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The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008

The latest craze in Eurasia – conflict mediation – showed no signs of letting up last week. A new round of negotiations began in Geneva between Russia and Georgia under the auspices of the UN, EU and OSCE – the talks were described as ‘constructive’. No real progress was publicly announced, although the OSCE Chairman insisted that the discussions “have entered an operational phase”. The two sides will meet again in mid-December for a further round of talks, at which there is likely to be a far greater sense of urgency for two reasons. Firstly, the bitterness of winter will require a real solution to the refugee problem, particularly in Georgia, where opposition to the government is already on the rise. Secondly, by the time of the next round of talks, NATO will have made a decision regarding Georgian (and Ukrainian) membership. In the unlikely event that the Alliance makes a strong statement in favour of membership, Russia will not be so cordial. For now, the simple fact of getting the conflicting parties talking in the same room was praiseworthy, which just goes to show how badly the Moscow-Tbilisi relationship has broken down.  The mediators may not be able to provide a solution to the crisis, but their technical capacities on the ground, and their ability to promote dialogue between parties who would otherwise be unlikely to talk directly, should be welcomed. 

Iran has also offered its services as a mediator this week, in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is hardly the first time that Tehran has suggested that it could be a useful partner in the peace process, but the latest offer – by the Iranian ambassador to Baku Naser Hamidi Zareh – was forthright in its criticism of the OSCE’s Minsk Group format, the official negotiating platform. Trust in “superpowers” (ie, the US) to solve the region’s problems had been lost, said the ambassador.

Tehran seems extremely eager to help in Karabakh, which probably reflects its frustration at its exclusion from the new mediation drive after the Georgian war. Not that an ulterior motive is entirely necessary: the Islamic Republic must have no interest in seeing a war on its northern border, and its proposal this week, like a similar one in October, is to an extent opportunistic, seeking to capitalise on the stimulated peace process by adding Tehran’s leverage. However it is clear that the mediation offer is part of a broader strategy to solidify Iranian influence in the Caucasus, a point Stephen Blank has recently made. For example, this week the Azeri deputy foreign minister was in Iran, where he and Iranian foreign minister Manuchohr Mottaki discussed Azerbaijan’s role in the developing North-South economic corridor.                           

Neither Baku nor Yerevan are likely to welcome the mediation offer, however, for much the same reasons as they have turned down previous peacemaking efforts from the Islamic Republic. For all the flaws of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, the process has a degree of international legitimacy that Iranian mediation would not possess. The historical complications of Iran’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict arouse suspicions in both countries – in Azerbaijan for Tehran’s close ties with Yerevan and its perceived support of Armenia during the war, and in Armenia for a fear that Iran’s energy interests could possibly lead it to favour Azerbaijan over Armenia. At the same time, Armenia seems to prefer a Russian-led mediation out of belief that Moscow can maximally guarantee the Armenian interests in a final compromise solution of the conflict.

Interestingly, the ambassador suggested that Iranian mediation could take place “alongside other mediators”. Exactly who these mediators are – given the dismissal of the Minsk Group – was not made clear, but the reference may be to Turkey. The Iranian mediation offer is another sign of how states with stakes in the region have become encouraged by the  seemingly constructive atmosphere (which especially emerged after the South Ossetian War) for a quicker resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, trying to profit maximally from an eventual settlement.

On November 17 Ankara and Tehran signed an accord which provides for Turkish development of Iranian gas fields and the transit of 35 billion cubic metres of Iranian gas to Europe through Turkey. In yet another example of Eurasian conflict mediation this month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested in mid-November that his country could mediate talks between Iran and the incoming Obama administration in Washington. Growing military collaboration between Tehran and Ankara against Kurdish militants is a further example of the current co-operation between the two neighbours. Iran may be indicating to Turkey that it can be a useful partner in the diplomatic sphere, as well as the economic and military spheres.

The Turkish offer to negotiate between the US and Iran got a mixed reception – a Foreign Ministry spokesman cautiously welcomed the suggestion, but the Iranian Ambassador to Ankara told Prime Minister Erdogan that mediation alone was insufficient. The Iranians harbour no illusions about the prospects for negotiation. Turkey may be a respected go-between but it cannot work miracles – especially if Hillary Clinton, notably hawkish on Iran, is appointed as Secretary of State by Mr. Obama. From the American point of view, it may be more fitting to negotiate directly with the Iranian regime, something Mr. Obama has insisted he reserves the right to do, rather than appearing to be coaxed into talks by Ankara.

None of the three mediation efforts discussed above look like yielding much fruit any time soon. The problems at hand are too intractable to be solved by outside powers alone especially when, as with Iran in Karabakh, those outside powers are considered to have suspicious motives. But calls for dialogue, even by states who have little chance of becoming mediators, are better than silence.

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