Will Iran, Turkey break deadlock over contentious Caucasus route?

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Turkey’s president has suggested that a breakthrough on a controversial transit corridor in the South Caucasus may be imminent. Azerbaijan plans to build a land route to Turkey via its Nakhchivan exclave. The Zangazur Corridor has sparked tension with Iran over concerns that it may cut Iranian access to Armenia.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent proposal is for the corridor to partly run through Iran. He has insisted that Tehran views the prospect “positively.” But Iran’s response has been vague, with mixed reactions in local media and among pundits.

The coverage: After a rare visit to Nakhchivan, Erdogan told reporters on Sept. 26 that parts of the controversial Zangazur Corridor could run through Iran instead of Armenia.

  • Erdogan said that if Yerevan “does not pave the way” for the corridor, then it could pass through Iran—a prospect that he claimed was viewed “positively” in Tehran.

Just a day earlier, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s remarks at a joint press conference with Erdogan in Nakhchivan raised concerns in Iran about the possibility of Azerbaijan “attacking” Armenia to build the corridor.

  • Aliyev lamented how “Western Zangazur” had been “severed” from Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union, which he said had cut off Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan.
  • “Western Zangazur” refers to Armenia’s southern Syunik Province which borders Iran. Tehran and Yerevan are concerned that the proposed corridor would cut Synik’s access to Iran.

Iranian state media on Sept. 26 proposed several “solutions” to neutralize “NATO’s project in the Caucasus.”

  • Jaam-e Jam, an outlet run by the state broadcaster, proposed a military alliance with Armenia to combat “common threats,” pointing to pan-Turkist sentiments allegedly “managed by” Israel and Turkey.
  • Jaam-e Jam also suggested that Yerevan should facilitate Iranian investment and proposed that Iran should focus on southern Armenia.
  • Moderate Jomhuri-e Eslami on Sept. 26 speculated that Aliyev was plotting to seize Syunik Province by force for the sake of the Zangazur Corridor.
  • The hardline daily Javan alleged that a “conspiracy” was unfolding to construct the route following the Aliyev-Erdogan meeting.

Erdogan’s apparent suggestion for the Zangazur Corridor to partly run through Iran may have been geared to assuage concerns in Tehran. But Iran’s response has been vague. Meanwhile, Iranian media and pundits seem divided on what to make of the proposal.

  • Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani on Oct. 2 reiterated that Iran has “clearly” stated its opposition to any border changes in the South Caucasus. Yet he also noted that Tehran “agrees” with “developing transit routes such that it benefits all regional nations.”
  • Government-run Iran daily on Sept. 27 speculated that Erdogan’s proposal showed that Tehran’s “serious message” about protecting its interests in the Caucasus and opposition to border changes had been “heard” by Ankara.
  • On the same day, South Caucasus expert Saeed Saffari told Reformist newspaper Shargh that Erdogan’s proposal could ensure that there will be no border changes, but only as long as Iran “maintains oversight” over the Zangazur Corridor.

While some have welcomed the prospect of Iranian involvement in the project, others have warned that it may not be as enticing as it may seem.

  • Conservative newspaper Farhikhtegan on Sept. 27 questioned Erdogan’s proposal and accused the Turkish president of “deception.”
  • Farhikhtegan argued that Azerbaijan would not have fought a war with Armenia if it did not want the corridor to go through southern Armenia. It also warned that Ankara and Baku would have “complete control” over the corridor regardless of its route.
  • Mahmoud Karimi, an analyst specializing in South Caucasus affairs, agreed with Farhikhtegan’s bleak take. He told Shargh newspaper on Sept. 27 that Iran would risk “seeing its territory taken by Azerbaijan” if it agreed to Erdogan’s proposal.

Iran reiterated its opposition to border changes in the Caucasus during an Oct. 1 visit to Tehran by Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of the Security Council of Armenia.

  • Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Akbar Ahmadian told Grigoryan that “any geopolitical changes in the region will cause insecurity and instability and will escalate crisis.” Both officials called for enhanced bilateral cooperation.
  • Grigoryan’s trip to Tehran was his second this year, having traveled to Iran to meet Ahmadian’s predecessor Ali Shamkhani on Apr. 9.

The context/analysis: Azerbaijan’s deepening ties with Israel in past years have been a key source of contention between Baku and Tehran. Tensions have also flared more recently due to what Iran sees as Azerbaijan’s Turkey-backed efforts to sever its land connection to Armenia.

  • During the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan reportedly received help from Israel and Turkey. Iran, a longstanding ally of Armenia, cautiously refrained from taking sides during the war.
  • Azerbaijan seized large territories during the 44-day conflict. The war ended with a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. As part of this accord, Armenia agreed to the establishment of a transit corridor in its southern Syunik Province.
  • Azerbaijan completed its seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh following a lightning 24-hour offensive on Sept. 19. More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians in the area have since fled to Armenia.

The border between Armenia and Iran is of high importance to both countries.

  • The merely 48 km (29.8 miles) frontier has been described as a “lifeline” for Armenia, which is sandwiched between Azerbaijan and Turkey.
  • Access to Armenia via Syunik Province provides Iran with a dependable overland transit route to Georgia and beyond. This is particularly of high value for Tehran at times when relations with Baku and Ankara experience turbulence.
  • More broadly, Iran considers the South Caucasus as a historical zone of influence and sees any loss of access to the countries there as a threat to its stature.

The future: Iran has long opposed the Zangazur Corridor, concerned that it will deprive it of direct access to Armenia.

  • Amid rising tensions over any potential border changes, Iran on one side and Azerbaijan and Turkey on the other side have flexed their military muscles in recent years. However, it appears highly unlikely that an armed conflict will erupt in the absence of a common understanding.
  • Iran is not likely to consent to the corridor running through Armenia in a manner that obstructs access to its Christian neighbor. In this context, Erdogan’s apparent proposal may be welcomed—particularly if Tehran maintains full control over the relevant section of the route, and if transit revenues are guaranteed.

Source: Amwaj.media

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