz on the border with Iran to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, enters the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan after the Second Karabakh War; but prior to last year’s war, the 21-kilometer route was under the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Republic of Artsakh), so Iranian drivers had no problems traveling between Armenia and Georgia. However, this situation changed after the Second Karabakh War, and the Azerbaijani government, arguing that part of the 21-kilometer Goris-Qapan road is located in the country, demanded $ 130 tolls for Iranian transit trucks. In response, the Iranian government decided to define alternative routes to prevent the disruption of Iranian transit and trade with Armenia, Georgia, Russia and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The first alternative land corridor is the Tatev–Aghvani route, which entirely bypasses Azerbaijani territory. Iran has announced it would complete the unfinished portion of this road inside Armenia. Iran’s second reaction to the Azerbaijani restrictions placed on the Goris–Kapan highway was to strengthen the Caspian Sea as a maritime alternative to the north-south land route across Azerbaijan to Russia.
In this regard, in the first phase, six lines were launched from the northern ports of Iran to the ports of Astrakhan and Makhachkala in Russia, as well as the port of Aktau in Kazakhstan as of October 23. In the second phase, by the end of the current Iranian calendar year (late March 2022), the number of these lines will increase to eight. The problem on the Goris-Qapan road clearly showed that the differences and border tensions between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia are not limited to the two countries and its scope and dimensions include Iran.
Iran’s second perception and concern is the negative impact of tensions and border disputes between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia on the international border in the Caucasus, especially the 38-kilometer border between Iran and Armenia. The main reason for this concern is the decision of the Republic of Azerbaijan to establish a Zangezur corridor to connect the country to the Nakhchivan exclave. The reason for this is the ambiguity and different interpretations of the Armenian and Azeri sides of Article 9 of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement on November 10, 2020. The interpretation and reasoning of the Azeri is a “broad and maximum interpretation” and in this regard, Baku believes that the meaning of “communication between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic” is a corridor and communication corridor called “Zangezur" is mentioned. On the other hand, the Armenian side has a “narrow and minimal interpretation” in this regard and Yerevan believes that the word “corridor” appears only in the third clause of the ceasefire agreement for the access of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia through the “Lachin corridor”. Therefore, according to the lack of explicitness and direct reference in the ninth paragraph of the agreement to words such as “corridor”, it does not consider extending such a concept to the communication route between Nakhchivan exclave and the Republic of Azerbaijan from within the territory of Armenia. What has caused concern and concern in Iran is the passage of this corridor near the border between Iran and Armenia in the city of Meghri in the south of the Syunik province of Armenia. The military threats of the Republic of Azerbaijan to establish a corridor of force have also increased Iran’s concerns. For example, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during an interview with Azerbaijani Public TV on April 21, 2021 said: “The creation of the Zangezur corridor fully meets our national, historical and future interests. We will be implementing the Zangezur Corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not’, ‘If Armenia wants to, we will solve this issue more easily, if it does not, we will solve it by force”.
Under such circumstances, Tehran is concerned about a new war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan near Iran’s north-western borders. Iran was the only country whose borders were directly affected by the Second Karabakh War and several rockets and mortar shells inadvertently landed inside Iran, especially in the village of Khoda Afarin, in Eastern Azerbaijan Province, near the Armenia border. Therefore, the situation in Iran is very different from Georgia, Turkey and Russia, which are far from the disputed region of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia and the Zangezur corridor in Syunik province. For this reason, Iran views the “new war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan”, “creation of a corridor by force”, and “threaten the Iranian-Armenian border” as threat to its national security. Of course, it should be noted that Iran, like Armenia, does not oppose the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan exclave and supports the lifting of the blockade of communication routes in the region. In particular, Iran is the only country that borders both parts of the mainland of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, and after the First Karabakh War, Iranian territory has been a transit route for citizens and trucks between the two parts of Azerbaijan. Therefore, Iran’s concern is not due to the direct connection between Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan exclave and goes back to the cases mentioned.
Iran’s third perception and concern is geopolitical change and the balance of power in the region that can threaten and weaken Iran in the South Caucasus. In the context of this “big picture”, Iran considers the role of Turkey, Israel and the United States very important and influential. From this point of view, Iran, unlike Russia and other countries, does not look at the tensions in the South Caucasus only as a “border tension” between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Sadollah Zaraei’s article in the Kayhan newspaper, the most conservative Iranian newspaper, entitled “Iran does not tolerate border changes”, which was published after the problems of the Goris-Kapan road in October 2021, clearly shows this attitude. Part of this article states: “Developments on Iran’s northwestern border can have a major impact on the political weight of Iran and Russia in developments in the Caucasus region and beyond. What is now being seen on Iran’s north-western borders is the formation of an invisible alliance between the United States, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Zionist regime, and its goal is to bring about a geopolitical shift with strategic consequences against Iran and Russia”.
In this regard, Iran sees the creation of the Zangezur corridor as a matter beyond the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan exclave and believes that this corridor will provide direct military access for Turkey as a NATO member in the Caucasus and west of the Caspian Sea. Indeed, a significant number of Iranian elites and experts believe that the expansion of Turkey’s presence in the South Caucasus, especially through the Zangezur corridor, will strengthen pan-Turkism in the region, which is a direct threat to the Azeri regions of north-western Iran. In addition, Iran is deeply concerned about Israel’s presence near its north-western border, given the close ties between Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which developed greatly during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. In particular, Iran concerns about the possible presence and participation of Israeli companies in the process of the reconstruction of the liberated areas near the Iranian border – that is to say, the regions of Fuzuli, Jabrayil, and Zangilan. Iran has reasonable fears this could provide space and possibility for espionage and other security actions against Iran’s national interests and security. For this reason, Iran has repeatedly warned of the presence of Israel near its borders. In the last reaction, Hussein Amir-Abdollahian said at a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on 6 October 2021 that “The Islamic Republic of Iran is deeply concerned by Israel’s presence in the Caucasus”.
Iran’s forth perception and concern is the presence of terrorist and takfiri forces outside the region, especially in Syria, which is sometimes referred to as the “proxy forces”. During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Iranian officials, in parallel with supporting the return of the surrounding areas of Nagorno-Karabakh to the rule of the Republic of Azerbaijan, expressed strong concern about the presence of terrorist forces, especially ISIS members, near Iran’s borders. One year after the war, Iran’s concerns have not been resolved. In this regard, Iran believes that the outbreak of another war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, especially over the Zangezur Corridor, could lead to the entry of proxy forces into the region that their anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite orientation in Iraq and Syria was very clear. Therefore, beyond a border tension between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran is concerned about a “proxy war” with the participation of “proxy forces” near its north-western borders.
The sum of the issues raised shows that Iran’s perceptions and concerns about the border tensions between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia are beyond a border dispute between the two countries. The massive manoeuvres of Iran’s Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Iran’s north-western border in September and October 2021, unprecedented in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, should be a sign of the level and depth of Iran’s concerns about developments in the southern Caucasus. This manoeuvre showed clearly that Iran’s perception and concern about border tensions between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan is different from the perceptions of Russia, Georgia and Turkey. However, in some cases, including the presence of terrorist forces, there are similarities between the perceptions of Iran and Russia.
However, what is the way to reduce Iran’s worries and concerns? Ongoing negotiations between Iran and countries in the region can be the first step in reducing Iran’s concerns. Iran should be continuously informed of the results of the border commission talks between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan that held at the recent Sochi summit. Indeed, the ambiguities of Article 9 of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement should also be resolved by a “complementary agreement” in order to avoid two different interpretations by Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan. This agreement should answer the question of which areas of the Syunik province of Armenia should pass through the access route of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan? Which country owns this communication route? Is this route military or civilian? Is it domestic or international? The parties to the agreement must also assure the Iranian government that the establishment of this communication route will not pose a threat to the Iranian-Armenian border and that the free flow of transit and passengers through this border will continue. In this regard, the first meeting in the 3+3 regional cooperation format kicked off in Moscow on December 10, 2021, which was unfortunately held without the presence of the representatives of Georgia, is a positive step forward. Peaceful settlement of tensions between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, removal of ambiguity from the ninth paragraph of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement and transparency on the Zangezur corridor can be among the future decisions of this format, which will certainly reduce Tehran’s concerns. It will be in the south of the Caucasus region and the north-western borders of Iran.