Can Iran Push Russia to Action in the South Caucasus?

Yeghia Tashjian
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Moscow and Tehran’s mutual ally, Armenia, is feeling the pressure of NATO-backed Azerbaijan’s assault on its sovereignty. It is in both countries’ geopolitical and security interests not to allow Yerevan to fall

Azerbaijan’s latest aggression against Armenia comes as no surprise to South Caucasus watchers. Baku’s attacks on several provinces along Armenia’s eastern border last week follow Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s “war of words” against Yerevan, openly declaring his ambitions to annex the southern Armenian territory abutting Iran.

While both sides blame each other for the provocations that have left hundreds dead, these military clashes represent the worst violence between the two countries since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ended in Azerbaijan’s favor.

Baku justified its aggression on the grounds that Armenia hadn’t signed a peace treaty recognizing Azerbaijan’s “territorial integrity” (that is, recognizing the predominantly-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan) or provided a “corridor” in the south connecting Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave.

Azerbaijani media outlets and parliamentarians such as Ziyafat Asgarov and Elman Mammadov began calling for the establishment of “security zones” and “buffer zones” within Armenian territory, with the aim of neutralizing the latter’s army and establishing the proposed “corridor” inside Armenia.

On 10 September, Azerbaijan’s defense minister instructed his army to maintain combat readiness to “suppress any Armenian provocations.” Three days later, Azerbaijan launched full-scale aggression on Armenia’s eastern border using special forces, Israeli and Turkish-made drones, and artillery strikes against military and civilian targets alike. Azerbaijani forces also occupied strategic positions near Armenia’s southern border.

It is worth mentioning that Azerbaijani artillery strikes also targeted Russian border guards in the Gegharkunik region on the Russian border, forcing them to retreat as their facilities and vehicles came under intense fire.

So what has surprised many observers – not least in Armenia – is Russia’s passive response to this round of border clashes. Yerevan is a member of the Russian-led defense pact, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which has thus refused to intervene and come to Armenia’s aid.

Geopolitical shifts and the balance of power 

Despite the very local territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, their conflict must not be viewed as an ordinary rivalry between two neighboring states. These clashes, in fact, are of geopolitical significance both regionally and internationally, and are shaped by current events in Ukraine and around Iran.

In early September, Russia experienced military setbacks in Ukraine, as NATO member states flooded the Ukrainian army and volunteer militias with heavy arms, supplies, and assistance. Targeting bridges in Russian-held zones and blocking supply routes, Russian forces were compelled to withdraw to prevent themselves from being encircled and overwhelmed.

As Ukrainian forces re-captured key strategic towns, it fed the western perception of a tactical victory over Moscow. Though such small military operations are unlikely to decide the outcome of the war – as was seen by Russian counter-offensives in the following days – the view took that Moscow will be indefinitely stuck in the “Ukrainian mud.”

Taking advantage of Russia’s perceived setbacks in Ukraine, and the European Union’s (EU) desperate need for alternative gas supplies, Azerbaijan ingratiated itself with both sides: striking a gas deal with the EU, continuing arms transfers to Ukraine, and opening negotiations with Moscow to gain ‘observer status’ in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Russia’s reliance on Turkey

Other regional geopolitical shifts have given Azerbaijan the impression that it has a free hand to exert additional pressure on Armenia, in particular the Russian-Turkish “coopetition.” Whereas this asymmetric relationship clearly once leaned heavily in Moscow’s favor, the ongoing Ukraine crisis and Ankara’s increasing tensions with Washington have recalibrated that balance, arguably in Turkey’s favor.

Moscow’s political dependency comes at a time when Turkey perceives itself as an equal partner in regional affairs that include Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have another obstacle ahead: Turkey’s 2023 presidential and general elections threaten to unseat longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in favor of the more NATO-inclined opposition, potentially upending all the regional arrangements negotiated between Turkey and Russia.

It is within these contexts, that Russia has been reluctant to assist its main ally in the South Caucasus, Armenia, which is under constant fire and pressure from both Baku and Ankara. Putin’s hesitancy to support Yerevan also may be down to his distrust of the existing Armenian administration.

Some Russian experts believe that Yerevan is quietly engaging with the west to sign a “peace treaty” with Azerbaijan that will remove Russian peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of the 2020 war. Yerevan denies such accusations, while many government officials feel abandoned by Moscow to face the Turkish-Azerbaijani assault alone.

It is allegedly one of the reasons behind US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hurried visit to Armenia on 17 September: To advance a US-brokered peace treaty that would give the west unimpeded access – via Turkey – to the Caspian Sea, where it can more easier confront Iran and Russia.

Iran refuses to be ‘encircled’

Iran has occasionally sent warnings to Azerbaijan that its border with Armenia is a red line. In this respect, Tehran has both geopolitical and geo-economic concerns which reflect its regional and domestic priorities, one of which is the “corridor” in dispute.

While the ninth clause of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire’s statement signed on 9 November, 2020 between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia says that Yerevan will provide a transport route to connect Nakhichevan to the Republic of Azerbaijan for commercial reasons, it does not mention the word “corridor.”

The geo-strategic Zangezur Corridor between Iran and Armenia

Baku, however, has aggressively interpreted this clause as a right to the “Zangezur Corridor,” an Armenian region bordering Iran that geographically separates Azerbaijan from the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. But, by pushing this state-centric narrative of a “corridor,” Baku is not only violating the trilateral statement, but is threatening to violate the territorial integrity of Armenia’s border with Iran, potentially paving the way for pan-Turkic aspirations in northern Iran.

This would have serious geo-economic consequences for Tehran, as it will be losing its transit role in the region, which the Iranian authorities take very seriously. Speaking to The Cradle, Dr. Ehsan Movahedian, Professor of International Relations at the ATU University in Tehran, said that Azerbaijan’s corridor access is supported by NATO (including Turkey) and Israel.

Dr Movahedian calls it “NATO’s Turanic corridor” which not only aims to contain Iran but also other Eurasian powers such as Russia and China. The Iranian scholar argues that, economically, the route is also a direct threat to the North-South corridor and threatens to replace the Iranian gas pipelines to Nakhchivan with gas pipelines from Azerbaijan and Central Asia. This will leave Iran without its crucial trade and energy transit role in the region.

Pan-Turkic plans across Asia

Iranians believe that in the future, Ankara may take provocative steps to impede the export of Iranian goods via Turkey. If it loses its border with Armenia, Iran’s trade with Europe and Eurasia will be at the mercy of Turkish and Azerbaijani trade routes.

This, in turn, will bolster Ankara’s and Baku’s economic and political leverage over Tehran, paving the way for pan-Turkic secessionist movements in northern Iran. Dr. Movahedian says the creation of this corridor could mobilize pan-Turkic aspirations not just in northern Iran, but also increase Turkey’s support and NATO’s penetration to the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, extending to the Uyghur populations in China’s Xinjiang province.

Tellingly, many Azerbaijani media outlets have called for the establishment of secessionist Azeri movements in northern Iran. These narratives are backed by Israeli diplomats, which is expected, given the close, collaborative ties between Baku and Tel Aviv. Azerbaijani websites have also raised the possibility that Baku could offer up its airspace for Israeli jets to enter Iranian territory or send Israeli special units to Iran.

Will Iran push Russia to act?

While Iran has traditionally supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity – even in disputes with close ally Armenia – Tehran  cannot remain passive watching its northern neighbor effectively besieged and overwhelmed by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and their allies. The loss of Armenia as a deterrent buffer state against the Pan-Turkic project will be catastrophic for Iran’s territorial integrity.

There is a clear western agenda to isolate Iran and to limit its influence in West Asia. Iran’s silence in the South Caucasus will be translated into a sign of weakness and may have a domino effect in the wider region.

What is needed now is another Qassem Suleimani, the late head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force who personally flew to Moscow and convinced President Putin to intervene in Syria, preventing the state from total collapse.

Iran, Armenia’s only regional partner, must convince Russia that its short-term energy objectives in the South Caucasus and its policy of appeasing Turkey may backfire on Moscow by turning Armenia into another Ukraine. Hence, Russia must draw its red lines in the region and prevent the establishment of this Pan-Turkic project.

Wary of the Armenian administration’s ‘pro-west’ orientation, Moscow has thus far assumed a passive posture, which in turn has contributed to anti-Russian sentiments in Yerevan – with many questioning the effectiveness of the CSTO military alliance.

Washington is taking full advantage of these sentiments by dispatching Pelosi to Armenia in a show of “support for the country.” The US is eager for a diplomatic solution to the crisis – not in support of Armenia, but to advance a ‘peace treaty’ between Yerevan and Baku, ultimately intended to expel the Russians from this critical geopolitical arena.

Armenia is caught in the crossfire of an intense great power competition, acting as the only natural obstacle against pan-Turkic aspirations. If Aliyev and Erdogan’s regional ambitions are not halted, the ethno-national carnage will expand beyond the South Caucasus – which suits the US just fine.

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