TEHRAN, Iran — More than two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s domination over vast territories in the Caucasus and Central Asia. One bitter legacy of the Soviet era is the continued existence of “frozen conflicts” in these areas, conflicts that every now and then flare up for various reasons. During the past two weeks, the eruption of a new wave of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has shown that this legacy still has serious destabilizing potential, at least in the South Caucasus.
Although the clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops that began April 2 have been temporarily halted, with a truce implemented after three days of fighting, the death of dozens of soldiers and civilians from both sides has caused serious concern among neighboring countries as well as regional and outside powers. After the eruption of clashes, Iran — which due to various economic and security considerations has always been concerned about stability in its northern regions — urged the two sides to show restraint and refrain from further escalation. It also called for resolving the issue through diplomatic means. At the same time, Tehran declared its willingness to mediate to end the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an April 5 phone conversation with his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, emphasized the need to stop the clashes in the disputed region while declaring Iran’s readiness to play a role in this regard, should the two involved parties consent to such an undertaking. Zarif, who traveled to the northern Iranian city of Ramsar the same day to participate in a trilateral meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, emphasized to Mammadyarov “Iran’s full readiness to resort to good offices with the aim of resolving the conflict peacefully.”
The next day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held separate phone conversations with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in which he stressed Iran’s readiness to play an active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is very upset about the killing of civilians and troops of the two friendly, neighboring countries,” Rouhani said, adding that Iran is ready to use all of its capacities to achieve a peaceful settlement of disputes between the two sides through political dialogue.
The fact of the matter is that Iran, for a variety of reasons, is opposed to an escalation of conflict in the South Caucasus. A rise in tensions in the region could lead to an increase in the military presence of countries from outside the region in support of the opposing sides. This has always been a primary regional security concern in Tehran. Furthermore, due to the economic and social ties Iran has with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, an escalation of conflict between the two could pose serious challenges for Iran. Thus, senior Iranian officials’ emphasis on the need to prevent an escalation is rather logical and understandable. The real question, however, is given the present circumstances, could Iran act as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or more generally, play an active and distinct role in this regard? To answer this question, two points must be considered.
First, in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to keep the former Soviet republics within its political and economic orbit and to maintain control over what it calls its “near abroad.” In this context, Moscow has always been wary of any role, whether negative or positive, played by external actors in the former republics, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Thus, Moscow has attempted to direct all political, diplomatic, economic and security initiatives through its own channels. In regard to Iran, this was demonstrated when Tehran made efforts to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh War and Tajikistan civil war in the early 1990s. Because of Russian considerations, Iran was never able to stake out an independent role in either instance. Iranian mediation initiatives in Tajikistan could, at best, have led to a “joint” Iranian-Russian solution, and in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow preferred to pursue the issue through an entirely different track, namely, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Second, in the current situation and with the recent round of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow is pursuing an agenda that makes the role of external actors, including Iran, an even more sensitive matter. On the one hand, during the past two years in the wake of the Ukraine crisis — which has led to the most serious confrontation between Russia and the West in more than two decades — Moscow has been trying to further strengthen its ties with the former Soviet republics. The most obvious manifestation of this trajectory is the proposition to create a Eurasian Economic Union. In this context, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an opportunity for Moscow to, by playing an active role, persuade both Baku and Yerevan to accept Russia’s special role in the region. On the other hand, given the current unfriendly relations between Russia and Turkey and Ankara’s public expression of support for Azerbaijan in the conflict against Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabach clashes have turned into a Russian-Turkish face-off, and thus, grown in importance for Moscow.
Considering these factors, one cannot expect an Iranian willingness to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia to result in Tehran actually playing an independent role in the current crisis. Rather, the best possible outcome for Iran could be its potential engagement in efforts to find a diplomatic solution through partnership with Russia and within the framework of a multilateral mediation process. In practical terms, however, by pursuing a policy of positive neutrality or active neutrality, Iran has already scored diplomatic points in the region. By avoiding taking sides and emphasizing a diplomatic settlement to the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tehran has presented itself as a responsible and peace-seeking actor in its northern neighborhood.