Author: Vasil Ghlonti, International Security Expert-Analyst
In recent years, Iran has become very active in the foreign-political arena, no doubt precipitated by a desire to escape its international isolation. One of the main focuses of the Islamic Republic is the expansion of relations with its neighboring countries, which include Armenia, a fact validated by the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, Ararat Mirzoyan, to Iran.
In our blog, we will try to answer the question: What political and economic dividends do Iran and Armenia hope to receive from an expansion of relations, and what benefit or damage will Georgia see from this?
Iran considers the Armenian district, Syunik, and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, as a transport bridge between the Persian Gulf and Black Sea regions, which can connect it to Russia through the territories of Armenia and Georgia. It is expected that the strengthening of Iran’s positions will invigorate anti-Western sentiment in the region, which is against the state interests of Georgia. In addition, Iran may set in motion its special services in order to gain more influence on the Azerbaijani community living in Kvemo Kartli.
On the other hand, deepening ties with Iran allows Armenia, which is in a geopolitical deadlock due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, to connect with the rich regions of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
There is also the Russian factor, which is concerned about the strengthening of the Turkey-Azerbaijan tandem in the South Caucasus, and which promotes the return of Iran as a political actor in the region in order to establish a balance of power. It is possible that the cooperation of these two anti-Western empires, and the strengthening of their positions, will aggravate the already difficult situation in our region, perhaps even creating additional problems for Georgia.
The Iran-Armenia cooperation in recent years
It is conceivable that Iran’s concern caused by Armenia’s resounding defeat in the recent Karabakh war is due to the expected prospect of deepening strategic relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. Considering that Israel provides significant military assistance to Azerbaijan, and, in turn, Azerbaijan supports Israel in intelligence activities against Iran, the Iranian side may fear that these circumstances will create a serious threat to its state interests. This perception is aggravated even more by the fact that, recently, Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan have become very tense. In such a situation, it is possible for Iranians to assume that Azerbaijan, with the support of Israel, is promoting ethnic separatism in the northern regions of Iran inhabited by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. However, in our estimation, the fear of the Iranian side seems somewhat exaggerated, because the Shiite Azerbaijanis living in Iran are quite well integrated into the Iranian state system, the Iranian National Majlis, various ministries, and other state structures. Therefore, “Azerbaijani separatism” in Iran, despite periodic manifestations, at this stage is not a serious threat to the local regime.
Against this background, the “Zangezuri (Armenian Syunik) Corridor” project initiated by President Ilham Aliyev also worries Iran, because the main section of the Iran-Armenian border passes through the Syunik District of Armenia. It is possible that the Iranian side, should this project be implemented, will assume that Syunik will fall under the control of Azerbaijan, and, as a result, that it will become dependent on Azerbaijan, while, as it currently stands, due to the conflict with Armenia, Azerbaijan is connected to Nakhchivan through the territory of Iran, and is therefore dependent on Iran. The Iranian side is likely afraid of the new possible reality, in which the need for Azerbaijan to use the territory of Iran may disappear.
Perhaps, if the “Zangezur project” is implemented, Iran fears an increase in the influence of the Azerbaijani-Turkish tandem, which in turn amplifies its fear of being left out of the political-economic processes and transport routes in the region. Despite the fact that the leadership of Azerbaijan is trying to neutralize Iranian concerns and offering it opportunities to participate in the aforementioned project, the Iranian side still has many questions. It is also quite possible that the important processes that have taken place in Nagorno-Karabakh recently will have a big impact on the Zangezur Corridor project. In particular, the renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in late September showed that Azerbaijan has decided to speed up the process of restoring its territorial integrity and to bring it to an end. The serious defeat of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian Army and the capitulation of the local separatist government suggest that Azerbaijan is very close to achieving its goal.
It is possible that Nikol Pashinyan, who is now in a very difficult situation, will turn to Iran for help. The visit of the Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia to Iran on October 1-2 is related to this. However, considering that Iran’s leadership has recently been trying to improve relations with Azerbaijan and get involved in international transport/energy projects, the maximum that Iran can agree to is supplying Armenia with weapons and providing its military help via a peacekeeping mission, and the UN is already actively discussing the use of Iran’s capabilities in this regard. Considering this reality, it is possible that the return of Karabakh to Azerbaijan and the restoration of territorial integrity will be followed by the opening of the Zangezur Corridor in the near future.
Against this background, Iran and Russia’s attempt to implement the project constituting the “North-South” international railway corridor leads us to believe that these two countries seek to improve their economies, weakened by the sanctions, by mounting heavy competition for the maritime transport lines controlled by Western countries. Perhaps they think that, by doing so, they will neutralize the levers of the West’s economic influence and limit the impact of the international sanctions. It is possible that, in this scenario, Georgia’s security vulnerability will rise, as it is conceivable that Russia and Iran will have more leeway in the South Caucasus and anti-Western tendencies will increase. This would create certain problems in the process of Georgia’s accession to NATO and the European Union, because, in the future, Russia-Iran may be able to implement their own political-economic expansion in the South Caucasus with impunity.
The financing of the construction of checkpoints on the Iran-Armenia border by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the active involvement of an Iranian company in their modernization, indicate that the European Union, using the Armenian factor, intends to establish/expand relations with the Iranian side. Armenia will also want to continue the process of strengthening relations with the European Union and the USA, along with the expansion of cooperation with Iran. Moreover, in order to solve the Karabakh problem, the EU’s sending of a peacekeeping mission, largely staffed by the military and special service personnel, and recently joined by Canada, indicates the increase of the world powers’ interest in the ongoing processes in the South Caucasus. The fact that the Iranian side did not react negatively to the activity of the Europeans corroborates our assumption that Iran and the European Union are in the process of finding points of cooperation with each other.
In contrast to Iran, the Russian criticism of the same peacekeeping mission shows that the Kremlin perceives the European engagement as an attempt by the foreign forces to penetrate the region. It is in Russia’s interest that until it “finally solves” the problem of Ukraine, its rival countries should not be able to strengthen their positions in the South Caucasus. Against this background, the announcement of the opening of the Russian and French consulates in the Syunik district of Armenia, where the Iranian Consulate General already operates, leads us to believe that, most likely, in the future, this location will become a key point of intersection of the interests of various influential political forces, countries, and their special services, and an epicenter of confrontation. Interestingly, in recent years, the USA has also shown an interest in Syunik.
Iran will undoubtedly try to strengthen its position in Armenia, all the more so as Russia’s positions in the South Caucasus have weakened considerably due to its ongoing war in Ukraine and, as such, a place has been opened up for Iran. However, in some respects, at this stage, the strengthening of Iran in Armenia might play in Russia’s favor, while it seeks a counterweight for the Azerbaijan-Turkey political union.
We can believe that the cooperation between Iran and Armenia, including in the military field, will further expand, while Iran will avoid a direct military confrontation with Azerbaijan as far as possible. It is possible that Iran will focus on sending its military to Nagorno-Karabakh on a peacekeeping mission. Further, as Armenia’s Syunik district is a constituent part of the Zangezur Corridor project, it is expected that the Iranian side will strengthen its political-economic expansion in this region.
For its part, Armenia will try to use Iran’s economic, energy, and military capabilities. It is possible that the Armenian side will equip its army with Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles of various modifications, and other weaponry. In addition, Armenia will likely try to significantly increase the volume of Iranian investments in the country, so as to improve its fragile economic situation.
At the same time, Pashinyan will most likely increase the pace of cooperation with the West. However, in the near term, it is unlikely that Armenia will completely ignore Russia’s interests and refuse to participate in its political-economic unions. Most likely, Russia will try to establish its own control over the highways connecting Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan that pass through the territory of Armenia. In view of this, it is possible that after the settlement of the Karabakh problem, the process of opening the Zangezur Corridor will be accelerated, and we will thus be seeing a completely new geopolitical reality in the near future.