BACKGROUND: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran and Russia formed similar approaches towards the three newly independent states of the South Caucasus, opposing the intervention of Western powers, especially NATO and the U.S., and regime change by color revolutions. Iran, Armenia and Russia gradually formed a kind of unwritten alliance in the South Caucasus. However, in recent years, despite the close relations between Tehran and Moscow, the perceptions and approaches of the two sides towards the conflict between Yerevan and Baku have increasingly diverged.
The process began with the Second Karabakh War and intensified with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. From the beginning of the Karabakh crisis in the early 1990s, the Iranian government has recognized the region of Karabakh and surrounding regions as part of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, unlike Turkey, Iran has in practice sought to retain a degree of balance in relations with Baku and Yerevan. Russia, through its military bases and Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), played an important role in maintaining the balance between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, Tehran and Moscow were both dissatisfied with Nikol Pashinyan’s ascent to power in May 2018 and the Western-oriented approaches of the new Armenian government. Neither country fully supported their partner in the South Caucasus during the Second Karabakh War. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced on November 3, 2020 that “Territories seized by Armenia must be returned and liberated.” President Putin said that “the military conflict was not taking place in Armenian territory,” which prevented reactions and intervention from the Russian military bases in Armenia as well as the CSTO in the Second Karabakh War. While the lack of support for Armenia revealed coordinated positions of Moscow and Tehran in the Second Karabakh war, their positions on the new developments have increasingly diverged.
IMPLICATIONS: Iran and Russia formed common policies after the Second Karabakh War, as Moscow supported Iran’s proposed 3+3 format for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus. This format conformed to their traditional joint approach of non-participation and intervention of Western powers, especially the U.S. and NATO, in the South Caucasus. After the Second Karabakh War, Iran and Russia both supported the revival of the Soviet-era rail route in the South Caucasus.
Iran and Russia had previously taken similar approaches to political developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh region – both declined to recognize the Republic of Artsakh, promoted the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians, opposed the use of force to resolve the Karabakh conflict, and resisted the stationing of international peacekeeping forces on the Karabakh contact line along the Iranian border.
After the Second Karabakh War, differences between Tehran’s and Moscow’s approaches gradually emerged. The fifth paragraph of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia stated, “For more efficient monitoring of the Parties’ fulfilment of the agreements, a peacemaking center shall be established to oversee the ceasefire.” Turkey jointed the Center for monitoring the ceasefire in Agdam, but Iran did not participate. In fact, while Turkey was not mentioned in the agreement, a memorandum of understanding established a joint Turkish-Russian center. While Iran and its northwestern frontiers have been profoundly impacted by the outcome of the war, Iran was not invited to join the center, demonstrating Russia’s preparedness to disregard Iranian interests in this regard.
Unlike Iran, Russia did not oppose the Zangezur Corridor. For example, according to Russia’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mikhail Bocharnikov, “the so-called Zangezur Corridor project, by which Baku wants to have an uninterrupted connection with Nakhichevan through the territory of Armenia, has all the bases for implementation and I don’t see any unsolvable differences on this issue.” Iran has taken a different position and is deeply concerned over the realization of this corridor, which in its perspective risks the possible blocking or destruction of its border with Armenia,especially since Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has even threatened that if Armenia doesn’t give Baku what it wants, Azerbaijan will take the land for the corridor by force.
Also, Russia’s views regarding Israel’s role in the South Caucasus, especially in Azerbaijan, differ considerably from Iran’s. While Iran is extremely worried about threats relating to intelligence and espionage in the vicinity of its northwestern borders, as well as the threat of Israeli drones to Iranian military and nuclear centers, Moscow has close relations with Israel and does not share this perception. Russia has adopted an approach to Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus that is similar to that in Syria, which is definitely not favorable to Tehran.
Simultaneously, the war in Ukraine has reduced Russia’s focus on the South Caucasus, while increasing Russia’s dependence on Azerbaijan and Turkey for economic relations and transit. The outcome is strengthening ties between Baku, Ankara and Jerusalem after the Second Karabakh war, which has made Iran extremely worried about geopolitical changes, the balance of power and changing international borders in the region.
Over the last three years, Russia has increasingly ignored Iran’s geopolitical concerns in the South Caucasus. When tensions between Tehran and Baku peaked in September and October 2021, Iran sought to enlist Moscow’s cooperation against geopolitical threats in the South Caucasus. However, in a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian in Moscow in October 6, 2021, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov made clear that Moscow opposed Tehran’s military exercises (“Fatehan [Conquerors] of Kheibar”) along the Azerbaijani border.
CONCLUSIONS: The different attitudes and approaches of Iran and Russia towards the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan are indicative of their increasingly diverging positions in the South Caucasus, compared to their largely shared approaches before the Second Karabakh war. The close relations between Russia and Israel, as well as Russia’s economic relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, have forced Moscow to take a flexible approach in the South Caucasus, to Tehran’s detriment. Indeed, the 3+3 format has become very weak after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the escalation of tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. This process has upended the unwritten alliance between Iran, Armenia and Russia and has placed Iran in a security and strategic dilemma along its northwestern borders. Iran could therefore see itself forced to react defensively (rather than aggressively) to maintain its common border with Armenia and to confront Israel’s intelligence and security presence along Iran’s northwestern borders (similarly to Iran’s reaction to Kurdish opposition groups in the Iraqi Kurdistan region).