Iranian security forces on the border with Azerbaijan, September 27, 2020. Image: Twitter

After years of an inconclusive cease-fire punctured with occasional flare-ups, the Azerbaijan-Armenia stand-off over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory and its adjacent areas has in recent days turned into an inter-state military conflict with potentially destabilizing implications.

Gone are the previous optimistic predictions that pragmatism and outside mediation, particularly the so-called Minsk Process led by Russia, the United States and France, could yield a peaceful resolution to a vexing ethnic and territorial dispute rooted in history.

The recent flare-up has put Iran, a regional power that shares a land border with both warring parties, on high alert. Turkey also shares a border with both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Seeking to finally reverse the early 1990s military defeat that wrested away some 20% of Azerbaijan’s UN-recognized territory, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has characterized his country’s military offensive as a campaign that “will end the occupation that has lasted for nearly 30 years.”

But given the difficult mountainous terrain and the Armenians’ military resources backed by Russia, chances are that Baku will fall short of that military objective and instead may have to settle for incremental advances to be utilized as leverage for a next round of negotiations.  

Iran’s Azeri minority

Significantly, Tehran has offered to mediate between Baku and Yerevan. Although Iran has good neighborly ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, it has been accused by Azerbaijan of taking Armenia’s side in the past, partly because of Baku’s pro-NATO stance and its cozy relations with Israel, which has equipped Azerbaijan with drones and other hardware. 

An Azerbaijan victory in the current war may in fact result in the enlargement of the Iran-Azerbaijan border by approximately 130 kilometers.

But given Iran’s still fresh memory of the Azeri-led irredentist pressure of the 1990s, advanced through the discourse of a “widening Azerbaijan” encompassing parts of Iran, it is not in Iran’s national security interests to deal with an empowered and potentially menacing neighbor to its north in cohort with its arch-nemesis Israel.

That’s all the more true now that Israel has inserted itself in the Persian Gulf security calculus through its recent successful normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.

Given its sizable Iranian-Azeri minority, comprising a quarter of the population, Iran is careful not to damage sensitive relations with neighboring Azerbaijan, which unlike Armenia has refused to join the Russian-dominated Eurasia Economic Union (EEU). Iran has signed a free trade agreement with the EEU. 

Both Russia and Iran are concerned that Azerbaijan “can become a NATO outpost in the Caspian in the future, especially if it can defeat and dominate its neighbor Armenia,” according to a Tehran political science professor who wishes to remain anonymous. 

For now, Iran’s main worry is a spill-over of the conflict into its territory, new waves of refugees and other unwanted consequences of a brewing war that bodes ill for regional stability.  The Tehran professor predicts a “spirited effort” by Iran in coordination with Russia, Europe and the UN to bring peace quickly to South Caucasus.

Yet so far Iran’s call for an immediate cease-fire has fallen on deaf ears.

An image grab from a video on the official website of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry on September 28, 2020, allegedly shows Azeri artillery firing towards the positions of Armenian separatists in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pipelines in play

The timing of the new conflict, coinciding with the impending operationalization of much-anticipated energy pipelines running from gas-rich Azerbaijan to Europe through Georgia, gives it an international dimension wrought with geo-economic and geopolitical ramifications. 

The pipelines, which bypass Russia and Iran, are meant to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Moscow in sight of US sanctions on Russia over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. 

Speculation is rife that Putin, already unhappy with perceived US and European meddling in Belarus, has struck back through Armenia.

The country can easily shell the critical infrastructure in the narrow Tovus land strip where more than 80% of Azeri energy travels through the pipelines of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyahn oil pipeline, the South Caucasus Natural Gas pipeline, as well as the Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway. 

At the same time, Moscow has ordered a massive military exercise in the Caspian and Black Sea regions with the participation of the Chinese and Iranian navies, thus sending a clear signal to the West that it still considers the Caucasus as its natural sphere of influence.

Inevitably, this will introduce new thorns in Russia’s already prickly relations with Turkey, which solidly backs Baku in its current bid to regain the Armenian-controlled territory.

Stalemated negotiation

So far there is insufficient international will to douse the flames engulfing the South Caucasus, notwithstanding the distractions caused by the pandemic and the divergent paths of the US and France over how to handle Iran and Lebanon.

There is also Russia’s determination to make the US pay for its opposition to Nord Stream 2, and Iran’s growing concerns about Israel’s perceived security encroachment. From Tehran’s perspective, Israel is no longer an “out of area” adversary irrelevant to Iran’s national security calculus. 

The only viable path for peace in South Caucasus is at the negotiation table, in line with the four UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh and the Minsk Group’s peace proposal. Those have called for the restoration of Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh, respect for the rights of Armenians inhabiting the disputed territory, the return of mass refugees and the creation of a land corridor to Armenia. 

Hypothetically speaking, Nagorno Karabakh can become another autonomous enclave similar to Nakhchivan, located between Armenia and northwestern Iran. Nakhchivan was a part of Iran until the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828 that awarded it to Russia after Iran’s military defeat.

It’s unclear if local Karabakh Armenians, who look more to the Kosovo model in the Balkans in their current aspiration for complete independence from Azerbaijan, will consent to the re-imposition of Baku’s authoritarian control.

So far, no one in the international community including Iran has recognized the Kosovo-like efforts of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, leading but to one conclusion: the unstable status quo must change sooner or later, and it can come about only through concerted international efforts such as the dispatch of a peacekeeping force, which is so far missing.