The Iranian ambassador to Armenia, Abbas Badakhshan Zohouri, announced on the sidelines of the “Armenia-Iran Relations in Context of Common Interests” forum, which was held on February 10, that “Iran does not oppose the deployment of a civilian EU [European Union] monitoring mission to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border” (PanArmenian.net, February 10). Although the Iranian ambassador did not directly mention Azerbaijan, the Zangezur Corridor, nor the possible blockage of the common border between Iran and Armenia, nevertheless, he stipulated, “Armenia and Iran are and will be neighbors. Of course, we see some ruse, they speak about so-called corridors and some actions, but Iran and Armenia will not allow the creation of such a corridor” (Massis Post, February 9).
Tehran’s position on the EU mission is important for a number of reasons. First, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and throughout the past three decades, traditionally, Iran has opposed the intervention of extra-regional forces, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, EU and United States, in the regional conflicts of the South Caucasus. For example, former Iranian ambassador to Armenia, Seyed Ali Saghaeyan, at a news conference in Yerevan on June 23, 2010, mentioned that “Iran is strongly opposed to US involvement in a multinational peacekeeping force that would presumably be deployed around Nagorno-Karabakh after the signing of an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord” (Azatutyun.com, June 23, 2010).
In fact, Iran has traditionally supported a regional approach to developments in the South Caucasus, including efforts to find a solution to the Karabakh stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For this reason, Iran did not oppose the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces to the Karabakh region after the Second Karabakh War in 2020, nor to Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. In this regard, Iran supports the “3+3” regional cooperation format, which includes Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan plus Russia, Turkey and Iran. The format could serve as a new postwar regional integration platform (see EDM, June 16, 2021), as “over the past three decades, various initiatives for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus have been proposed, but none proved successful or long-lasting because each failed to include all of the wider region’s key members.” Thus, against this backdrop, especially in supporting the 3+3 regional cooperation format, Iran’s lack of opposition to the deployment of the EU monitoring mission represents a newfound approach.
Second, while Iran has not opposed the EU mission, Azerbaijan and Russia have voiced their opposition to it. In this regard, on January 10, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the mission as a “fraud” (Media Max, January 24). For Russia’s part, during a press briefing on October 11, 2022, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova proclaimed, “We see this as yet another attempt by the EU to interfere by any means in the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to oust our country’s mediation efforts” (Armenian Weekly, October 12, 2022). While the difference in positions between Tehran and Baku was not surprising, it was rather unexpected that the Russian view diverged from that of Iran as the two sides have traditionally agreed on how to approach the South Caucasus.
Third, Tehran’s position on the EU mission is largely the result of Iranian uneasiness concerning threats to its common border with Armenia. Overall, Tehran is not opposed to the implementation of the “ninth clause of the 2020 Karabakh ceasefire agreement,” but it strongly opposes the “change of international borders” in the South Caucasus, as well as “the blocking of the Iranian-Armenian border” (see EDM, October 14, 2022). Therefore, the Iranian government hopes to prevent the realization of these threats near Iran’s northwestern borders through the auspices of the EU monitoring mission.
Importantly, Iran has basically only been able to rely on Armenia in supporting these concerns over the past two years; Russia has not had the expected position regarding the security and border concerns of Iran and Armenia, especially in relation to the Zangezur Corridor. In fact, the Kremlin has demonstrated that it seemingly does not share Iran’s perception that the blocking of its common border with Armenia represents a serious security threat. For this reason, Moscow, unlike Tehran and Yerevan, not only does not object to Baku’s desired corridor but also believes that this corridor should be implemented to remove blockages in communication and transit routes (JAM-news, November 28, 2022).
In this regard, the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Mikhail Bocharnikov, who believes the necessary plans are in place for the development of the Zangezur Corridor, argued, “I do not see any unsolvable differences on this issue” (Hetq, February 9). In Iran, the view is prevalent that, despite the common interests of Iran and Russia in maintaining the balance of power in the South Caucasus, Russia’s transit, commercial and banking needs vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey following the re-invasion of Ukraine have made Moscow more flexible in its relations with Baku and Ankara.
As the conflict zones between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Karabakh region and Syunik province, are in the southern part of the region, Iran is in a “very vulnerable situation” as compared to Georgia, Turkey and Russia. As a result, Iran “strongly opposes” another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan because it would directly threaten Iranian security and border conditions (Regioncenter.info, February 12). However, despite the direct consequences of both Karabakh wars on Iran’s northwestern border, unlike Ankara and Moscow, Tehran does not have a representative at the joint Russian-Turkish center for monitoring the ceasefire regime in Karabakh.
In these circumstances, Iran’s positive position regarding the EU monitoring mission could be a sign of Tehran’s dissatisfaction with the positions of Moscow and Baku—in spite of the fact that “Iran has always balked at the injection of more foreign actors in its backyard.” In truth, the EU mission could provide a balancing force that is “in line with Iran’s interests,” even when relations between Brussels and Tehran are at an “all-time low” (Al-Monitor, January 31).
However, it is extremely unlikely that Iran’s positive stance on the EU mission will be taken to the step of agreeing to the possible deployment of foreign military forces near Iran’s borders. In fact, this will likely remain in place as Tehran’s “red line” in the South Caucasus. Instead, it seems that, within the atmosphere of close relations between Tehran and Moscow, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine, Iran will prefer to convince Russia to accompany and pay more attention to Iran’s security concerns, as well as to prevent a change in the balance of power in the region to the detriment of both Moscow and Tehran.