Ethnic Armenian volunteers and reservists arrive at the Karabakh frontline to fight with Azeri troops during the ongoing military conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on on October 6, 2020. Photo: AFP

The following is the first installment in a three-part series on the regional power dynamics that produced the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the diplomatic efforts to contain it.

Early into the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the Transcaucasian region – also known as South Caucasus – it is becoming clear that the binary narrative dished out by Western commentators of this being a Turkish-Russian clash of wills and strategies is either simply naive or purposively deceptive.

The point is, Russia and Turkey – and Iran in a somewhat supportive role – are already proactively talking of negotiations involving the warring sides. 

September 30 was a turning point of sorts. Tehran had on the previous day called on Azerbaijan and Armenia to settle their differences peacefully and offered that along with Turkey and Russia, it could help the two countries to resolve their dispute. 

Also read: Turkey-Russia role in Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict

President Hassan Rouhani repeated this offer in a phone conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. According to the Iranian account, Pashinyan responded positively that “any tension and conflict would be to the detriment of all countries in the region and welcomed any practical initiative to stop the violence.” 

Armenia is a landlocked country and it depends on Iran to provide a vital transportation route to the outside world. On its part, Tehran kept up a warm relationship with Armenia – although its rival Azerbaijan is a Muslim country – even supplying it with natural gas. 

Tehran stuck to the friendly track even after the “color revolution” in Armenia in 2018 and Pashinyan’s steady gravitation to the American camp in the subsequent period, while also remaining a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

See my articles in Asia Times – A color revolution in the Caucasus puts Russia in a dilemma dated May 9, 2018, and a second piece dated August 8, 2018, titled Color revolution in the Caucasus rattles Russian leaders.

Iran has profound security concerns over Pashinyan’s recent diplomatic exchanges with Israel – at the initiative of the White House – which of course has brought the famed Israeli intelligence apparatus Mossad right on to Iran’s northern borders, in addition to the potential Mossad presence in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman on Iran’s southern flank. 

Turkey too has reason to be concerned over Israel’s activities in Transcaucasia. Israel is virtually piggy-backing on the US-sponsored color revolutions in Transcaucasia. After the US-sponsored color revolution in Georgia in 2003, Israel overnight made its appearance in Tbilisi. And the Israel-Georgia ties have since become very close. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) is being welcomed by officials upon his arrival at an airport in Baku, Azerbaijan, on October 06, 2020. Photo: AFP/Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency

Despite the failure of the color revolution in Azerbaijan in mid-2005 and the sporadic attempts since then, Israel has developed close “security cooperation” with that country.

Further north, Israel has developed special relations with Ukraine, another progeny of the color revolution, which also has a president who is an ethnic Jew who is actively involved also in the ongoing color revolution in Belarus.

(The strange part is that notwithstanding the company that Israel keeps in the Black Sea region, which is virulently anti-Russian, it still enjoys exceptionally close ties with Russia.) 

Both Turkey and Iran understand perfectly well why Israel attributes such excessive importance to the three small countries of Transcaucasia – total population 11 million – to establish a security presence in that region with a view to create a “second front” against its regional enemies – Ankara and Tehran.

(Israel has a record of links with Kurdish separatist groups too who have ethnic links with Transcaucasia.)

Iran openly voiced its disquiet over Pashinyan’s decision to open Armenia’s embassy in Israel, which in turn inspired then-US national security adviser John Bolton to travel all the way to Yerevan, where he openly took aim at Iran – and Russia. By the way, the Armenian diaspora in the US is an influential constituency that Pashinyan cannot ignore, either.

At any rate, demonstrations broke out in front of the Armenian Embassy in Tehran soon after and senior Iranian officials cautioned Pashinyan. An Iranian commentary remarked: “Tehran’s considerations … must be taken into account.… On the other hand, Russia will undoubtedly oppose the idea of using Armenia to promote security and economic influence. It had already severely criticized Israel’s arms deal with Georgia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.” 

Clearly, Western analysts are obfuscating the US-Israeli nexus at work in Transcaucasia. Both Ankara and Tehran have cause to worry that the US might be the Israeli proxy in the Transcaucasia region – as has been the case in the Middle East for decades – to weaken and roll back the rising aspirations of the two regional powers. 

President Hassan Rouhani (R) listening to Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri. Photo: AFP

Turkey-Iran axis in the making

With the destruction of Iraq and Syria and the weakening of Egypt, Turkey (under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and Iran are the only two authentic regional powers left standing in the Muslim Middle East to defy the US regional strategies and to challenge Israel’s military pre-eminence. 

Significantly, the surge of the US-Israeli nexus in Transcaucasia comes in the wake of the recent US-sponsored “peace agreements” between Israel and three Gulf Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman). Indeed, both Turkey and Iran have reacted strongly to the development in the Persian Gulf region.

Just this week, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major-General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, explicitly warned the UAE that Tehran would view that country as an “enemy” and act accordingly if Abu Dhabi allowed any Israeli security presence on its soil. 

Within a month of the Israel-UAE agreement, Erdogan held a videoconference with Rouhani where he made a big opening statement that “Turkey and Iran dialogue has a decisive role in the solution of many regional problems. I believe that our cooperation will return to its previous levels as the pandemic conditions alleviate.”

Rouhani responded that Turkish-Iranian relations are built on solid foundations throughout history and the border between the two “friendly and brotherly countries” has always been “the borders of peace and friendship.” He stated that especially in the past seven years, both governments had made great efforts based on bilateral, regional and international cooperation.

Significantly, Rouhani added that the two countries are located in a “sensitive region” of the Middle East and they are “the two great powers of the region. There was hostility and vindictiveness towards both countries. It also exists today. There is no way to be successful against such conspiracies other than by reinforcing friendly relations between the two countries.”

Sure enough, Israel has taken note of the nascent Turkey-Iran axis, which also includes Qatar. A commentary in The Jerusalem Post noted that in recent years Turkish-Iranian ties have “grown closer due to joint opposition to the US and also Israel. Iran and Turkey both back Hamas, for instance.” It wryly observed that the Middle Eastern geopolitics built around the Shia-Sunni sectarian strife may have outlived its utility.

(L-R) Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan hold up documents after participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Again, the Turkish state news agency Anadolu featured a commentary last week titled New strategic design of Middle East, which pointed out that the peace agreements in the Gulf bring out the schism between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on one side and Qatar and Kuwait on the other side. (Qatar is an ally of Turkey while Kuwait has friendly ties with Iran.) 

The commentary noted: “Arab countries seem to have lost both confidence and a sense of unity; when the sense of confidence is seriously damaged, it will be easier to put them at odds, and this regional division, as everywhere, makes Arab countries and their leaders dependent on external forces for their security and existence.” 

The Anadolu commentary then warmed up to its main theme, that the so-called “normalization” agreement between the UAE and Israel “may be a veiled effort not only to expand the imperial space but also to form a bloc against Iran and Turkey in the Middle East.” 

“Iran is a non-Arab country and seems an arch-enemy of the US and Israel; Iran collaborates with Russia and China, the US’s arch-rivals, and sometimes with Turkey, which may threaten both the US imperial interest and Israeli security in the region. Hence Iran’s regional power and influence should be jettisoned and driven into a corner. 

“Turkey is a NATO country and seems a close US ally, [but] US policy towards Turkey in the region is ambivalent, unclear, and elusive in the sense that the US still continues to support the [Kurdish] YPG/PKK terrorist group in Syria that has been carrying out terrorist acts against Turkey and killing civilians for decades.

“Moreover, the US and Israel, though they seem friendly, do not want a strong Turkey because a strong Turkey may influence Arab countries particularly using Islam and then turn them against the exploitation of the Middle East and its oil and resources by neo-imperial powers, yet the US and other imperial power will never allow Turkey to easily stand on its feet in the region.

“What they may prefer is that a weak and fragile Turkey, grappling with its internal conflicts, will always serve their purpose.” 

In the chronicles of the great game, seldom it is that the protagonists speak up and opt for public diplomacy. The game, historically, is played out quietly in the shade outside the pale of public view. Turkey and Iran have decided otherwise.

Can it be a mere coincidence that the conflict in Transcaucasia, a faraway region that borders both Turkey and Iran where Israel is consolidating a security presence against them, erupted in such a backdrop of new alignment that promises to redraw the geopolitics of the Middle East?

This article, the first in a three-part series, was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. It was provided to Asia Times by Independent Media Institute. Part 2 will examine why Turkey is turning into a headache for regional powers.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.