Iran Wants Russia, Turkey to Join in Syria-Style Talks to Solve Armenia, Azerbaijan Fight
Iran has proposed a mechanism to resolve the battle between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan through talks with Russia and Turkey, two countries with which it coordinates an ongoing effort to end the war in Syria.
In a call Thursday with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed his country’s “readiness to help achieve peace and a lasting solution to this conflict within the framework of the Iran-Turkey-Russia regional initiative,” according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
This track, Zarif said, would complement ongoing consultations held by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, of which Russia is joined by the U.S. and France as co-chair, and Turkey is among other several member states.
The Azerbaijani side noted that Zarif “stressed that Iran as the neighboring country is interested in ensuring peace and stability in the region and underlined the importance of a peaceful solution to the conflict.”
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov responded to this proposal the following day, telling Newsweek that “Azerbaijan appreciates every offer to help with reaching the much needed peace in our region.”
He noted the existing Minsk Group mechanism continued to be the primary channel to resolve the conflict, but noted its shortcomings.
“For the last 28 years the OSCE Minsk Group has been engaged in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Suleymanov told Newsweek. “Unfortunately, there has been very little progress as a result of these talks.”
Tehran, Moscow and Ankara also have also faced significant challenges in their existing working group. The tripartite has since 2017 gathered to search for a political solution to the near-decade-long conflict in Syria, where Iran and Russia back the government and Turkey supports an embattled opposition in the north.
Officials from Iran, Russia and Turkey last discussed Syria together during a joint Geneva meeting in August and the trio have vowed to soon hold another round of talks.
And though Armenia and Azerbaijan’s century-long woes over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the civil war that erupted in the wake of a 2011 uprising in Syria have vastly different origins, foreign interests surrounding both crises have brought together a familiar group of nations.
Iran’s intervention in Syria was motivated by a desire to support its only Arab ally as it was overcome by an insurgency supported by the United States, Turkey, a number of Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and, to some extent, Israel. Leadership in Tehran argued that if Iran did not battle its foes such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) abroad then it would have to fight them at home.
But in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the fight is already at Iran’s doorsteps, and at times has spilled over onto its territory.
Iranian officials have repeatedly warned against cross-border shelling and stray drones wandering into the territory of the Islamic Republic. On Friday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh offered an ultimatum.
“Maintaining security and peace of Iranian citizens living in border areas is the redline of the country’s armed forces,” Khatibzadeh said, “and if the shelling is repeated, Islamic Republic of Iran will not remain indifferent in this respect.”
That same day, Iran’s newly appointed military attaché Colonel Bahman Sadeghin met with Armenian Defense Ministry’s General Department of Defense Policy and International Cooperation chief Levon Ayvazyan to discuss the situation.
“Levon Ayvazyan informed that despite many urges from the Armenian side: Azerbaijani Armed Forces continue accumulation and action along the Islamic Republic of Iran’s border, thus sheltering on the state border,” according to an Armenian Ministry of Defense readout. “Once again, the need to move Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces at a safe distance from the border with Iran was presented.”
The Armenian side also relayed to Iran remarks from the self-proclaimed Artsakh Republic. The mostly ethnic Armenian separatist state controls much of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the international community—including Iran—recognizes the area as part of Azerbaijan, which seeks to regain the contested territory.
The Artsakh message to Tehran struck a defiant tone.
“In case the situation remains unchanged, the Artsakh Defense Army reserves the right to carry out devastating strikes against the Azerbaijani armed forces in this area,” the statement said, “for which Azerbaijani military and political leadership will bear all responsibility.”
Iran has sought to maintain neutrality in the conflict, but proximity and geopolitics have compelled a response to the crisis next door.
Iranian officials have denied Azerbaijani allegations that Iran has secretly facilitated the transfer of arms to Armenia from its mutual defense ally, Russia. On the other hand, Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly denied claims by Iran, Russia and international media that the country’s ranks were being boosted by Syrian insurgents sponsored by Turkey.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned last week that “Iran will not allow anyone to bring terrorists, whom we have fought for many years in Syria, to our border points under any pretext.”
Officially, Iran backs fellow majority Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan’s position that mostly Christian Armenian and Armenia-backed forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The only way to ensure a lasting peace in the region is to end illegal Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands in accordance with international law,” Suleymanov told Newsweek.
The Turkish embassy in Washington also recently expressed support for this position in remarks sent to Newsweek.
“Turkey stands shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan in the face of the latest aggression of Armenia,” the embassy said. “This is not only due to the close cultural and historical relations between our countries, but also a necessity to emphasize the principle of respecting the basic international principle of territorial integrity.”
Support for the Azerbaijani side has also been popular among Iran’s massive ethnic Azeri population, which matches or even outnumbers that within Azerbaijan itself. This has posed security concerns as well as separatist groups within Iran itself such as the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement have staged mass rallies.
Armenia, for its part, feels the people of Artsakh have the right to self-determination, and that the only path forward is diplomacy, not military conflict.
Earlier this month, Armenian ambassador to the U.S. Varuzhan Nersesyan expressed to Newsweek an appreciation for Iran’s willingness to mediate the conflict, but—like his Azerbaijani counterpart—called for the Minsk Group, and especially the U.S., to step up.
“Right now, what is necessary is an intervention of the highest levels, together with other mediators, Russia and France, to stop the violence,” the Armenian envoy said at the time.
In its latest joint statement Tuesday, the Minsk Group co-chairs called on both sides “to implement the humanitarian ceasefire immediately to allow the return of remains, prisoners of war, and detainees, and appeal to the sides to agree urgently upon a ceasefire verification mechanism.”
In separate remarks, however, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated a position more critical of NATO ally Turkey and Azerbaijan, a military equipment customer of Israel, the closest Middle East ally of the U.S. and Iran’s top foe.
“We now have the Turks, who have stepped in and provided resources to Azerbaijan, increasing the risk, increasing the firepower that’s taking place in this historic fight over this place called Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pompeo told talk show host Erick Erickson.
The top U.S. diplomat called for peace, but expressed sympathy for Armenia’s plight.
“We’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing, and that they will all, before that takes place, get the ceasefire right,” Pompeo said, “and then sit down at the table and try and sort through what is a truly historic and complicated problem set.”
But when asked about the dangers of the conflict spilling over into Russia and Iran, Pompeo turned instead to a familiar foe, citing “the real threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran” in the Middle East.