Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from Iran’s perspective

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TEHRAN – As the war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region rages on, regional countries, including Iran, intensify their efforts to establish a ceasefire between neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia.

September 27 was not a usual day in Nagorno-Karabakh. It marked the beginning of a new round of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia after more than a decade of relative calm.

The ongoing war can be traced back to as recently as this past July, when border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out in the Tovuz region for several days and, as is the case with the current war, the two sides accused each other of starting the clash. Tovuz is a geopolitically important region that lies at the crossroad of energy pipelines, railways, and international highways. It also connects Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia.

Tovus is outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region but the clashes there raised the tensions between Baku and Yerevan to a very high level, and ultimately culminated in an all-out, deadly war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both countries have friendly relations and joint borders with Iran, factors that make the war in Nagorno-Karabakh a matter of national security for Iran. Furthermore, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has directly affected Iran’s border areas. Since the beginning of the war, several rockets and mortar shells have landed inside Iran.

On October 13, a drone came down inside northwestern Iranian territories along Iran’s borders while the war was on its seventeenth day. A day later, a missile landed inside Iran. The firing of projectiles toward the Iranian territories was so repetitive that the Iranian Foreign Ministry warned Azerbaijan and Armenia against violating the Iranian soil.

“Movements in the border areas of our country are being seriously and sensitively monitored by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in this regard, while declaring any attack by any of the warring parties in the region on our country is intolerable, we seriously warn all parties to seriously take care in this regard,” the Foreign Ministry said in a recent statement.

Iran also sent military reinforcements to its borders with Azerbaijan to protect its civilians from any projectiles coming from the conflict zone.

This may be the reason why since the early days of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, Iran called on both countries to immediately stop the war and resolve their differences through dialogue.

In addition to establishing peace and stability in its border areas, Iran has made efforts to bring the warring countries to the negotiating table in order to help resolve the conflict through dialogue and in accordance with the principles of international law. To this end, Iran has prepared an initiative that, if accepted by the warring sides, would bring an end to the hostilities and promote peace and security in the South Caucasus region.

“Iran has prepared a detailed plan, which will be pursued through making consultations with the two sides [of the conflict]. We hope that the two sides end the war, avoid targeting civilians, and know that Iran cannot tolerate clashes on its borders. We have carefully told our friends in both countries that they need to take the necessary care,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry in early October, a few days after the Azerbaijan-Armenia war broke out.

The spokesman did not give further details about the Iranian initiative but it seems that the plan had something to do with the violations of Iran’s borders because the spokesman has put the plan into the broader context of Iran’s intolerance toward encroachments on its territories.

Khatibzadeh pointed out, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will by no means tolerate any violation against its borders and soil. To this end, Iran has prepared a plan and it hopes to move forward with it through making consultations with the two sides and with the help of other neighboring countries.”

Iran’s strategy toward the Armenia-Azerbaijan war was based on prioritizing peace and dialogue over war and aggression. The Iranian initiative seems to be offered in this context. Iran also offered to facilitate the peace talks between its warring neighbors.

“Iran is closely monitoring the alarming violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. We call for an immediate end to hostilities and urge dialogue to resolve differences. Our neighbors are our priority and we are ready to provide good offices to enable talks. Our region needs peace now,” tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shortly after Armenia and Azerbaijan began the war.

Some analysts believe that Iran is eligible to act as a go-between to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It shares borders with both countries and has refused to side with each of them. Besides, Iran has equal access to Azerbaijan and Armenia, unlike some other regional players who are seen as siding with one against the other.

Khatibzadeh said Iran has gained this special status because it had pursued “correct policies” toward both sides of the conflict in the past.

“We tried to be in mutual and continuous contact with both capitals. Due to our previous correct policies, we have equal access and we are in contact with regional players,” the spokesman said.

Iran has intensified its efforts to deescalate tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh. Zarif has held phone conversations with his counterparts in Azerbaijan and Armenia, urging them to resolve their differences peacefully. Tehran has also welcomed the Russian-brokered ceasefires between Baku and Yerevan, although the ceasefires did not last long.

Since October 10, at least two ceasefires were brokered by Russia but both have failed. The first ceasefire was reached after marathon negotiations between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow but the ceasefire was violated soon after it was announced.

Russia recently announced a second ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which was supposed to come into force at midnight on Sunday (20:00 GMT Saturday) but this was violated too.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on October 17 that Yerevan and Baku have agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire.

“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan have agreed to a humanitarian truce as of October 18th, 00h00 local time,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

However, a missile attack on the Azeri city of Ganja, which is located outside of the conflict zone, destroyed the humanitarian truce.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the missile attack on Ganja has killed 12 people and injured dozens.

“On the night of 17 October 2020 around 1 am the armed forces of Armenia attacked the Ganja city of Azerbaijan with ballistic missiles. This, third in a row atrocious attack on the second biggest city of Azerbaijan, since the new aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan, situated far away from the frontline caused serious civilian casualties; 12 civilians, including 2 minors killed, more than 40 people injured,” the statement said. “Armenia’s deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilians, in a blatant violation of norms and principles of international law, including international humanitarian law, as well as declared humanitarian ceasefire, the purposeful killing of peaceful people constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity and the leadership of Armenia bears full responsibility for this crime.”

After the Ganja attack, Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other of violating the humanitarian truce. With the Ganja attack, the war took a dangerous turn because this attack widened the conflict zone, a move that could result in the killing of more civilians.

And this is another cause of concern for Iran. Although Iran is not siding with Azerbaijan or Armenia, it has condemned in the strongest terms the killing of the civilians in Ganja, saying the missile attack on the city violated international norms and was a “war crime.”

“The embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Baku roundly rejects the last midnight’s missile attack on the city of Ganja, which has left dozens of civilians dead and injured,” the Iranian embassy in Baku said in a statement on Sunday, adding, “[The embassy] while expressing sympathy with the grieving families and wishing a speedy recovery for the injured, reiterates that attacking cities and innocent people goes against all legal principles and the recognized international norms and is considered a war crime that must be stopped as soon as possible.”

Iran’s stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict derives from a belief that this conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Instead, the two warring countries should sit at the negotiation table and resolve their differences through dialogue in accordance with international law and regulations.  War cannot be a proper solution to a decades-long conflict that could further destabilize the South Caucasus region through inviting foreign interference, which, in turn, could prolong the conflict and turn it into a war of attrition.

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