Monday, November 23, 2020

New Karabakh Accord Drawing Tehran More Deeply into Caucasus Affairs

Paul Goble     

Staunton, November 20 – Among the potentially most fateful consequences of the Moscow declaration on the Karabakh crisis is that it draws Iran more deeply into the Caucasus, something Western governments and Moscow for different reasons earlier have sought to prevent.

Even though Iran was obviously a directly interested party in the Karabakh conflict from the beginning, Western governments blocked its being included in the Minsk Group out of a desire to exclude Tehran from such international respectability; and Moscow went along because it hoped to limit the spread of Iranian influence northward.

But now the November 10 declaration directly involves Iran by its call to reopen blocked transportation routes not only in Armenia and Azerbaijan but between both and Iran. As a result, whether the authors of the Moscow declaration planned for this or not, Tehran will have a seat at the table ( and

But as Russian commentator Andrey Ganzha notes, the changes that the Moscow declaration introduces in the region are certain to provoke both Iranian concern and an Iranian response for geopolitical, ideological, and immediately practical considerations (

“Turkey’s gains hardly please Iran,” he observes, because they mean that ever closer is the day when the formation of a Great ‘Sunni Arc’ from Turkey, through the Transcaucasus and further to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and to China’s Xinjiang will take place.”

Those who respond that Azerbaijan is a secular state and that in religious terms it is a Shiite one forget two things, Ganzha says. On the one hand, Baku in support of Turkey’s aspirations has adopted what looks in Tehran to be an anti-Shiite and thus anti-Iranian stance (

And on the other, while nominally a Shiite majority country, Azerbaijan has welcomed in recent years Sunni missionaries who are changing the meaning of that in ways that Iran views as threatening to its own ideological and geopolitical position (

For Tehran, this is worse than heresy; it is breaking with a millennium of values on which the Iranian state rests. That is why Tehran can only be alarmed by the expansion of Turkish influence the November 10 declaration acknowledges and even codifies and its possible influence on Iran’s own Azerbaijani population.

Those views are likely to inform Iranian statements, Ganzha says. But at the same time, he argues, Tehran has “completely pragmatic concerns” about the new situation to the north. And it is these that are likely to drive its actions.

First, Tehran is very worried about the infrastructure, including bridges, dams, and hydroelectric stations on the Arax River between it and its northern neighbors. At the very least, the Iranian government will have to seek new arrangements given that those in control of some of this territory have now changed.

Second, Iran is worried about two outside forces in the region in addition to Turkey: Sunni radicals from the wars in Syria and Libya who reportedly have come to fight in the Karabakh war and who may now move south, and Israel, Iran’s biggest enemy, which has expanded its relationship with Azerbaijan.

And third, Tehran is worried that Azerbaijan’s victory in the war will inspire the millions of Azerbaijanis who live within the current borders of Iran to look north to Baku rather than as now to Tehran. There were pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations in Azerbaijani areas of Iran during the fighting, and Iran dispatched forces to those regions to ensure its control.

During the war, Ganzha continues, “Iran conducted itself in a surprisingly quiet fashion.” It issued some complaints about the way in which violence had crossed the Arax, but now that restraint is ending, the Russian commentator says. In response to a visit by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to recovered territories just north of the Arax, Tehran sent a powerful signal.

The official media in Iran pointed out that when Aliyev was there, he was within the range of Iranian forces and thus could be there only with Iranian protection. The Iranian blogosphere picked up on that and multiplied its in ways that highlighted Iran’s expectations of a new and larger role in the north ( 

These comments in the blogosphere, Ganzha suggests, are likely to be followed by more formal steps from Iran, the hitherto “dark horse” in this geopolitical competition that is now likely to become ever more important to all the other players.

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