As Russia and Western powers seek to compete in the South Caucasus, many analysts neglect the role of Iran in the region. After the 2020 war and the signing of the November 9 trilateral statement, Iran realized that its geo-economic and geopolitical interests were being threatened due to the increase of Turkish influence and Israel’s military presence and intelligence in the region. These factors have pushed Iran to review its policy toward the region and try to engage in a proactive foreign policy. This article will shed light on the main topics discussed in Iranian media related to Artsakh and the recent interview that was held with Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan by the Iranian media.
A look into the Iranian media
The Iranian press did not frequently cover the Artsakh conflict before the 2020 war, but after the war, it became one of the most discussed topics in Iranian mass media. That is because the results of the war created challenges not only for Armenia and Artsakh, but also for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Following the 2020 Artsakh War, Iranian media and experts began to discuss the implications of the conflict, including the strengthening of Turkey’s presence in the region, the deepening of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations, and most importantly, the issue of the so-called “Zangezur Corridor” (which in Iran is called “Turanian corridor or NATO’s Turanian corridor”). This issue gained attention with some interpreting it as an attempt to eliminate the Armenian-Iranian border. The media also emphasized that Iran was one of the defeated parties in the war.
The Islamic Republic recognizes that the policies pursued by Azerbaijan and Turkey directly threaten Iran and its presence in the region, so Tehran sees cooperation with Armenia as a way to neutralize these threats and as a means of not being excluded from regional processes. The response of the Iranian media to the Armenian-Azerbaijani escalations and the open approach to presenting the views of the Armenian side is noteworthy in this context. This became particularly apparent after the closure of the Lachin Corridor.
The closure of the Lachin Corridor is seen as significant by Iran because it is perceived as a move by Azerbaijan to pressure Armenia into opening the “Zangezur Corridor.” The Iranian press has been actively covering this topic and has even conducted interviews with Armenian experts. Iran’s second state channel also hosted an Armenian expert to talk on this subject, which was unprecedented.
In parallel, the use of the name “Artsakh” in Iranian media has increased. This suggests a significant shift in Iranian media and expert circles, as there is now greater openness in discussing the issue of Artsakh. If earlier in Iran there were only discussions in small circles about the benefits of having Artsakh under Armenian control, today more Iranian experts are openly expressing this view. In this regard, the interview with Vardanyan with the Iranian Shargh newspaper is significant. However, Iran maintains a stance of neutrality in the conflict and officially recognizes Artsakh as a part of Azerbaijan.
Dr. Ehsan Movahedian’s interview with Ruben Vardanyan
On February 13, 2023, Dr. Ehsan Movahedian, professor of international relations at ATU University in Tehran, interviewed Vardanyan in the Shargh newspaper. In the interview, Vardanyan reflected upon the humanitarian crisis, the role of the Russian peacekeepers and Armenian-Iranian relations. This is the first time an Iranian news source has interviewed an official from Artsakh.
Vardanyan argued that the situation in Artsakh is very close to a humanitarian crisis. The government has a serious shortage of food, medicine and other necessities. The corridor connecting Artsakh to the outside world, which is also called “the road of life,” has been blocked for more than two months. The State Minister said, “Apart from the blockade, the Republic of Azerbaijan keeps creating serious obstacles to the supply of gas and electricity which is delivered to Artsakh from Armenia. Thus, Baku leadership is undertaking all possible and even impossible measures to force Artsakh Armenians to leave their homeland. Aliyev himself has said, ‘the road is open for those who want to leave…’”
Vardanyan said that even though the situation is very tough, he is amazed by the strong will and resilience of the Artsakh people. “They are ready to endure all the difficulties, and they don’t want to leave their homeland where they lived for thousands of years. I am sure the Baku government hasn’t expected such resistance from Artsakh. They thought they broke the will of the people during the 2020 war, but it’s not true. People here are much stronger than anyone thinks they are.” He also added that the closing of the road has one purpose: “depopulation of Artsakh,” hence, the world should understand that this is not just a humanitarian disaster, but an act of genocide.
When asked about how he assesses the performance of the Russian peacekeepers in defense of Artsakh and whether they are fulfilling their duties, Vardanyan said that Russian peacekeepers have a very limited mandate in Artsakh. He also mentioned that the Russians are not able to force Baku to open the corridor due to the “regional geopolitical situation.” He also said that despite Russia being the main mediator and also the guarantor of the November 9 trilateral statement, they, unfortunately, lack the proper leverage on Azerbaijan in the current stage, which of course complicates the situation. Vardanyan also gave importance to the presence of the peacekeepers arguing that the international community should understand that, at the moment, it is impossible to ensure the security of Artsakh without the presence of peacekeeping forces, and only international security guarantees can facilitate discussions between Stepanakert and Baku.
In response to a question highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s policy in the Caucasus, especially in relation to Armenia and the Caucasus, Vardanyan said that although Russia is a natural ally of Armenia, Russia’s close cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan against the political background of their hatred toward Armenians, significantly changes the balance of power in the region. It is obvious that Turkey exclusively protects the interests of Azerbaijan, which threatens the establishment of peace in the region.
Asked whether Baku plans to replace the Russian peacekeeping mission with Turkish or NATO forces by 2025, Vardanyan answered that he hasn’t noticed that NATO wants to be present in the area. He also mentioned that it is obvious that the actions of Azerbaijan are also directed against Russian peacekeepers and are accompanied by active anti-Russian propaganda in Azerbaijan. And if official Baku aims not to prolong the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region by 2025, serious problems will arise in Artsakh and the region.
He also warned that Artsakh should not become a battleground for other countries as this will have devastating consequences on the Armenian population of the region. He argued that the international community must not ignore Aliyev’s genocidal behavior with the blockade of Artsakh. “He and his regime must understand that this kind of behavior will bring serious consequences for them and maybe even for their state,” argued Vardanyan. Hence, “the international community also bears the political and moral responsibility to prevent the deepening crisis and to ensure the security and protect the people of Artsakh and the establishment of sustainable peace in the region,” he added.
Vardanyan also linked the blockade of the Lachin Corridor to the opening of the so-called “Zangezur Corridor,” arguing that it was not a coincidence that Baku blocked the Lachin Corridor right after the Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military drills along the border with Iran. They were checking Iran’s reaction to upcoming events. Azerbaijan and Turkey have growing militaristic ambitions in the region, which is dangerous for all states in the region. Vardanyan mentioned that Azerbaijan doesn’t want to engage in a trade-off between Artsakh and Syunik; it wants both. “If we step back on Artsakh, then the Armenian government can be very vulnerable in Syunik. Thus, Artsakh’s resistance today is very essential for making the thousands of years old Armenian-Iranian border untouchable. This should be acknowledged both in Yerevan and Tehran,” said Vardanyan.
Commenting on Artsakh’s position with Iran, Vardanyan mentioned that the Armenians of Artsakh consider Iran a friendly state. Both people share ancient history, culture and civilization. Vardanyan mentioned that he, himself, initiated the reconstruction of the Iranian Gohar Agha mosque in Shushi, which also symbolized the centuries-old cultural and civilizational friendship between the two peoples. Moreover, 130 years ago, Armenians of Shushi translated Ferdowsi’s immortal Shahnameh, one of the pillars of Iranian culture and identity, which shows how deep and unshakable Artsakh’s cultural roots and respect for the Iranian nation are.
Reflecting on his thoughts on Iran’s neutral policy, he added that Iran is a serious power in the region. It has been like that for centuries and always positioned itself as an important actor who played a balancing role. Remarkably, the State Minister also highlighted the importance of Artsakh to Iran from a security angle. He said that Israel appeared on the northern border of Artsakh only after the 2020 war, and this has been facilitated with the help of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Accordingly, after the Azerbaijani occupation of these lands, Iran faced security problems. Thus, Iran should have political involvement and a stabilizing role to avoid the escalation of security issues, which can be catastrophic for the entire region.
Movahedian’s interview is an important cornerstone in raising the issue of Artsakh in Iranian public opinion. This initiative was a result of years of intellectual and academic cooperation between Armenian and Iranian intellectuals, journalists and scholars. Both sides need to enhance such cooperation to counter Baku’s and Ankara’s narratives and raise public alarms regarding their policies in the region.
The post-2020 war discourse in Iranian media has shown that many Iranians are now aware of Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s ambitions and expansionist policies and are discussing them openly to enhance cooperation with Armenia to contain this axis. It should be remembered that according to Armenian officials, one of the factors that pushed Azerbaijan not to continue its incursion towards Syunik in September 2022 was the fact that the Iranian side engaged in statements and actions to stop the further deterioration of the crisis.