What is the position of Iran regarding the Karabakh issue?

Since the outbreak of the First Karabakh War, Iran, a neighboring country in the region, has been interested in a peaceful settlement of the conflict and announced its intention to contribute to achieving one.[1] Indeed, Iran was one of the first countries to initiate peace talks between the parties to the conflict. It officially recognized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and supported the solution to the conflict within the framework of this principle.[2] Generally, Iran does not recognize the legitimacy of territorial claims based on historical arguments since these may lead to an endless prolongation of the conflicts. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict became one of the main challenges for Iran’s foreign and domestic policy right from the start since it represented a threat to the country’s national security.[3] Therefore, in March 1992, Iran initiated a mediation role in Tehran and invited delegations from Azerbaijan and Armenia to negotiate such issues as a temporary ceasefire agreement, a lifting of the blockade from Armenia, an exchange of prisoners, and the deployment of observers. As a result of the meeting, on March 15, a declaration on the settlement of the conflict was signed. As a result, a seven-day ceasefire was agreed upon as an initial step in the process.[4] Unfortunately, the mediation process initiated by Iran failed: the war did not stop but intensified and resulted in the occupation of Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh predominantly populated by Azerbaijanis, on May 8, 1992, precisely on the day when the parties to the conflict signed the Tehran Declaration for halting the war.

Indeed, the continuing Armenian aggression in Azerbaijani territories, regardless of the Tehran Declaration, hampered Iran’s mediation efforts in the conflict. Moreover, government changes in Azerbaijan in June 1992 also led to the exclusion of Iran from the mediation process. The new Azerbaijan government rejected the idea of Iran playing any role in settling the conflict.[5] In the summer of 1993, due to the Armenian occupation of the southern and eastern parts of Karabakh, thousands of Azerbaijani refugees crossed the Aras River and arrived in Iran. However, Iran was not prepared to host them for an extended period, which explains why there were no refugee camps in its territories. Instead, a refugee camp was established in Azerbaijan after the Azerbaijani refugees were moved back to their country.[6]

In September 1993, when Armenia’s aggression policy over Nakhchivan intensified, Iran tried to prevent it by sending troops across the border to secure “jointly managed” dams on the Aras River.[7] The Iranian intervention resulted in the guarantee given by Armenian officials about no military operation in Nakhchivan.[8]

It was expected that during the war and after the ceasefire, Iran would also support the Azerbaijani position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict due to the number of shared values, such as religion, close traditions, history, and ethnic kin living in both of the countries. However, Iran improved its relations with Armenia and became one of its main trading partners. Thus, statistics show that Iran is one of Armenia’s most important trade partners.[9] Moreover, the basic demands of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians were also met by Iran. The strategic partnership with Iran became, in fact, a way for Armenia to circumvent the economic embargo imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The conflict’s settlement was in Iran’s interests since stability in neighboring countries was essential to its national security. Therefore, from the initial stages of the conflict, Iran made a great effort to resolve it. Despite the failure of the mediation initiated by Iran, the first ceasefire between the parties to the conflict was signed as a result of the Tehran Declaration. Despite its close relationship with Armenia, Iran recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. It supports a settlement of the conflict based on the principles of the territorial integrity of sovereign states.[10]

However, the Second Karabakh War changed the geopolitical situation in the region, which is considered as a direct threat for the Iran’s national interests in the region. Azerbaijani victory did historical justice to the displaced Azerbaijanis and allowed for the beginning of their “great return” to the liberated territories of Karabakh. There is now an element of urgency for the post-conflict agenda for the region of the South Caucasus. The leading international actors are actively trying to gain political leverage in the mentioned region. So far, the main regional loser from this conflict, besides the defeated and routed Armenia, is Iran, which has maintained pretenses as Armenia’s closest friend and ally, if not the guarantor of Armenia’s security. The chronology of rapprochement between these two rogue states is replete with futile attempts to build up multilateral cooperation against the backdrop of international sanctions imposed on Iran and the isolating policies of Armenia, which covets the territory not only of Azerbaijan, but also of Turkey and Georgia, based on imaginative historical claims.[11]

It is noteworthy that following the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan, adhering to the policy of normalization of relations with Iran, offered Tehran cooperation within the “3+3” (3+2) format, as well as inviting Iran to join the Zangazur corridor project. Iran, though, considers this project a threat to its national interests believing that it would cut Iran off from the Caucasus.[12] In this regard, Iranian officials and media have made statements about supporting the borders of Armenia in order to torpedo the process of opening the Zangazur corridor.[13] Iran is deeply concerned about the Zangazur corridor, which will establish a new land connection between the Azerbaijani mainland and Turkey, without using Iranian routes. By establishing consulate in Kapan, Iran is trying to monitor the traffic between Central Asia and Europe.[14]

Thus, all these developments show that in this current geopolitical game in the region, Tehran is betting on Armenia to play up the contradictions in regional relations. The constructive atmosphere of political dialogue and healthy cooperation in the region is not the kind of environment desired by Iran, which is endlessly mired in the abyss of internal state chaos, further aggravated by international sanctions.[15]

[1] Ramazani, R. K., “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Both North and South,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3, 1992, p. 404.

[2] Hafizoglu, R. and Jafarov, T., “Iranian Top Official: Talks on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Can Be Conducted More Effectively Inside Region,” Trend, June 28, 2011; https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/1897526.html. Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[3] Ramezanzadeh, Abdollah, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis,” in Coppieters, Bruno (ed.), Contested Borders in the Caucasus (VUB Press, 1996). “Reports of demonstrations in Yerevan and Clashes in Mountainous Karabagh,” Asbarez, October 24, 1987; http://web.archive.org/web/20070914104126/http://www.armeniaforeignministry.com/fr/nk/nk_file/article/49.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[4] Vaezi, Mahmoud, “Karabakh’s Crisis: Iran’s Mediation and the Aftermath,” Center for Strategic Research, December 14, 2008; http://www.isrjournals.com/en/iran-foreign-policy/811-karabakhs-crisis-irans-mediation-and-the-aftermath.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[5] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 93.

[6] Ramezanzadeh, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis”.

[7] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 93.

[8] Ramezanzadeh, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis”.

[9] Moniquet, Claude and Racimore, William, “The Armenia Iranian Relationships: Strategic Implication for security in the South Caucasus Region,” European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, January 17, 2013, p. 10.

[10] Mahmudlu, Ceyhun and Abilov, Shamkhal, “The peace-making process in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: why did Iran fail in its mediation effort?” Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2017.

[11] Osmanli, Ceyhun, “Friends in misfortune. What will rapprochement with Armenia and Russia give Iran?” Modern Diplomacy, December 3, 2022; https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2022/12/03/friends-in-misfortune-what-will-rapprochement-with-armenia-and-russia-give-iran/. Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[12] “Iran To Open Consulate In Kapan,” Asbarez, December 29, 2021; https://asbarez.com/iran-to-open-consulate-in-strategic-armenian-region/. Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[13] Shokri, Umud, “Why Iran Opposes Azerbaijan’s Zangezur Corridor Project,” Gulf International Forum, September 28, 2022; https://gulfif.org/why-iran-opposes-azerbaijans-zangezur-corridor-project/. Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[14] Motamedi, Maziar, “Iran opens consulate in Armenia’s Kapan as it expands ties,” Al Jazeera, October 22, 2022; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/10/22/iran-opens-consulate-in-armenias-kapan-to-deliver-a-message. Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[15] Osmanli, “Friends in misfortune”.