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What is the position of Iran in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Iran, a neighboring country in the region, is interested in a peaceful settlement of the conflict being reached, and announced its intention of contributing to achieving one.[1] Indeed, Iran was one of the first countries to initiate peace talks between the parties to the conflict. Iran officially recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and supports the solution of the conflict within the framework of this principle.[2] Generally, Iran does not recognize the legitimacy of territorial claims based on historical arguments, since these may lead to an endless prolongation of the conflicts. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict became one of the main challenges for Iran’s foreign and domestic policy right from the start, since it represented a threat to the country’s national security.[3] Therefore, in March 1992, Iran initiated a mediation role in Tehran and invited delegations from Azerbaijan and Armenia to negotiate such issues as a temporary ceasefire agreement, a lifting of the blockade from Armenia, an exchange of prisoners and the deployment of observers. As a result of the meeting, on 15 March a declaration on the settlement of the conflict was signed and a seven-day ceasefire was agreed as an initial step in the process.[4] Unfortunately, the mediation process initiated by Iran failed: the war did not stop, but rather intensified, and resulted in the occupation of Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh predominantly populated by Azerbaijanis.

Indeed, the continuing Armenian aggression in Azerbaijani territories, regardless of the Tehran declaration, hampered Iran’s mediation efforts in the conflict. Moreover, government changes in Azerbaijan in June 1992 also led to the exclusion of Iran from the mediation process. The new Azerbaijan government rejected the idea of Iran playing any role in settling the conflict.[5] In the summer of 1993, as a result of the Armenian occupation of the southern and eastern parts of Karabakh, thousands of Azerbaijani refugees crossed the Aras River and arrived in Iran. However, Iran was not prepared to host them for a long period, and this explains why there were no refugee camps in its territories. Instead, a refugee camp was established in Azerbaijan after the Azerbaijani refugees were moved back to their country.[6] In September 1993, when Armenia’s aggression policy over Nakhchivan intensified, Iran tried to prevent it by sending troops across the border to secure “jointly managed” dams on the Aras river.[7] The Iranian intervention resulted with the guaranty given by Armenian officials about no any military operation in Nakhichivan.[8]

It was expected that during the war and after the ceasefire, Iran would also support the Azerbaijani position in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict due to the number of common values, such as religion, close traditions, history, and ethnic kin living in both of the countries. However, Iran improved its relations with Armenia and became one of its main trading partners. Statistics show that in 2010 Iran was Armenia’s fourth most important trade partner.[9] Moreover, the basic demands of Karabakh Armenians were also met by Iran. In fact, the strategic partnership with Iran became a way for Armenia to circumvent the economic embargo imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Settlement of the conflict was in the interests of Iran, since stability in neighboring countries was essential to its national security. Therefore, from the initial stages of the conflict, Iran made a great effort to resolve it. Despite the failure of the mediation initiated by Iran, the first ceasefire between the parties to the conflict was signed as a result of the Tehran Declaration. Despite its close relationships with Armenia, Iran recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and supports a settlement of the conflict based on the principles of the territorial integrity of sovereign states.[10]

[1] Ramazani, R. K., “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Both North and South”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3, 1992, p. 404.

[2] Hafizoglu, R. and Jafarov, T., “Iranian Top Official: Talks On Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Can Be Conducted More Effectively Inside Region”, Trend, June 28, 2011; https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/1897526.html. Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[3] Ramezanzadeh, Abdollah, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis”, in Coppieters, Bruno (ed.), Contested Borders in the Caucasus (VUB Press, 1996).

[4] Vaezi, Mahmoud, “Karabakh’s Crisis: Iran’s Mediation and the Aftermath”, Center for Strategic Research, December 14, 2008; http://www.isrjournals.com/en/iran-foreign-policy/811-karabakhs-crisis-irans-mediation-and-the-aftermath.html. Accessed on October 2, 2020.

[5] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 93.

[6] Ramezanzadeh, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis”.

[7] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 93.

[8] Ramezanzadeh, “Iran’s Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis”.

[9] Moniquet, Claude and Racimore, William, “The Armenia Iranian Relationships: Strategic Implication for security in the South Caucasus Region”, European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, January 17, 2013, p. 10.

[10] Mahmudlu, Ceyhun and Abilov, Shamkhal, “The peace-making process in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: why did Iran fail in its mediation effort?”, Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2017.