The latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been a strategic disaster for Iran. Why? Because the terms of the ceasefire agreed on between Armenia and Azerbaijan represent a grave threat to Iran’s long-term strategic interests. The effects of this are likely to influence the Iranian people’s perception of their regime, as well as alter Iran’s policy toward Azerbaijan and Syria.
Azerbaijan now is in control over the entirety of its border with Iran along the Aras river. While this may be a cause for celebration in Baku, it is viewed with alarm in Tehran. This is because an extension of Azerbaijan’s border with Iran will give Israel access to more territory from which to keep tabs on Iran. Despite denials from Baku, it is no secret that Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy substantive cooperation in intelligence, energy and military matters.
Azerbaijan is one of the largest buyers of Israeli weaponry. Its use of Israeli “kamikaze” drones in the war played an important role in tilting the battlefield to its advantage – although the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones have been credited as a true game changer in the war. Besides this, both countries maintain deep intelligence ties. And were Tel Aviv to launch airstrikes against Iranian nuclear installations, Azerbaijan is likely to play a vital role either as a refueling stop or launchpad.
The other consequence of the war is the creation of a transit corridor across Armenian territory that will connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave. To be manned by Russian troops, this corridor likely will run parallel to Armenia’s border with Iran. This has already raised concern in Tehran as it could effectively cut off Iranian access to Armenia and onwards to Europe via Georgia. For a country already reeling from international sanctions, it is of great importance for Iran that it is able to gain access to friendly neighbors.
Such is the panic that has set in that Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, was compelled to explicitly spell out that Iran’s access to Armenia will not be threatened by the transport corridor. It is noteworthy that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will soon travel to Moscow and Baku to discuss the issue in more detail. However, what is more important to note is the capital he will not be visiting – Ankara, another important winner of the conflict. Turkey will maintain troops in Azerbaijan and now gets direct access to the Caspian Sea via the proposed Nakhchivan-Azerbaijan corridor. It can now also directly project influence to Central Asia, one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most cherished ambitions.
Tehran will have also taken note of Russia’s reluctance in offering full-throated support to its ally Armenia. The takeaway from Russia’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that it is happy to sacrifice an ally if it becomes too bothersome. Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, came to power via the sort of “color revolutions” detested by Vladimir Putin. He further annoyed Putin by jailing Robert Kocharyan, Armenia’s ex-president and erstwhile Putin ally.
In this conflict, then, Moscow stuck to the letter rather than the spirit of its alliance with Yerevan, stating that its security commitments only extended to Armenia’s territory. Moscow has allowed Azerbaijan to reclaim all its lost territories, allowing Armenia to retain rump areas around Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. Moscow will maintain influence in the region by providing peacekeeping troops in Karabakh and along the proposed Nakhchivan-Azerbaijan corridor.
Moscow also will be happy to see the back of Prime Minister Pashinyan, whose political career now seems over. It also appears to be guided by its broader goal of ensuring that Turkey stays out of the Western orbit. Astute policymakers in Tehran will likely draw the right conclusions from this, particularly in terms of what this may augur for Iran’s ally in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad. Having seen the eagerness with which Russia and Turkey were willing to hash out a deal between themselves, Tehran is likely to push the Assad regime in the direction of concluding the Syrian civil war.
The main domestic effect of how the conflict has played out on domestic politics within Iran is likely to be psychological. This is yet another blow to Iran’s self-image as a regional hegemon. Indeed, that Tehran was a bystander to the conflict and was unable to have a say in shaping the outcome will revive memories of the two Russo-Persian Wars of the 19th century, which resulted in Persia having to cede its control over the entire South Caucasus.
It reveals to the Iranian people that Iran no longer has the economic might, technological sophistication or an alluring political model to influence a region that was under Persian influence for hundreds of years – one is tempted to say thousands of years, since the time of the Achaemenid empire.
In all, this represents yet another slight to the legitimacy of the regime ruling Iran since 1979.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.