Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept 24, 2018. Photo: AFP / Turkish President's Office / Cem Oksuz

In the outpouring of commentaries on the new flareup between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the notion that history is repeating itself and we are witnessing a recurrence of the initial conflict of the early 1990s forms a dominant theme. 

The month-long war is, of course, a novelty in terms of its internationalization and the role of outside powers, such as Turkey and Israel, indicating the need to avoid simplistic comparisons with the past. But, at the same time, there are sufficient continuities with the past, in terms of unresolved causal disputes and frozen tensions, now released by the volcanic eruption of military conflict, and the role of outside mediators, to concede the point on historical repetition. 

In turn, this raises the need to revisit the past and take stock of the totality of peace-making efforts that have so far failed to bring peace to the warring parties, including Iran.

Iran’s role, then and now

Since the outbreak of the war on September 27, Iran has urged its neighbors in the Caucasus to resolve their dispute peacefully, offering to mediate between Baku and Yerevan. Seeking balanced relations with both countries on its border, Iran is, in fact, well-positioned to intervene as a regional mediator, should the war culminate in a stalemate with the winter approaching and Armenians putting up fierce resistance. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been conducting telephone diplomacy with his Azeri and Armenian counterparts, and there is the distinct possibility of a Zarif “shuttle diplomacy” to Baku and Yerevan in the proximate future.

Already, Zarif’s path has been paved.

On October 27, exactly one month into the war, Iran dispatched its deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, on a regional tour aimed at opening a path toward mediation.

Beginning with a visit to the Iranian border regions with Azerbaijan, where Iran’s military has built up its presence amid fears of a spillover, Araghchi made his first stop in the Azeri capital of Baku, where Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, having raised his people’s expectations for total victory, appears increasingly in need of a face-saving exit.

In Baku, Iran’s envoy emphasized the importance of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, stating that “minority rights and human rights” were pillars of the Iranian initiative, aimed at a lasting peace.

From there the Iranian envoy continued to Russia, which has a mutual defense treaty with Armenia but has maintained a relative distance from the unrecognized Karabakh republic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the day after Araghchi’s visit to Moscow, raised the prospect of returning Armenian-occupied districts of Azerbaijan proper, which Karabakh Armenians consider their security buffer, as part of a formula for peace.

“Our position is absolutely open about the possibility of handing over these five plus two districts to Azerbaijan, alongside the provision of a specific regime for the Karabakh zone and the securing of a connection with Armenia,” Putin told an investment forum.

Araghchi saved Yerevan for his final stop, where he was received by Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

New Tehran summit?

There is a growing possibility of a Tehran peace summit, similar to the one hosted by Iran’s former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, in May 1994. That summit saw the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia sign on to a “Tehran communique” that pledged a sustained ceasefire and good-faith negotiations.

That diplomatic achievement transpired following intense shuttle diplomacy by one of Iran’s top diplomats at the time, Mahmoud Vaezi, who is presently the chief of staff for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Vaezi is also the former deputy director of the Center For Strategic Research, a Tehran-based think tank that was the academic home for this author several years ago. 

This author recalls his extensive conversations with Vaezi regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, and the reasons for the failure of the Tehran Communique, which appear similar to the recent failure of ceasefire attempts by Moscow and Washington. 

According to Vaezi, there were serious violations of the Tehran communique, literally within hours of its adoption, by both sides, but above all by the Armenians, who grabbed more Azeri territory immediately after consenting to halt military operations in Tehran.  

Hence, today with Tehran still having fresh memories of a noble peace effort effectively falling on deaf ears despite official nods to peace by the leadership in Baku and Yerevan, there were, until recently, strong reservations about engaging in a new effort that risked culminating in a repeat of history. 

Now, however, there is an unmistakable desire on the part of the Rouhani government to play peacemaker in the region.

Revamping Minsk

In the 1990s, Iran’s efforts were coordinated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose Minsk Group offshoot, led by Russia, the US, and France, oversees mediation efforts for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Minsk Group in 2007 adopted the “Madrid Principles,” which lean in the direction of UN Security Council resolutions that recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Last spring, however, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiniyan flatly rejected the Madrid Principles and called for a new approach harking back to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which acknowledged Armenia’s territorial claims, but which was never adopted.  Such a huge leap backward is completely unacceptable to Azerbaijan, which is intent on regaining full sovereignty over not only its undisputed territories occupied by Armenia since the late 198os and early 1990s, but also the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan has, as of late, sounded more conciliatory, by hinting at Armenia’s potential willingness to engage in “mutual concessions” for the sake of extinguishing the flames of a calamitous war impacting both sides.

Indeed, a reasonable case can be made in favor of a new Tehran peace summit, one that could bring Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev around the same peace table.  First, Iran has the comparative advantage of (a) bordering both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and (b) enjoying cordial relations with both countries, and (c) having a track record of playing a mediation role in this conflict. 

Second, Iran’s balanced good-neighborly relations provide a solid basis for mutual confidence on the part of Yerevan and Baku, which are suspicious of the intentions of other international parties, e.g., Washington’s belated mediation effort has been cast under the shadow of US presidential politics, while Moscow is accused of being pro-Armenia by Aliyev and Turkey is firmly behind Azerbaijan.  In contrast, the Rouhani government has the ability to project the much-needed veneer of active neutrality, a sine qua non for effective mediation.

But, what finally ripens the conditions for a new Tehran summit will depend on the ongoing developments at the war front, e.g., a sustained Azeri victory and or a stalemate.  In the former scenario, Baku’s winning hand simply means momentum for a longer war precluding meaningful mediation.  In the latter scenario, the failure of recapturing Nagorno-Karabakh by force will translate into a major liability for Baku’s government, requiring a reconsideration of its maximalist war objectives. 

With winter fast approaching, likely to put a hold on Baku’s military campaign, a war of attrition is on the horizon, one in which time is not necessarily on the side of Azerbaijan. As a result, Baku faces the conundrum of how to continue prosecuting a popular war that is essentially unwinnable, save for incremental gains over aspects of the seven adjacent territories. In a word, what is politically expedient is not necessarily so on the war front.  

Henceforth, a Tehran peace summit can be successful only if the prerequisite mellowing of the Azeri demands are forthcoming and other venues are exhausted. The Minsk process in Geneva does not pose an alternative, insofar as it does not yield an effective peace process and, yet, is linked to the current international efforts to end this horrendous conflict. A revamped Minsk Group including Iran is necessary and so is the spirit of cooperation that culminated in the Tehran summit over 26 years ago. 

Building on past experience, the new Tehran summit can be beneficial to Iran, underscoring its regional importance as a pivotal country featuring the peaceful coexistence of its own Azeri and Armenian minorities.  

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