Iran’s Latest Misadventure Destabilizes the Caucasus
While still engaged in conflicts from Syria to Yemen, Iran is now destabilizing a dispute in the Caucasus that you’ve likely never heard of — the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Recently, Azerbaijan discovered that Iranian trucks are supplying energy to the self-proclaimed Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh, the province that Armenia captured in 1993 and which remains in dispute to this day.
Until recently, Iran was officially neutral on the issue of the disposition of Nagorno-Karabakh, and recognized that it was a province of Azerbaijan. This posture came despite the fact that Iranian policy towards Azerbaijan has been tense throughout the post-Soviet period, and it has been a steadfast partner to Armenia. Tehran’s stance was influenced by its own fears of a breakaway or secessionist Azeri minority in northwestern Iran. Indeed, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s chief of General Staff, openly stated that Karabakh is Azeri territory and that changing borders by force is unacceptable.
Iran’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh has now changed, with troubling implications for regional security. Rather than supporting Armenia and seeking better ties with Azerbaijan — Tehran had even offered to mediate the conflict in the past — Iran has now shown that it is willing to undercut Azeri interests and the shaky truce with Armenia. Since outbreaks of fighting in the Caucasus could easily engulf both Russia and Turkey, this kind of meddling is provocative and a threat to regional stability.
Iran’s Shift on Nagorno-Karabakh
In April, Iranian trucks, bearing Iranian license plates, crossed into Nagorno-Karabakh and supplied the local population there with food, energy, and other products. These shipments are probably not the first ones undertaken by Tehran in violation of its own recognition of Karabakh as Azeri territory. Iranian officials, including from the Iranian embassy in Azerbaijan, denied the whole story, claiming that it was “fake news” generated by some separatist pro-Azeri opponent of the Iranian regime. Tehran’s actions and subsequent denials provoked a backlash from the Azeri government and public opinion.
Despite Iran’s claims that it is not recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh (or “Artsakh” as the Armenians call it) as an independent state or part of Armenia, bilateral cooperation with Armenia has grown since 2016. By that time, Iran was already building the Khudaferin high power plant on its border with Nagorno-Karabakh. Commenting on a 2018 interview with Nagorno-Karabakh’s Foreign Minister, Masis Mailyan, one account observed that Iran’s cooperation with Nagorno-Karabakh is mutually advantageous. Iran used to inform Azerbaijan about such activities — that no longer appears to be the case.
It’s likely that Iran’s cooperation with the government in Nagorno-Karabakh on energy shipments has been going on for some time, and that Armenia’s government has supported this cooperation as part of its larger relationship with Iran. That would implicate Yerevan — Armenia’s capital — in this break with international norms. Such cooperation also opens the door to Iranian transshipments of weapons and drugs to and through Karabakh that would also contravene international law. This would represent a major escalation, and constitute a serious threat to Azerbaijan. Since Iran shows a willingness to jeopardize its relations with Azerbaijan — and given its weapons and missile proliferation to its clients like the Houthi in Yemen — it’s plausible that Tehran might ship weapons to allies in Nagorno-Karabakh.
By extending this collaboration with Iran, Armenia places its generally good ties with Washington at risk. Abetting energy flows out of Iran while it is under American sanctions will jeopardize Yerevan’s ties with the United States and its access to the global financial system. Such a move would test the forbearance of the U.S. government, which recently showed special understanding to Armenia in regard to its economic ties to Iran and did not impose sanctions upon it regarding trade with Iran.
Implications for U.S. Interests
Iran’s behavior in the Caucasus has implications for U.S. interests. Tehran’s willingness to risk relations with Azerbaijan — with whom it has tried to establish a rapprochement since 2012 — represents a destabilizing new direction in Iranian foreign policy. Absent an American response, Iran may conclude that it can destabilize this region with impunity. Since Iran demonstrates a more cautious approach to countries on its border than with more distant theaters, this gambit suggests a greater tolerance for risk than many have hitherto believed.
Therefore, Iran may take more risks in regions where U.S. interests are more directly engaged, like the Middle East. Iran’s continuing nuclearization — and its refusal to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit certain sites — and its probes in Iraq and Syria highlight that trend. Although the United States killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January, the architect of much of Iran’s foreign adventurism, clearly Iran will not desist and is likely planning even bigger probes. More probes like this one against Azerbaijan are likely to occur sooner rather than later.
Developments in the Caucasus highlight the costs of the neglect that has characterized Washington’s approach to the region for over a decade. The United States has an interest in pacifying the region and helping countries escape the shadow of both Russian power and Iranian-supported terrorism. It also has a longstanding interest in supporting democracy as it supported Armenia’s democratic revolution in 2018. Lastly, the United States has an interest in maximizing energy flows from the Caspian Sea to Russia to sustain local governments and reduce Russian leverage on the Caucasus and Europe. When former National Security Advisor John Bolton traveled to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in 2018, it was notable because visits from high-level American officials to the region are so infrequent. While there, Bolton offered U.S. arms sales to Armenia. In response, Armenia publicly spurned U.S. cooperation. Moreover, the country appears to be undergoing democratic backsliding, with the arrest of the oligarch and critic of the regime Gagik Tsarukyan, and its defiance of all efforts to negotiate peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It behooves Washington to pay more attention to this conflict, and the Caucasus more broadly, because a flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could draw in Russia and Turkey. In 1993, the dispute almost led to a Russo-Turkish conflagration. Armenia could unsettle the region if it tries to hold on to what is universally recognized as Azeri territory. Since it appears to be conniving with Iran to sustain Nagorno-Karabakh — and ultimately incorporate it into Armenia — its policies should be exposed, or it should be induced to retract them at the risk of a major U.S. effort to support Azerbaijan’s. Such a threat might actually lead Yerevan to make peace now rather than bear the ever-higher costs of its current policies. And it would also have the benefit of exposing and thus minimizing Iran’s profile in the Caucasus.
Iran’s evolving position on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan injects a new, destabilizing factor in the Caucasus. Tehran’s actions in the region will prove toxic for its ties with Azerbaijan. It will also demonstrate that Iran is a destabilizing force, not only in the Middle East and the Gulf, but also in the Caucasus. Armenia is left in a difficult position, as it could be seen as complicit with Iran and an accessory to evading U.S. sanctions.
Tehran’s new posture in the Caucasus is almost certainly not a one-off. It is therefore worth asking if this newest revelation of Iran’s destabilizing behavior will elicit a response from Washington. If so, the United States should support Azerbaijan’s ability to defend its interests. If that comes to pass, then something positive might actually emerge from this whole unhappy episode.
Stephen Blank is an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and international relations across the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading expert on European and Asian security, including energy issues. Since 2020 he has been a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute www.fpri.org. From 2013-2020 he was a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, www.afpc.org. From 1989-2013 he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. In 1998-2001 he was Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at the War College.
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