The Road That Could Ignite a War in the Caucasus

Azerbaijan has been blockading the lone road that leads to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh for more than seven months. Residents are reportedly running out of fuel and food. Ever since the breakup of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave recognized as Azerbaijani territory by the international community but mostly populated by ethnic Armenians.

They fought a war there three years ago when Azerbaijan grabbed land in a six-week conflict that led to roughly 7,000 deaths. There have been periodic skirmishes ever since. While Nagorno-Karabakh is important to both sides, I don’t believe it is the primary reason Azerbaijan continues the blockade. The real reason is that Baku wants a peace deal that includes the opening of the Zangezur corridor – which would connect Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave wedged between Armenia, Turkiye, and Iran. The problem for Azerbaijan and Turkiye, which also wants the corridor, is that it risks a wider war. Iran has said such a corridor is a red line. Such a corridor would mean goods and energy could flow freely between Azerbaijan and Turkiye without having to be rerouted through Iran, thereby eliminating the lucrative fees Tehran charges for such transfers. This is part of the reason Iran is so opposed to such a plan and has beefed up its presence along its border with Armenia.

The nine-point ceasefire agreement signed under Russian mediation that ended the 2020 war included a  stipulation that Armenia is responsible for ensuring the security of transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, facilitating the unhindered movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions. Azerbaijan and Turkiye have latched onto that point, insisting they have the right to set up transportation links through southern Armenia.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is demanding that the corridor be opened as part of any lasting peace. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that point on July 31, according to Hurriyet. Turkiye’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said the same. According to Asbarez:

“The road to regional stability is through a comprehensive peace agreement. For this, the opening of the ‘Zangezur corridor’ is of great importance,” Fidan said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has conceded on the issue of Nagorno, accepting that it is part of Azerbaijan. That was more than two months ago, and yet the blockade continues because what Baku really wants is the corridor, and it is willing to starve the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and risk war to get it.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkiye have proceeded since the 2020 war as if the corridor is on the verge of becoming a reality. Both have been working on highways and rail lines where the only missing link is the roughly 10-mile stretch through Armenia. Back in January Aliyev declared that the project “will happen whether Armenia wants it to or not.”

It remains to be seen if he will be so confident going against Iran’s wishes. Tensions have been steadily rising between Tehran and Baku in recent months. Azerbaijan and Israel are now alleging that Armenia is using Iranian Shaheed drones, which would mark a major increase in Tehran’s support for Yerevan and the latest escalation over the Zangezur issue. Armenia has denied using Iranian drones.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced the creation of a “united front against Iran” during a press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem for the opening of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tel Aviv at the end of March. The close ties between the two are nothing new (Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest energy provider and the latter supplies the large majority of weapons to the former), but have ratcheted up in recent months.

In addition to escalating military exercises on their common border, Baku and Tehran are increasingly at odds over a range of other incidents. On Jan. 27, an attack by a gunman carried out at Baku’s embassy in the Iranian capital left the head of the embassy’s security services dead and two security guards injured. Azerbaijan quickly evacuated the diplomatic post.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry in late March accused Iran of being behind the shooting attack near Baku that left a member of parliament wounded. Azerbaijani media have speculated that some of the six individuals detained in the shooting lived or traveled to Iran at various times and that the primary attacker received training from Iranian special forces. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry on April 6 also expelled four Iranian Embassy employees after declaring them persona non grata. Shortly after reports emerged about Azerbaijan arresting hundreds more while the media labeled them Iranian spies. Cohen was recently in Azerbaijan to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, which is located just 12 miles from the Iranian border.

The Zangezur issue is also causing friction between Ankara and Tehran, with Erdogan recently criticizing Iran for its opposition. India, too, is being drawn into the fray. Worried that a Turkiye-Azerbaijan-Pakistan alliance would upset the regional power dynamics and have repercussions for Kashmir, New Delhi is also sending arms to Yerevan.

If all of that doesn’t create enough of a powder keg, there’s also Washington neocons sticking their noses in.

Russia has long been the dominant player in the South Caucasus. Moscow put an end to the 2020 conflict by essentially telling Azerbaijan, which enjoyed an overwhelming advantage thanks to military support from Turkiye and Israel, to knock it off. Moscow mediated a peace and has had peacekeepers in the region, but Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and fending off efforts from the West at regime change has created a bit of a power vacuum. The US is now trying to play a central role in finding a solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan disagreements in an effort to diminish Russian influence in the region (or stir up trouble).

Neocons in Washington have long dreamed of using Azeris to destabilize Iran. There is no indication this would work, nor are the wider repercussions of such an effort clear, but that will not stop the neocons running the US State Department from trying. The Middle East Media Research Institute, which is run by Israeli and American spooks, wrote as recently as November about using Azerbaijanis in Iran to further their goal of regime change:

In order to bring about regime change at home and contain Iranian expansionism abroad, Iran needs to be weakened from within. The international community therefore must engage Iran more effectively inside its borders through pursuing a “periphery strategy,” i.e., supporting the ethnic minorities found in its border regions. This will achieve two goals. First, ethnic minorities would finally enjoy the freedom and human rights they have been deprived of since the early 20th century. Second, this would deprive Iran of human and natural resources it needs to perpetrate its malign expansionism in the Middle East.

An array of democratic ethno-nations in the periphery of Iran would create a “great wall” around the country. This “wall” would stretch from the Kurdish areas of Northern Khurasan to the Persian gulf in the west including Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Khuzistan as well as Balochistan in the southeast and would limit Iran’s access to the outside world and consequently end its geostrategic importance regionally and internationally.

Eldar Mamedov has written at Responsible Statecraft about what a stupid and reckless idea this is, but again, has that ever stopped the neocons before? For Washington, the Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions are an opportunity to get more of a foothold in the region dominated by Russia. Any conflict would create quite the headache for Moscow as it would be forced to try to balance the interests of not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Iran, Turkiye, Israel and India.

For an inside look at the line of thinking from The Blob we can turn to Michael Doran, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, he weeps for the suffering of the Azeris, and despite Russia previously providing more of a stabilizing force in the region, Doran blames all the South Caucasus problems on Putin. Here’s Doran writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Putin also has been hosting talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, apparently playing at peacemaking while keeping the dispute on a low burn. A true resolution of the conflict would obviate the need for Russian forces in Karabakh, one of his two major tools for forcing Baku to respect his will.

Meanwhile, Russia has an unassailable military position in Armenia, home to at least three Russian bases. Russian soldiers patrol key segments of Armenia’s borders, and Russian military officers entirely control Armenian air space.

By contrast, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has been remarkably successful at wiggling free of Moscow’s control—more successful than almost all other leaders of former Soviet republics. While fostering strong economic ties with Europe, to which Azerbaijan supplies oil and gas, Mr. Aliyev has simultaneously developed deep and enduring defense ties with Turkiye and Israel.

The ironic aspect of this argument that Russia is fully behind Armenia and bullying around Azerbaijan is twofold:

1. Azerbaijan has enjoyed the overwhelming military advantage in recent years due to support it receives from Turkiye and Israel. Armenia has not enjoyed similar support from Moscow.

2. Armenians have been furious with Russia for its lack of support and for being too accommodating of Azerbaijan. Essentially, Russia has tried to mediate the conflict as even handedly as possible and is now getting criticized from both sides for it.

Not to worry, though; Doran eventually gets around to the whole point of US involvement in the affair:

Mr. Blinken now recognizes that the American track offers the only viable path to coaxing Armenia to make peace and, thereby, limit the forms of cooperation with the Russian-Iranian alliance that threaten U.S. interests.

Washington is freaking out over the burgeoning sanction-busting Russia-Iran relationship and is struggling to find a way to counter. The neocons at the Heritage Foundation sum it up this way:

Considering their regional and global geopolitical ambitions, the deepening strategic partnership between Iran and Russia poses a rising threat to the U.S., its allies, and partners in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Failing to quickly address these troubling ties—and the multiple threats that arise from them—will only lead to more international instability, including in the war in Ukraine. Washington and like-minded countries urgently need to take steps now to undermine and counter the anti-American Russo–Iranian axis before additional damage is done.

The Zangezur corridor is indeed one area where Moscow and Iran diverge. While Iran views such an initiative as a major threat, Russia is more concerned with maintaining economic ties and transit options with Azerbaijan and Turkiye. Therefore any conflict in the South Caucasus is a win-win for Washington as it could allow the neocons to try out their theory that such a conflagration would destabilize Iran while also potentially creating a rift between Moscow and Iran if they don’t see eye to eye on the solution.

The RAND Corporation, too, has written about how the Caucasus is but one area on Russia’s periphery where conflict would weaken Moscow. With that in mind, officials in Azerbaijan and Armenia should be very cautious accepting help at finding a peace solution from Blinken and company, as peace is the last thing they’re worried about.

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Conor Gallagher