Nagorno-Karabakh: why Iran is trying to remain neutral over the conflict on its doorstep


Marzieh Kouhi-Esfahani, Durham University

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.

The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.

Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.




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Mediation efforts

The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.

Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.

Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.

Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.

Historic ties

Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.

The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.

While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.

This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.

With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.

At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.

Wary of Baku

As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.

Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.

Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.

Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.

This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.The Conversation

Marzieh Kouhi-Esfahani, Teaching Fellow, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why (another) ‘October surprise’ may yet take place – this time in the Persian Gulf


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

History tells us the month of October in a US presidential election year has a tendency to produce an unforeseen moment that may, or may not, have an impact on the election itself.

William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager in 1980, is credited with coining the phrase “October surprise”. It referred to the concern Tehran would announce, on the cusp of the election, the release of American hostages seized after the overthrow of the shah of Iran.

In 2020, it would be hard to top an “October surprise” that resulted in a president falling ill with a virus he frequently dismissed and downplayed, then did little about while it ravaged his country.

But if we speculate on a possible additional surprise, some sort of mishap in the Persian Gulf might figure.

This is far from saying an incident in the Gulf is foretold, but recent developments indicate the temperature is rising at a moment when America is preparing to impose unilateral economic sanctions on any party that sells armaments to Iran.

Nuclear deal set to expire

A United Nations arms embargo, imposed in 2006, is set to expire on October 18 under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. That is in less than a fortnight.

Washington had sought to extend the arms embargo via a UN Security Council resolution, but was rebuffed by, among others, signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Russia and China.

An Iranian warship conducts military exercises in the Gulf.
Iranian Army Office handout/EPA/AAP

The US now seems likely to fully impose unilateral sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” approach to dealing with the Islamic state. It is not clear whether Russia and China will fall into line.

Russia, for example, has extensive military-to-military ties to Iran. Along with China, it has conducted joint naval exercises in the region with Iran’s navy.

Moscow also has its eyes on possible naval base facilities on Iran’s Indian Ocean coast, just as the Russians have used their relationship with Syria to secure a warm water port in the Mediterranean.

So the Gulf region is emerging not simply as a flashpoint in US-Iran tensions, but a focus of big-power rivalry in an era in which Russia is seeking to extend its influence deep into the Middle East.

This is driven partly by President Vladimir Putin’s desire to restore Russia’s footprint in the region, after the former Soviet Union was effectively banished but for a few toeholds. It is also partly driven by a perception in Moscow that US domination is eroding.




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Sanctions, a failing economy and coronavirus may cause Iran to change its involvement in Syria


Oil-rich and fiercely contested

The oil-rich Gulf has become a kaleidoscope of shifting ambitions and alliances. Recent announcements by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain they were moving towards normalising relations with Israel are significant pieces in this kaleidoscope.

In this mix is Iran’s conspicuous efforts to increase its strategic leverage over the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf. On any day, 20% of the world’s tradeable oil passes through the area.




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The conservative American Enterprise Institute has this to say about Iran’s efforts to strengthen its ability to apply a chokehold to what is arguably the most important and most vulnerable stretch of water globally:

The Islamic Republic is laying the groundwork for greater Iranian influence around the strait […] by expanding its military footprint and building key infrastructure in the area. Tehran’s efforts reflect contingency planning for a larger potential conflict with the US and its Gulf partners since tensions have spiked in recent months.

In the past few years, Iran has invested heavily in its ability to conduct an asymmetric naval campaign against a US naval presence in the region. This includes heavy investment in cruise missile technologies.

Iran is also building a 1,000-kilometre pipeline from oil-producing Bushehr province to its Bandar-e Jask naval base outside the Strait of Hormuz. This would enable it to export oil if tanker traffic through the strait is shut down.

The AEI report concludes that tensions may well rise after the UN arms embargo expires this month as the US seeks to maintain its “maximum pressure” campaign. This would extend to sanctions threats to countries like Russia and China that might be tempted to transfer military technology to Iran.

In all of this, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is more than a sideshow. Russia wants Iran to stay out of the conflict on its southern boundaries. A price for this might be greater Russian military assistance to Iran as it gears up for possible conflict with the US, Israel and Sunni Arab states.

Surprise?

Princeton University research fellow Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian ambassador to Germany and nuclear negotiator, speculated in September that if electoral prospects for the Republicans looked bad in the weeks before the November 3 election, Trump might be tempted to stage an “October surprise” in the form of a military operation.

Mousavian reflected a view in Tehran that the US assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January was part of a broader US plan to effect regime change in Iran.

In a region awash with all sorts of conspiracy theories, it matters less whether these theories have merit than that, in a hair-trigger environment, people believe them.

Adding to speculation about a possible game plan that might involve some sort of military confrontation, Washington has vastly increased its firepower in the Gulf.

In September, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier transited the Strait of Hormuz accompanied by guided-missile cruisers USS Princeton and USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett.

This is the first time in about a year the US has deployed a carrier battle group in the Gulf at a time when tensions are on the rise.

The US now has enormous firepower in the Gulf on top of its existing deployments of 60,000-80,000 troops in the region. It also has base facilities in Bahrain, headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, and Qatar, which houses the forward headquarters of the US Air Forces Central Command.

None of this is meant to suggest there is anything inevitable, or even likely, about conflict in the Gulf. On the other hand, these are tense moments in an American election season like few others.

In any threat scenario, an incident in the Gulf cannot be discounted.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus Update: International


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Sanctions, a failing economy and coronavirus may cause Iran to change its involvement in Syria



AAP/EPA/Mehdi Marizad

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Iran’s emergence as a hot zone for the coronavirus further complicates that country’s relationships with its neighbours at a time when its economy is sliding deeper into recession.

US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by tightening economic sanctions coincides with a spreading health crisis that will test a hardline leadership.

Iranian confidence in its rulers is stretched in any case – there has been persistent unrest in which violent clashes with the authorities over economic hardship have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Battered by a sanctions regime, a deepening economic retrenchment and now a health emergency, Iran’s leaders will feel they are more than usually beleaguered.

Coming on top of America’s assassination of Iran’s military commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, in early January, these are precarious moments for the Iranian leadership.




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Now the question is whether an overstretched Iran will feel obliged to pull back from its expensive involvement in Syria and its support for allies in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in a troubled region.

In other words, will its leadership, under considerable pressure at home, stage a retreat, or even decide it is in its interests to seek some sort of accommodation with a US administration that is bent on tightening the screws? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week imposed additional curbs on travel by figures close to Iran’s rulers.

The alternative is for Tehran to withdraw into its shell while it rides out economic and other pressures. Given the parlous state of Iran’s economy, this will be easier said than done.

In all of this, the survival of an embattled regime in power since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 will be paramount.

Whether that prompts a rethink of Iran’s refusal to negotiate a replacement nuclear deal without sanctions being lifted first remains to be seen.

These options will be canvassed behind the scenes in arguments between moderates close to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and hardline elements aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

As things stand, it appears the hardliners have secured the upper hand.

Iran’s parliamentary elections last week made this clear. Hardliners achieved a near clean sweep after the powerful Guardians Council excluded thousands of moderate candidates from the race.

Appointed by Khamenei, the council vets suitable candidates for elections.

Dozens of moderate members of parliament were denied the opportunity to recontest.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said:

This is 2004-2005 all over again: a shift of the centre of Iranian politics to the right, harbingered by a major victory by the hardliners in low-turnout parliamentary elections, followed by a takeover of the presidency by the hardliners.

This is potentially bad news for President Rouhani, who had sought an accommodation with the US and its allies after signing a deal in 2015 in which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program.

Iran will have presidential elections next year.

Trump took the US out of the nuclear deal in 2018. As a consequence, Tehran has been edging away from commitments made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to halt its enrichment processes.

Complicating all of this is the coronavirus epidemic in a country where health services are already stretched.

By mid-week, Iran had reported 95 cases, but this almost certainly significantly understates the situation. The country is believed to have suffered the most deaths from the virus outside China.

Iran’s efforts to curb the contagion are vastly hampered by the fact that it is a destination for millions of Shia pilgrims annually from surrounding countries. These include Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf states.

The holy city of Qom has become a hotbed of the virus. Multiple deaths have been reported there.

Symbolic of Tehran’s challenges in getting the coronavirus under control is the case of its deputy health minister.

Earlier this week, Iraj Harirchi had denied the authorities were covering up the scale of the outbreak. He later self-reported he was suffering from the disease.

This will have done little to engender confidence in the government’s ability to contain the disease or provide a credible accounting of its spread in a country of 80 million.

Adding to concerns region-wide is that Iran is believed to be the source of infections that have emerged among its neighbours, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman.

All these countries have now imposed restrictions on travel to and from the Islamic Republic. Dubai, a transit hub and home to the airlines Emirates and Etihad, has suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran for a week as a “precautionary measure”.

Curbs on travel will have a further dampening effect on Iran’s economy. It’s already reeling from tough sanctions, which include wide-ranging restrictions on the country’s oil exports, its economic lifeblood.

In October, the International Monetary Fund reported Iran’s economy would contract by 9.5% in 2019. This was the worst year for Iran since 1984, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.

In 2019, the only countries to do worse, according to the IMF, were Libya, in the grip of a civil war, which suffered a 19% contraction, and Venezuela, which shrank 35%.

The IMF and World Bank had predicted incremental growth, if that, for Iran in 2020. In view of coronavirus concerns, marginal growth now seems highly unlikely.




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Iran is also stricken by skyrocketing rates of inflation. The IMF put the figure for 2019 at 35.7%. The Statistical Centre for Iran assessed the number higher at nearly 50%.

Food and fuel costs have gone through the roof. This has been the main cause of the civil unrest that continues to beset the regime. With US-sponsored sanctions in place and now a health crisis bedevilling the country, there is little relief in sight.

What is clear is Iran is facing its most challenging moment since 1988 and the end of its war with Iraq in which an estimated 500,000 Iranians were killed. War costs bled the economy dry.

In some ways, the latest situation may be more challenging for the regime given that Iranians were unified in a war effort. That unity is now a distant memory.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.