Iran’s Opportunity to Play More Active Role in Karabakh

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Elyas Vahedi
Turkey & Caucasus Affairs Expert

Active ImageAt the beginning of Karabakh dispute, Iran remained impartial by recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Iran’s attempt to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan failed as a result of various reasons including Armenia’s noncompliance with its commitments. Armenia then moved to occupy other parts of Azerbaijan. As a result, anti-Iranian sentiments heightened in the Azerbaijan Republic and the situation was further exacerbated following expansion of relations between Tehran and Yerevan. Extremist ethic groups in Azerbaijan raised baseless claims against national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran and diplomatic efforts failed to reduce tension between two neighboring countries which share a host of religious and cultural commonalities. Baku’s inclination to expand relations with the United States and Israel further intensified tensions. At present, the Azerbaijan Republic is disillusioned with the west, especially the United States, and this is a good opportunity for Iran to bank on its immense potentials and fill the existing void in Azerbaijan. On the other side, the Azeri government is also relatively ready to mend fences with Iran. Azerbaijan’s foreign minister has noted that his country seeks imminent peace in South Caucasus. He added that Iran is one of the countries present in that region and peace in South Caucasus is also of import to Iran. “We hail efforts made by all countries, including Iran, which will lead to liberation of Azerbaijani lands and return of refugees to their homeland.” Although that readiness hinges on the recognition of Azerbaijan’s national interests, it is opportune because the government of Armenia has rejected Iran’s mediation.

Possible scenarios
Although representatives of member states of Minsk Group have been trying to make the world believe that the situation in Karabakh is promising, they have also noted that the past opportunities are lost. The Russian representative has confirmed Azerbaijan president’s remarks in this regard. It seems that Minsk Group is no more considered legitimate by the public opinion in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Therefore, its survival, which is vital for protection of national interests of member states in South Caucasus, hinges on pretending that vain efforts made by the group are positive and fruitful. At present, the peace process in Karabakh is closely related to normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia and Armenia is faced with opportunities which can also pose threats to its national interests. On the one hand, giving concessions in Karabakh will be ensued with closer relations with the west and subsequent economic prerogatives. On the other hand, by insisting on the adamant position of the past, Yerevan will gain credit with the Armenian diaspora in Karabakh, but it will also risk economic problems and even a possible military attack by Azerbaijan to reclaim Karabakh. The process of détente between Armenia and Turkey offers Azerbaijan with an opportunity to end the crisis in Karabakh. If that opportunity is lost, Baku will be facing problems as a military option will be then compulsory and, of course, costly, let alone that its success is contingent at best. Perhaps, having powerful allies such as Iran and Russia on its side and making the most of Turkey’s support are high on the list of Baku’s priorities which will also increase its bargaining power in future regional arrangements.

In general, three scenarios are possible to find a solution to Karabakh contention.

Scenario No. 1: In this state, Karabakh crisis will be totally or partially solved followed by normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia. As a result, Turkey and Azerbaijan will be the main winners while the United States will achieve the goal of consolidating its domination over Armenia and South Caucasus. Russia, which will be the apparent loser, can be assuaged by offering agreements and other concessions by Turkey, the United States and Azerbaijan. This will increase the United States’ regional influence, but neither Turkey, nor Azerbaijan will be as dependent on the United States as they already were provided that they strengthen strategic relations with Iran and Russia and pursue independent policies toward Washington.

Scenario No. 2: This scenario envisages rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia without a final solution to Karabakh problem and with no progress in peace negotiations. In this state, Armenia will be the main winner and the United States and Europe will be more content compared to the first scenario in the short run because they will dominate Armenia at a lower cost and satisfy the Christian world and the Armenian minority living in the western countries. In the long run, however, they will lose economic interests in Azerbaijan. Armenia will be no longer a barrier to Turkey’s accession to the European Union, but Ankara will gradually lose Baku as a regional ally. Thus, Azerbaijan will become more inclined toward Russia and Iran and will ask for help from Russia in its possible military action. That request is very probable to receive a positive answer from Moscow. Although Iran and Russia will secure their foothold in Azerbaijan, the risk of war will make the region insecure and increase presence of transregional powers.

Scenario No. 3: The present situation will continue, though under new conditions. If the United States and other members of Minsk Group do nothing in Karabakh to appease Azerbaijan, Baku will become more distrustful of such efforts and may refuse to cooperate with the group, focusing instead on other countries, especially Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Russia and Iran enjoy high potentials due to geographical proximity to Armenia and Turkey is still trusted by Azerbaijan. Of course, its mediatory role in solving Karabakh problem will be limited in the absence of détente with Armenia because Yerevan is sure to oppose Turkey’s mediation.

When evaluating the situation in Karabakh from the angle of Iran’s national interests, one can say that the present situation is suitable for Iran to make up for past oversights and improve its standing in South Caucasus. Given powerful potentials and available grounds for improvement of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, if Tehran took optimal advantage of the present circumstances, bilateral relations could be taken to a higher level away from their currently feeble status which is marked by complaints from both sides. Readiness of Baku to accept Iran’s mediation in Karabakh contention as well as direct and indirect positive remarks made by Azeri officials to this effect offers Iran with a good opportunity. Despite economic dependence on Iran, Armenia has refused Iran’s mediation after seeing the first signs of possible détente with the west through Turkey and has moved to choose between Iran and the west sooner than was originally expected. Therefore, adoption of a new approach by Iran which would guarantee its role in future developments of Karabakh in addition to using available means of making Yerevan give in to regional equations, will help Tehran to regain its deserved position in that region. This does not mean that Iran should become a member of Minsk Group which has been proven inefficient since many years ago. A country like Iran, with so many advantages can play its role without having to become a member to official treaties and agreements. Since relations between Iranian and Azeri nongovernmental organizations are currently less than optimal, especially when it comes to media, the first step should be confidence building followed by an upturn in media and civil cooperation between two neighboring countries in order to reduce the existing media tension. Iranian and Azeri governments can greatly facilitate this process.

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