BACKGROUND: As a result of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the direct rail connection as well as the road between mainland Azerbaijan and the exclave region of Nakhchivan was cut. In these circumstances, by bypassing Armenia through Iran, the land route of Bileh Savar in northern Ardabil province, near Iran’s border and 220 kilometers from Baku, became the main transit route between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, as well as Turkey. This transit, part of Iran’s Road 12, is strategically important for Azerbaijan. It is the shortest land link connecting western Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan via the Bileh Savar-Julfa section.
However, the November 10, 2020, the tripartite ceasefire agreement concluding the Second Karabakh War stated that “All economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked,” raising expectations that after three decades, the deadlocks created in the region’s transportation system, especially the railways, will be removed. Nevertheless, due to the continual border tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the fragile conditions of Nagorno-Karabakh and the strong opposition from Iran and Armenia to the Zangezur Corridor, little progress has been made regarding the reopening of transportation routes.
Instead, Tehran and Baku agreed on March 11, 2022, to establish a new railway, highway, communications, and energy supply lines connecting Azerbaijan’s East Zangezur Economic Region to Nakhchivan through Iranian territory. However, due to tensions between Tehran and Baku in the past two years over military maneuvers, Israel, the Zangezur Corridor and the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, this agreement has not become operational.
Yet, after the capture of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijani forces in September 2023, Iran and Azerbaijan agreed on a transit route connecting western Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan via Iran on October 9, 2023. Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev and Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Mehrdad Bazrpash, took part in a groundbreaking ceremony for a bridge connecting the two countries over the Aras River. This 55-kilometer highway and rail route passes through the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan and connects the village of Aghband in the southwestern corner of the Zangilan District to the city of Ordubad in southern Nakhchivan. For the highway to reach Ordubad, three more bridges (two rail, one road) need to be constructed across the Aras River.
IMPLICATIONS: The transit route agreed between Tehran and Baku is termed the Aras Corridor. Iran considers the Aras Corridor as an alternative to the Zangezur Corridor, which can also reduce the country’s concerns about instability along its common border with Armenia. One rationale for ensuring that the commenced construction of a transit route from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan through Iran will be completed is that this will reduce the incentive for Azerbaijan to forcefully establish transit via Armenia.
Statements on the matter from Turkey and Azerbaijan received extensive coverage in Iranian media. The day after a visit to Nakhchivan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on September 25 that “We are doing our best to open the Zangezur corridor. There are also positive signals from Iran. If Armenia prevents the opening of the Zangezur corridor, it is possible for the corridor to pass through Iran.” Moreover, Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant to the President of Azerbaijan, told Politico on October 25 that “the so-called Zangezur Corridor has lost its attractiveness: We can do it with Iran instead.”
These new and unpresented positions were given two different interpretations in Iran. The first point of view considers the Aras Corridor to be the result of Iran’s opposition and resistance to the Zangezur Corridor. In this regard, Iran’s official and governmental perspective views the Aras Corridor as a means to reduce tension with Azerbaijan, maintaining Iran’s balanced approach in the South Caucasus and strengthening the 3+3 format. On the other hand, some Iranian experts view the Aras Corridor with caution and doubt and believe that the Azerbaijani government’s preference for it is temporary and technical, and aimed primarily at pressuring Armenia to cooperate regarding the Zangezur Corridor. In this perspective, the Zangezur Corridor remains the preferred option for both Baku and Ankara and when direct land and rail connections are established between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan via Armenia, Baku will withdraw from the Aras Corridor.
While construction of the railway and road in the Azerbaijani part of the Zangezur corridor is progressing rapidly, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2024, recent statements from Azerbaijani and Turkish authorities have strengthened these perceptions in Iran. On January 2, Elchin Amirbayov, an Azerbaijani presidential envoy for special assignments, told Estonian Public Broadcasting that “we started talking with the Armenian side about restoring the so-called Zangezur corridor so that Azerbaijani citizens living in Nakhchivan, or the main part of Azerbaijan, had an unhindered passage of this territory.” On January 7, Turkey’s transport minister Abdulkadir Uraloğlu said that “we consider this corridor irreplaceable. the Azerbaijani part of the Zangezur Corridor (from Baku to Horadiz) is nearing completion. The length of the Turkish section of the corridor is 224 km. Overall, the entire process of creating this corridor will take five years. So, by 2028, we'll complete all the work.” Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev reiterated on January 10 Baku’s renewed demands for Armenia to open an extraterritorial corridor to Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave. Alperen Aktas, a Turkish expert, is optimistic about this process and believes that “if an agreement is reached with Armenia, Azerbaijan will have two transportation alternatives to Nakhchivan, through either Armenia or Iran.”
Moreover, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced a “Crossroads of Peace” project during the “Silk Road” international conference in Tbilisi on October 26. Based on the four principles embedded in this project, it aims to enhance communication between Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran through infrastructure development, including roads, railways, pipelines, cables and electricity lines. The plan proposed by Armenia, which has encountered domestic opposition, is seemingly an attempt to abandon the Zangezur Corridor and still fulfill the ninth clause of the 2020 Karabakh ceasefire agreement for transit access and transportation between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. Therefore, from the perspective of Iran and Armenia, both the Crossroads of Peace project and the Aras Corridor can prevent the implementation of the Zangezur Corridor while opening transit and transportation routes in the region.
CONCLUSIONS: While Tehran and Baku signed an agreement on the Aras Corridor on October 9, 2023, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking steps to sign a peace treaty after the end of the long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On December 7, the two states issued an unexpected joint statement, the first of its kind that did not bear the signature of any external mediator. If the two states sign a peace treaty, and if a mutual recognition of territorial integrity as well as the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are realized, the current advantages of the Aras Corridor will be reduced. In addition, Azerbaijan is seeking to reduce or eliminate transit and energy dependence on Iran through various projects, such as the construction of a gas pipeline from Iğdır, Turkey to Sadarak, Nakhchivan, as well as the Kars-Nakhchivan railroad. These equations are likely to change only if Pashinyan’s government in Armenia falls and the nationalist and conservative movement opposing peace with Azerbaijan and normalization of relations with Turkey come to power in Armenia.