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Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010

Iran’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has always been more complicated than suggested by its image in the outside world. The millenarian Islamic Republic favouring an avowedly Christian state in a dispute with its predominantly Shiite Muslim neighbour seems like an unlikely situation. But since the war in the early 1990s, Iran has been pre-disposed towards supporting Armenia over Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue. Iranian attempts to broker a ceasefire in 1992 failed and, shortly after, Armenian forces captured Shusha and Lachin, leading to doubts in Azerbaijan about Iran’s commitment.

Subsequently, Tehran has publicly expressed a neutral and balanced approach to the conflict. However, it has built a strong economic alliance with Yerevan. Iran supplies Armenia with significant volumes of its natural gas, and is its sole supplier aside from Russia. It has also helped to construct hydro-electric dams on the Araz river between the two states.

Iranian support of Armenia is largely due to strategic balancing. The huge population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran’s north-western provinces have always been seen as a potential secessionist threat by Tehran. This is notwithstanding the high positions which many Azerbaijanis have reached in Iran (even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ethnically Azerbaijani).

Tehran seems to believe that if Azerbaijan regained Karabakh and the surrounding regions, it could potentially provoke an upsurge of nationalist feeling in the north-western provinces of Iran. The status quo is preferable. Tehran has also been angered by competition with Baku over disputed Caspian oil and gas resources, and by Azerbaijan’s growing ties with the West and with Israel.

As the facts on the ground change, Iran is forced to adapt its policy accordingly. When the negotiations on the Madrid Principles (a framework for resolving the Karabakh conflict, envisaging Armenia’s initial withdrawal from some of the occupied lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh itself in exchange for security guarantees) intensified, Tehran reiterated its willingness to mediate.

Iranian diplomats have repeatedly criticised the OSCE’s Minsk Group of Russia, France and the US for failing to resolve the conflict after 18 years. This is hardly a rare (or unjustified) criticism. However, Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan Muhammad Bagir Bahrami also suggested that these non-regional countries “are only pursuing their own agendas and view the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as a means of furthering their own interests." (RIA Novosti, February 1).

Exactly what those interests are is not made clear, but the insistence on a regional solution indicates Iran’s deep concern over peacekeeping forces in Karabakh, one of the conditions of the Madrid Principles.

Given Iran’s deeply antagonistic relationship with the West, the deployment of international military forces – probably from the OSCE - just a few miles from its northern border would provoke serious concern and add to Tehran’s fear of encirclement (US troops are already to the west in Iraq; the east in Afghanistan; the south-west in the Gulf; and the north-east in Central Asia).

The reactions of Yerevan and Baku to Iran’s mediation offer have been mixed. As analyst Mina Muradova observes, the ongoing tensions between Azerbaijan and Turkey over the Armenia-Turkey thaw has raised serious concerns in Baku about Turkey’s reliance as a positive influence in Nagorno-Karabakh (Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, March 18). This may have led it to reappraise Iran’s suitability as a mediator, although for now it remains publicly cautious.

Iran has significant leverage over Armenia, in this case due to its strategic economic alliance. Armenia has been more willing than Azerbaijan, historically, to consider Iranian mediation. In January Robert Kocharian, the former Armenian president, made a trip to Iran in which he met President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (RFE/RL, January 25). Although described as a ‘private visit’, there was significant speculation that the former Armenian leader was seeking to quietly encourage Iran to make more active efforts in Karabakh.

Nonetheless, the possibility of Iranian mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains remote. None of the other players involved in the conflict would be willing to accept Tehran having anything more than an informal role. This reluctance extends beyond Europe and the US. Russia’s growing irritation with its southern neighbour would lead to serious disapproval on any actions which looked as if they intruded in Russia’s sphere of influence. 

And even Turkey – for all Prime Minister Erdogan’s regular comments about his country’s friendship with Iran – would be alarmed by Iranian encroachment into Turkey’s difficult eastern neighbourhood, especially when the thaw with Armenia is under a number of complex pressures.

Iran’s enthusiasm for mediating in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is also an attempt to restore some geopolitical prestige at a time when it is under serious external pressure. As the diplomatic screws tighten over its nuclear programme, expect to see it becoming more and more active in its attempts to broker a peace.

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