On May 19, a forty-year-old Bell 212 helicopter crashed in the foggy mountains of northwest Iran, killing Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Policymakers and pundits have extensively discussed these officials’ deaths and their consequences. However, less discussed is the origin of this fateful flight: a dam on the Aras River.

Last year, Iran confronted Azerbaijan over its provocations on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, a boundary vital to Iranian commercial and security interests. Now, Tehran is making grueling efforts to open up dams and bridges with Baku to garner influence through cooperation that it was unable to gain through confrontation. But like guiding a derelict helicopter through foggy mountains, these efforts may also be doomed.

The pre-2020 status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh offered Iran a multitude of benefits. The Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories ensured the security of Iran’s border with Armenia and its trade routes to the Black Sea region and Europe. Armenia’s border with Iran also kept Ankara’s pan-Turkic ambitions at bay by preventing a contiguous border between Azerbaijan proper and Turkey.

Furthermore, Iran’s narrowed border with Azerbaijan decreased the amount of territory that Azerbaijani ally and Iranian archnemesis, Israel, could use to access Iran for intelligence purposes. As for Russia, it has long exploited and exacerbated the frozen conflict to maintain leverage over the former Soviet states’ affairs and to keep them in the Russian orbit. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and its implications ruptured this fortuitous alignment.

Azerbaijan’s success in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War confounded Iran and exposed its weakness. Initially, Iran was accused of sending weapons to Armenia. Rather than use this accusation to make good on its many threats of military action against Azerbaijan, Iran folded to the imminent victor, saying, “We believe the end of occupation will bring stability to the region.”

In addition to this humiliation, the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement further stymied Iran’s regional ambitions. First, the agreement stipulated the formation of a peacekeeping center, an operation that Russia undertook with Turkey, not Iran. However, Russia’s later endorsement of Iran’s 3+3 format for solving Caucasian issues may have compensated for this snub. Second and more significantly, the ceasefire agreement outlined that “all economic and transport connections in the region are unblocked” between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. By including this ambiguous demand, Russia opened a pandora’s box of differing interpretations that quickly coalesced into a debate about Aliyev’s proposed “Zangezur Corridor,” an idea that Russia approached ambivalently but Iran viewed with trepidation.

The “Zangezur Corridor,” deriving its name from Azerbaijan proper’s West Zangezur province, would link Azerbaijan proper with its Nakhchivan exclave by cutting through Armenia’s southern Syunik province and obstructing Iran’s access to Armenian trade routes. When Aliyev first suggested the creation of the corridor in April 2021, he did so brazenly, saying that he would “enforce” implementation if Armenia did not agree to it. By linking Turkey with the rest of the Turkic world, cutting Iran off from its most accessible route to Europe, and increasing Israel’s potential presence on its border, this corridor was anathema for Tehran’s ambitions in the South Caucasus. Conversely, Russia adopted an ambivalent stance on this corridor and the means of its implementation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine later furthered this ambivalence. Decreased attention to the Caucasus caused Russia to default to a tacit Baku-Ankara-Moscow marriage of convenience. This partnership may not have been designed to raise Iranian ire, but it certainly did so.

Further complicating Iran’s ambitions is the fact that Pashinyan and his government, unlike officials in Tehran, do not stand diametrically opposed to the Zangezur Corridor. Armenia has been left out of nearly three decades of economic projects, including the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, and the INSTC. Pashinyan is eager to end his country’s economic isolation caused by Armenia’s closed western and eastern borders. To this end, since 2020, Armenia has been tentatively exploring the viability of reopening rusty Soviet-era railways that run through its town of Meghri. Armenian concerns about the Zangezur Corridor largely surround sovereignty questions and border demarcation, though these issues’ sensitive and complex nature should not be understated. Armenia’s probing into the corridor’s possible construction poses yet further problems for Iran, which stands to gain nothing from it.

While Iran’s political alignment with Russia diminished after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, economic cooperation expanded. In August 2021, using territory it had acquired in southeastern Armenia during the war, Azerbaijan put a checkpoint on a twenty-kilometer section of Iran’s only north-south transit route through Armenia. Azerbaijani soldiers began charging customs to Iranian drivers and arrested some for their noncompliance. Iran responded by increasing its maritime shipping to Kazakhstan through the Caspian Sea and, notably, Russia, as well as constructing a new road to circumvent the Azerbaijani-controlled one.

Economic disruptions in the region are met with a growing partnership between Iran and Russia, but Iran’s aggressive efforts to contain further Azerbaijani expansionism often divide the two partners. When Azerbaijan conducted joint military exercises with Pakistan and Turkey on Iran’s northwestern border, Iran responded with its “Khyber Conquerors” exercises designed to deter an emboldened Azerbaijan. In this row, the Kremlin was silent on Azerbaijan’s exercises, but it publicly condemned the Iranian response.

The tumult of the Russian-Iranian relationship in the Caucasus continued into 2022. In March, Azerbaijani forces set up encampments in what was considered eastern Armenia. A lack of proper border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, an issue brought to light by the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, provided Russia justification for not complying with its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) obligations. At this time, Iran proposed the Aras Corridor as an alternative to the Zangezur Corridor. This transport link would connect Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan but would snake through Iran rather than through Armenia. While signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the corridor’s construction, Aliyev continued insisting on the Zangezur Corridor as well. Accordingly, Iranian rhetoric became sharper. Russia, largely mum on Azerbaijan’s military and political activity, made significant contributions to the INSTC during this time, perhaps with the intent to placate Iran. However, just days after this first trilateral meeting on the INSTC, deadly border clashes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, following which both Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan and Russia’s relations with Armenia reached new lows.

These clashes again raised Iran’s concerns about an Azerbaijani invasion of Syunik; an invasion made all the more possible by Russia’s refusal or inability to reign in Azerbaijan even when required to do so by the CSTO, its own bespoke, multilateral security organization. Accordingly, Iran conducted another series of military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan in October. While arguing that these exercises were routine, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Ali Akbar Pourjamshidian stated that “the presence of the Zionist regime [Israel] in the Caucasus region can be a serious threat to the entire region” and intimated Tehran’s opposition to alterations in the Iran-Armenia border.

Aliyev responded by arresting nineteen people for “spying for Iran” and, in a later speech, referred to the sizeable Azeri minority in northwestern Iran as “part of our people.” In an obvious violation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijan effectively blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh by setting up a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor. Disenchantment with Russia as an ally prompted Armenia to seek out alternative sources of military and diplomatic support, turning to Iran’s adversaries: the European Union (particularly France) and the United States. Putin, eager to teach Pashinyan a lesson, tacitly approved of the September 23 Azerbaijani incursion into Nagorno-Karabakh. In less than twenty-four hours, Azerbaijani troops ended centuries of Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh. With that, Russia’s remaining credibility in Armenia all but evaporated, and Iran’s military threats to Azerbaijan, yet again, proved utterly void of substance.

Azerbaijan’s September 23 victory revealed Iran’s unwillingness to counter Azerbaijan. Militarily, Iran did absolutely nothing in response to Azerbaijan’s conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, a continuation of inaction that occurred during the 2020 war—and highly indicative of Iran’s likely response if Azerbaijan invaded Syunik (Armenia’s southern province) in pursuit of its Zangezur Corridor.

Iran hopes to salvage its sway over the region by replacing confrontation with cooperation. Economically, Tehran doubled down on the Aras Corridor by announcing a slew of development projects along the Aras and Astarachay Rivers. Militarily, Iran announced joint naval exercises with Azerbaijan, even as Turkey simultaneously conducted joint exercises with Azerbaijani and Tajik forces on the Armenia-Nakhchivan border. Diplomatically, Iran used its 3+3 format to frame the end of the regional frozen conflict as a new era of stability, likely with the aim of making an incursion into southern Armenia seem like an uncalled-for disruption of the peace rather than a natural continuation of Azerbaijani military dominance. To this end, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, “The war in the South Caucasus is now over and the time has come for peace, cooperation, and development in the Caucasus.”

With its military deterrence proven uncredible, Iran hopes that a rapid and deep rapprochement will preserve its border with Armenia. However, like transporting two public officials in a dilapidated B-90 through heavy fog, this approach is laden with unforeseen difficulties and driven by unsubstantiated hopes—it may end in tragedy.

Source » nationalinterest