Self sabotage: Why is Russia excluding Iran in the South Caucasus?

Yeghia Tashjian, The Cradle, July 21, 2023 —

Russia’s exclusion of Iran from critical ‘tables’ in the South Caucasus has been detrimental for both states, allowing the NATO-aligned Israeli-Turkish-Azerbaijani axis to undermine their national security interests and snatch the regional advantage.

The shift in the South Caucasus’ balance of power after the 10 November, 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire has led to an unfavorable situation not only for Armenia but also for Iran.

Despite Tehran’s proactive engagement in the region, Iranian experts and politicians have expressed frustration over their concerns being disregarded by the Russians who have a peacekeeping presence there as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement.

Some observers have gone as far as publicly criticizing Moscow for working against Iranian interests by collaborating closely with Turkiye while overlooking the encroaching Israeli threat. Consequently, there have been calls for a replication of the joint Russian-Iranian cooperation experience seen in Syria to prevent a “great catastrophe” in the South Caucasus.

Russia and Iran: Diverging Interests in the South Caucasus?

In his article “Russia and Iran Diverge in the South Caucasus,” Iranian South Caucasus expert Vali Kaleji argued that despite Tehran and Moscow’s similar perspective on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two have diverged when it comes to the highly-contentious “Zangezur Corridor,” its impact on the Armenian-Iranian border, and Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan.

Moreover, following the war in Ukraine, Russia has distanced itself from developments in the region, leaving Armenia alone to face the Turkish-Azerbaijani-Israeli axis. This situation has created a security and strategic dilemma for Iran along its entire northwestern border.

According to Kaleji, there are three key points of contention between Tehran and Moscow. First, is Iran’s reservations over the fifth paragraph of the trilateral statement, which calls for the establishment of peacekeeping forces and a Russian-Turkish joint monitoring center in Aghdam. Iran did not participate in this mission, while Turkiye, not explicitly mentioned in the agreement, signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow to establish the joint center. Iran’s exclusion from these decisions, despite Tehran’s national security concerns being directly impacted by the Nagorno-Karabakh war, demonstrated “Russia’s preparedness to disregard Iranian interests” in the region.

Second, there is a disturbing ambiguity from the Kremlin over the establishment of the highly sensitive Zangezur Corridor project. Baku aims to establish an uninterrupted and extraterritorial connection between Azerbaijan proper and the Nakhichevan exclave. Russia’s position on this project remains unclear, with some high-ranking officials disregarding the term “corridor” while others support its establishment.

Both Iran and Armenia remain skeptical about Russia’s ultimate objective in controlling these routes and granting them a particular status. Iran’s concerns arise from the fact that Azerbaijan intends to sever the Armenian-Iranian border, effectively isolating Iran, and potentially bringing NATO to Iran’s northern border. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has even threatened to use force if Yerevan does not provide the desired corridor.

Third, is Moscow’s passive stance toward Israel’s role in the region, which has raised serious concerns in Tehran. Kaleji argues that while Iran is deeply worried about Israeli military and intelligence infiltration into the region, including the threat posed by Israeli drones targeting Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinating scientists, Moscow has turned a blind eye.

Moreover, “Russia has adopted an approach to Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus that is similar to that in Syria, which is definitely not favorable to Tehran,” argues the Iranian expert.

Moscow’s motivations and Iran’s interests

In contrast, Dr. Ehsan Movahedian, a professor of international relations at Tehran’s ATU University, believes that Russia has no intention of allowing Iran to exert influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Instead, he argues, Russia prefers to interact exclusively with Turkiye in these regions. Movahedian tells The Cradle that Russia’s motivation stems from its need for Ankara to bypass western sanctions, facilitate energy sales, and secure access to the Mediterranean Sea following the Ukraine war.

But Russia’s stance jeopardizes Iran’s interests, particularly in the Caucasus, where NATO and Israel have already established a presence, leading to security, political, and cultural challenges for both Russia and Iran.

According to Movahedian, Russia has badly miscalculated, failing to recognize that the South Caucasus situation has worsened significantly due to the Kremlin’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war and the opportunity this has presented for western interference in the region.

Taking advantage of this power vacuum, Turkiye has been advancing the interests of both NATO and Israel in the South Caucasus. Therefore, any time the Russians prioritize only their own ambitions in the South Caucasus, and exclude Iran from major decisions, Moscow’s own position and influence in the region will ultimately diminish.

Movahedian also highlights the ongoing blockade on the Lachin corridor as a sign of Russia’s weakness. He questions how Moscow, unable to unblock the Lachin corridor, can guarantee the safety of trade routes in the region, specifically in Syunik, as mentioned in the trilateral statement. If the Russians cannot safeguard these most basic routes, how then can they prevent Turkiye and NATO from taking control of major trade corridors – a fact recognized in Tehran, but apparently not in Moscow.

Warning to Moscow: Ineffective foreign policy in South Caucasus

In a recent 12 July article, Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed concern and issued a warning to Moscow regarding its ineffective foreign policy in the South Caucasus.

Velayati questions the actual intentions of Azerbaijan and Turkiye, be it to establish a transit route through Armenia for trade, gas, and electricity exchange, or, in fact, to violate Armenia’s sovereignty and cut off the Iranian-Azerbaijani border.

He argues that the evidence now shows that their ultimate ambition is to divide Armenia into two parts, sever the historical link between Iran and Armenia, which dates back to the Achaemenid and Parthian Empires, and limit Iran’s connection to the outside world, North Caucasus, Russia, and Europe. The veteran Iranian diplomat further warns:

“The strong suspicion is that the dismantling of the connection between Istanbul and Xinjiang rather than the establishment of a fictional world called pan-Turkism, given the scope of Turkiye’s contacts with NATO, will lead to the formation of a strip that will encircle Iran from the north and Russia on the south and expand NATO’s influence in the region.”

Consolidation of the Israeli-Turkish-Azerbaijani axis

These concerns raised by Iranian experts and politicians reflect Tehran’s growing unease with the situation in the South Caucasus. They recognize that Iran alone cannot contain the Israeli, Turkish, and NATO infiltration into the region and therefore emphasize the importance of Russia stepping up and drawing some red lines.

Russia’s focus, they point out, has shifted away from the South Caucasus – due to its distraction with Ukraine – while strengthening economic relations and transport transit with Turkiye and Azerbaijan through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

As a result of this political vacuum, an Israeli-Turkish-Azerbaijani axis is being consolidated in the region, which has “made Iran extremely worried about geopolitical changes, the balance of power and changing international borders in the region,” says Kaleji.

When Iran planned military drills on its northern border with Azerbaijan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his country’s opposition to the military exercise. According to Iranian experts, the Russians were concerned that the Iranian drills and Tehran’s involvement in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict would further complicate the region.

Reversing the balance of power

Despite the challenges, Iranian experts and politicians have called on Russia to replicate their joint cooperation experience in Syria by training Armenian soldiers in the South Caucasus. If Russia continues on its current trajectory of disregarding critical South Caucasus developments, some Iranians warn that Tehran may be forced to take action to shake up Moscow, such as obstructing its access to the Persian Gulf.

To secure their national interests and prevent a potential catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh that could spill over into neighboring regions, both Tehran and Moscow need to coordinate with Yerevan, even if they mistrust the current Armenian authorities at the helm.

If the Turkish-Azerbaijani-Israeli project succeeds in Nagorno-Karabakh, it may be too late for Moscow and Tehran to reverse the regional balance of power. Yerevan could directly accuse Moscow of abandoning its obligations and potentially shifting toward the west, putting both Moscow and Tehran in politically difficult positions.

To prevent such a scenario, Moscow must prioritize unblocking the Lachin corridor, ensure the physical security of Armenians in the unrecognized republic, and take note of Iran’s national security concerns – which increasingly intersect with Moscow.

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