What is behind Karabakh initiative of Iran?
Recently, the Iranian Foreign Ministry, through its official spokesman Hussein Jaber Ansari, has made another proposal on mediation in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Iranian diplomat also spoke about the visit of President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran, which has generated a lot of speculation about a qualitative change in Iran's role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Iran, which borders on Azerbaijan, Armenia and the conflict zone, undoubtedly has some geographic advantages over the other mediators: Russia, France and the US. In addition, the intermediaries are experiencing a crisis of confidence on the part of at least the side of the conflict that is trying to change the status quo. The current format of negotiations in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group hasn't resulted in any steps towards peace in its more than 20-year history. In fact, the mediators are failing to maintain even the dubious function of a ceasefire in the conflict zone. The separate monitoring of the contact line between the Armenian and Azerbaijani troops under the auspices of the OSCE is symbolic and does not reflect the real situation. As practice shows, when front-line clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis are starting to take alarming proportions, Russia remains the only real force that can stabilize the situation. The trilateral meeting which was held in Sochi in 2014 after another exacerbation, which was attended by the Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents invited by Putin, clearly demonstrated this. In Baku the Minsk Group co-chairs are jokingly called 'tourists', and the media and various experts have repeatedly suggested that they are not interested in resolving the conflict, for fear of losing their lucrative work. The recent zeal of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to prevent the adoption by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of a report titled 'Escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied territories of Azerbaijan', and their impact on the decision-making processes of the sovereign organization, did not go unnoticed in Baku.
Against this background, Tehran's proposal to mediate in the conflict is quite timely and plays into the hands of Azerbaijan for tactical reasons. Baku is interested in changing of the negotiation process to a new format, and if Iran can offer this, then, undoubtedly, such an initiative will be met with great interest in Azerbaijan. The emergence of an alternative negotiating format may deprive the OSCE Minsk Group of 'monopoly' status, of which it is accused by the Baku authorities.
However, Baku also remembers the story of the only attempt by Iran to act as a mediator during the hot phase of the conflict, which ended with disastrous consequences for Azerbaijan: Armenian forces occupied Shusha, which is the cradle of Azerbaijani culture, violating the ceasefire agreement during the Tehran round of talks. In 2010, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during his visit to Yerevan once again proposed a negotiation initiative. The Azerbaijani side agreed to the mediation of Iran, while Yerevan torpedoed the process.
When President Hassan Rouhani came to power, whose government has made a historic breakthrough in withdrawing the sanctions from the country and recovering partnership with Western countries, there was a significant improvement in relations between Tehran and Baku, which have repeatedly experienced periods of hidden and even open confrontations over the past two decades. But today, when Iran is returning to the world political and economic scene, the situation is changing considerably. One cannot ignore the fact that the political and economic power of Iran will increase substantially in the foreseeable future, including in the Caucasus. Now it is difficult to say what unspoken agreements on spheres of influence in the South Caucasus were reached between Moscow and Tehran (but it would be naive to assume that there was no bargain between the two historical regional hegemonies). However, it is obvious that the theocratic Iranian state has certain interests and ideas about the proper extent of its influence in Azerbaijan, where the majority of Muslims are Shiite.
There is not necessarily going to be the idea of "exporting the Islamic revolution", which, incidentally, is still the constitutionally established purpose of Iran. However, the increase in its credibility in the eyes of the Azerbaijani population, which has never forgiven the failure of the Iranian diplomacy in the 1990s, is in the interests of Iran, which is steadily increasing its influence in neighboring countries. The strategy of supporting individual marginal religious groups in Azerbaijan, who associate themselves with Iranian co-religionists, is still unsuccessful and is unlikely to have a chance in the foreseeable future. Moreover, such moves provoke further tensions with the Azerbaijani authorities. In the 20 years of its existence, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, which is often described as 'a guide of Iranian policy', could not turn into a serious force in the domestic political arena of Azerbaijan. Political Islam has not received any development in the country, and the only real tool to influence wide sections of the population is the Nagorno-Karabakh theme, which is extremely painful for every Azerbaijani. Through active mediation in the conflict, Iran may obtain an effective channel to strengthen its own ideological and political influence on Azerbaijan, as well as to achieve favorable treatment of its initiatives from the Azerbaijani political elite. At the same time, Iran doesn't have to make any significant changes in its rhetoric: the Tehran authorities have repeatedly stressed that they support a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as part of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. An important role can also be played by the fact that the top leadership of Iran is well represented by ethnic Azeris, starting from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and this 'Azerbaijani' card can also be played by the Iranian leadership in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. Finally, Iran is also interested in the regionalization of the peace process, as it fits into its stated foreign policy of preventing external actors in the resolution of regional problems and conflicts.
It is likely that the signal from Tehran will be positively regarded in Baku, which has a lot of problems with the activity of the Minsk Group, particularly in the context of the recent appeal by the co-chairs to prevent the adoption of Robert Walter's report in the PACE. The Karabakh issue at the moment is also being discussed in the course of the Iranian-Russian contacts, as became known from the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry after talks between Grigory Karasin and his Iranian counterpart Ibrahim Rahimpur. It is hard to say how Moscow will react to the Iranian initiative. But Armenia will be the party that is clearly not thrilled at the prospect of Iranian mediation, not because of its mistrust towards Iran, with which Yerevan also has close political and economic ties, but because of its unwillingness to jeopardize the OSCE Minsk Group format, as it perfectly maintains the conflict and cements the status quo.