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Armenia-Iran: Yerevan needs a decision on the “Karabakh finish”

The Armenian authorities are looking forward to President Rouhani’s visit to Yerevan. Today, Armenia is forming a new government and a visit by the head of Iran (a country where the offices of the president and the prime minister are combined) will be one more courtesy on Tehran’s part.

Some Iranian diplomats expect this visit to be decisive for further Armenian-Iranian relations. Here the focus is on trade and economic ties and particularly on the Armenia-Iran railway project.

But today Armenia is facing a situation when it also needs Iran’s political support. One of its key problems is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

It is not yet known when exactly Rouhani is going to visit Armenia. The Iranian authorities say he will do it soon. So, the Armenians have little time to make it clear to the Iranians what their final goal on Nagorno-Karabakh is.

In his last interview to Radio Liberty, former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan said that in Key West in 2001 the sides negotiated a scenario stipulating Nagorno-Karabakh’s unification with Armenia.

President Sargsyan and his team are evading the question if Armenia wants Nagorno-Karabakh to be independent or to be part of it. In our previous articles we mentioned the fact that some of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, the United State and France) see the latter scenario as the best solution, this implying that Nagorno-Karabakh join Armenia within the boundaries of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (which was part of the former Azerbaijani SSR) and will have a land corridor with it. This would solve a lot of problems. Most importantly, this would guarantee a long-term settlement and no new conflict in the years to come.

Iran is also interested in such an outcome and even though it is not a “legitimate” mediator, it’s voice cannot be ignored. This is why Armenia is becoming more and more honest with Iran concerning its vision of the “Karabakh finish.”

Iran’s approach towards this problem is known: a peaceful settlement based on the principles of the international law. And Iran is always ready to help.

It’s first attempt to help the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to resolve their conflict failed. On May 7, 1992, the presidents of Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a joint statement saying that within a week the Iranian president’s special envoy Mahmoud Vaezi (1) would have to visit the region and to negotiate with the conflicting parties and the latter would have to cease fire and reopen all roads.

This initiative was wrecked on the very next day when the Armenians captured Shushi and destroyed the Azerbaijanis’ key foothold in the region (2). The Iranians still remember that failure and have adopted a special approach to this problem.

When in May 1994 the conflicting sides signed a cease-fire agreement, they renewed their attempts to mediate. One of them was made together with the Russians on 1997. Once the OSCE formed a Minsk Group comprising Russia, the United States and France, the Iranians stopped their intermediary efforts. Although they were skeptical about the group, it is known that before the Kocharyan-Aliyev meeting in Key West, the international mediators consulted with them.

Iran has borders with all the conflicting sides. This is why it is a strong advocate of peace and no more war in the area.

The experience of uneasy neighborhood with Afghanistan and Iraq urges Iran to seek peace along its northern border. This is why the Iranians were among the most ardent pacifiers during the four-day April war in Nagorno-Karabakh – especially as a couple of bombs blew up in their territory.

A new war in Nagorno-Karabakh, irrespective of its results, would make Azerbaijan even more dependent on Turkey. This is not what Iran wants. The Turks already have a task force in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan and active intelligence in the southern Azerbaijani provinces. Iran’s special services have done all their can to curb the plan for “reunification of two Azerbaijans.” But if the Nagorno-Karabakh war resumes, it may come back to life.

One more good circumstance for Iran is the presence of Russian troops in the Armenian town of Meghri on the Armenian-Iranian border as they are part of the “security belt” that separates the Turkish-Azerbaijani condominium in Nakhichevan with the “mainland” Azerbaijan.

A new war in Nagorno-Karabakh would have two possible outcomes for the Iranians. The current cease-fire is giving them time to focus on priorities like Iraq and Syria. The Iranians are improving their relations with the West and are considering an anti-terror alliance with Russia. A renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh may ruin these processes to the benefit of Turkey.

One more solution for Iran is to mediate a compromise between Yerevan (Stepanakert) and Baku. This would pave way for long-term peace and new regional projects and would help Iran to realize its plan to connect Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia with a Persian Gulf-Black Sea trans-border transport corridor.

Should Nagorno-Karabakh join Armenia and should the “security belt” territories be given back to Azerbaijan, Iran would have long-term peace guarantees in the region. This would enhance the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and would curb Azerbaijan’s pro-NATO and pro-Turkey drift. For Russia this would be a guarantee of Azerbaijan’s non-bloc status. Here the Russians and the Iranians have common goals. Continued arms deliveries to Azerbaijan – despite Armenia’s fair displeasure – help Russia to keep the Azerbaijanis away from NATO – as the Alliance will hardly admit a country where 85-90% of arms are from Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was one of those who wished to see Armenia strong. The Iranians will hardly have any problems with the Armenians in the near future, which is not the case with Azerbaijan. And even though officially the Iranians say that the “security belt” must be given back to Azerbaijan, they will be the first to claim guarantees should the Armenians go away from that zone.

For Iran strong Armenia will always be a regional counterbalance to Azerbaijan with its Turkey-fueled ambitions and attempts to get influence in Iran’s northern provinces. One more thing the Iranians do not like is Azerbaijan’s stable military-political contacts with Israel. This is one more argument for them to neglect the presence of Armenian troops along the “security belt.”

So, Armenia’s key priority before Rouhani’s visit should be to highlight the key points on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians are already considering reviewing the existing basis of the peace process. But what they in Iran and Russia really want is not ambiguous allusions to Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence but a clear vision of the final goal of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process – unification of two Armenian republics.

(1) In 1988—1999 Mahmoud Vaezi was Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister. In the early 1990s he coordinated Iran’s intermediary efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2013 he was appointed as Communication and Information Technologies Minister of Iran.

(2) During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1992−1994 Iran was faced with a dilemma whom to support. Here it faced constant pressure from its Azerbaijani community, especially when the Azerbaijani army suffered defeats. (Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis // Contested Borders in the Caucasus, (Ed. Bruno Coppetiers), Brussels: VUB Press, 1996).

Vyacheslav Mikhaylov, specially for EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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