Vienna, November 3 – The big winner at the summit among the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan yesterday may be a country was not there: Iran, whose return to an active role in the Caucasus, something the US opposes and the Minsk Group was organized to prevent, now appears to enjoy the active support of both Moscow and Yerevan.
Yesterday, following their meeting in Moscow, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev, Serzh Sarksyan, and Ilham Aliyev signed a joint declaration on their commitment to continuing to pursue “a peaceful regulation” of the Karabakh conflict by means of talks, including within the framework of the Minsk Group (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1232473.html).
While Russian commentators celebrated this document not only as a major contribution to the peace in the Caucasus and a confirmation of Russia’s newly expanded role there, in fact, neither that declaration nor the meetings of the foreign ministers on Friday or their joint session with the Minsk Group on Saturday broke much if any new ground.
But a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday suggests that the diplomatic landscape in the Caucasus may be changing quickly, albeit in ways that may not lead to any resolution of the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan or between Georgia and the Russian Federation.
Lavrov said that Iran had expressed an interest in creating a security zone in the Caucasus, a step that would appear to challenge both the Minsk Group which was created to exclude Iran from having a role in the region and Turkey which has proposed creating a Platform of Security and Stability in the Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1232455.html).
The Russian foreign minister said that he had spoken with Iranian officials about their desire to be included “in discussions” about the Caucasus, a move that appears to be the product of both Moscow’s own desire to promote a north-south axis through the Caucasus and two developments earlier this fall.
On the one hand, Yerevan indicated that it was not prepared to talk about Turkey’s proposal for security unless Iran was involved (kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1229327.html). And on the other, Tehran offered itself as an intermediary for possible talks between Moscow and Tbilisi (kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1089720.html).
The Russian foreign minister said that Moscow has still not received any concrete proposals from Tehran in this regard, but earlier last week, the Iranian news agency IRNA quoted an Iranian deputy foreign minister to the effect that Tehran is currently “completing” work on them.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Iran’s proposals, even if they do find support in Moscow and Yerevan, will go no further than Turkey’s have in resolving some of the neuralgic disputes of the South Caucasus. But just like the Moscow meeting itself, Iran’s new involvement represents a kind of tectonic shift there.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the United States has taken the lead in trying to keep Iran from having any role in the region. That is of course why Washington promoted the creation of the Minsk Group, a product of the only international organization in which all the regional players were members except Iran.
But that group has not succeeded in squaring the circle on Karabakh, a dispute in which the positions of the two sides are not really any closer than they were a decade or more ago. And consequently, those immediately involved have become increasingly frustrated and are willing to explore different venues and negotiating partners.
Such frustrations have given an opening to Iran. And as Lavrov’s remarks in Moscow on Friday indicate, Tehran is ready and willing to get involved, a development that the Russian government gives every indication of welcoming whatever its Minsk Group and American “partners” may think.