Nagorno-Karabakh: Chance for EU-Iran Engagement

by Eldar Mamedov

What was feared for a long time happened on April 2. Severe clashes erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a disputed, Armenian-majority area legally part of Azerbaijan. The clashes, which claimed the lives of at least a couple hundred people, have gone beyond the regular skirmishes along the truce line established after the war in 1994. The scope, scale, and intensity of the fighting led some observers to talk about a rehearsal for the next war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Such a war would be extremely devastating. In the 20 years since the fragile ceasefire, the two countries have each built large arsenals, especially Azerbaijan, greatly helped by its oil bonanza. Around 20 000 soldiers on each side are deployed mostly along the truce line around Nagorno-Karabakh and increasingly along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Both sides have the capacity to hit Baku and Yerevan and other cities far from the front line with ballistic missiles. Acts of terror and sabotage will likely ensue. The region´s energy infrastructure will be targeted, disrupting the construction of new transportation routes and undermining EU energy security as a result.

Mediation efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group Co-Chairs (US, France, Russia) have hit a deadlock. Neither side seems to be interested in making serious compromises for peace. To the contrary, a military offensive can be an attractive option to divert people´s attention from the falling living standards in Azerbaijan due to the slump in oil prices. By the same token, a hardening nationalist position could compensate for the Yerevan government’s lack of democratic legitimacy. Combined, these factors make the war more not less likely.

With the stakes so high, no wonder all the major international actors involved in the region—the US, the EU, Russia, Turkey, and Iran—have expressed their positions on the recent fighting. Apart from the US, the EU’s perspective is matched most closely by Iran. High Representative for the EU Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in her statement called on both sides to immediately halt fighting and observe a ceasefire. Iran has demanded exactly the same, with Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan phoning his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Although the EU has no specific role in the conflict resolution or mediation efforts (apart from France´s role in the OSCE Minsk Group), this coincidence of positions with Iran could boost Europe´s diplomatic clout in the region.

The EU doesn’t have many alternatives. Russia is traditionally mindful of any external involvement in what it sees as its soft underbelly. The Kremlin is committed to Armenia´s defense through the Collective Security Treaty, has a military base in Armenia, but also enjoys close relations with Azerbaijan, including through arms sales. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with sway over both sides, has led some regional analysts to suggest that Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, has started his offensive at Moscow´s behest. The aim of such a step would be to discredit any US attempts to mediate. The operation, for instance, started right after the Vice President Joe Biden met with both Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan, the president of Armenia, at the nuclear summit in Washington. Moscow could then position itself as the exclusive peacemaker. This theory may be far-fetched, but Putin´s Russia certainly doesn’t welcome foreign meddling in the post-Soviet space.

Another big player, Turkey, has unconditionally backed Azerbaijan. Although it is unlikely to get involved directly in any possible future military conflagration, Turkey will support Azerbaijan diplomatically and through capacity-building. Another motivation for Turkey would be to undermine Russian interests by acting against its Armenian ally.

That leaves Iran as the only one of the three big regional players to have a genuine stake in the stability of the South Caucasus. With its hands full in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, and with the need to rebuild its economy, Tehran certainly doesn’t need another arc of instability extending over its borders. Some mortar shells have reportedly landed in Iran as a result of the recent fighting, in a poignant reminder of the capacity of this conflict to provoke wider regional destabilization.

To avert such a tragic scenario, Iran can bring assets to the table that other regional players lack. It has a deep historical and cultural presence in the region. Traditionally Iran enjoyed close relations with Armenia, and later its occasionally rocky relations with Azerbaijan have improved too. The lifting of the sanctions following the nuclear deal has reinvigorated Iran’s ties with both countries. Neither side perceives Iran as an enemy or a bully.

Crucially, and in contrast to both Russia and Turkey, Iran doesn’t sell arms to either side of the conflict. The same holds true for the EU, which is legally barred from doing so. Despite all the complexities, Tehran is also on reasonable terms with both Moscow and Ankara.

As Federica Mogherini is preparing to visit Tehran in mid-April, exploring ways to defuse the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis could be included in the EU-Iran discussions on regional security. Both sides first should acknowledge that they have overlapping interests on the issue. The next step could be to coordinate their outreach to Baku and Yerevan, but also to Moscow and Ankara, to put an effective halt on fighting and move to de-escalation. On Syria, where the EU and Iran have divergent agendas, cooperation on regional security has been possible. In the south Caucasus, then, where their outlooks are much more aligned, Iran and the EU should have a somewhat easier time of it. In addition, such cooperation could further cement EU-Iran re-engagement following the nuclear deal—an objective well worth pursuing in itself.

Photo: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev meets with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.