The story: Reiterating Iran’s opposition to any border changes in the South Caucasus, the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) has hosted his Armenian counterpart in Tehran.
The meeting comes amid rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran. In the most recent escalation between the two neighbors, Baku has expelled four Iranian diplomats—with the Islamic Republic promptly declaring its intention to reciprocate the move.
The coverage: Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, met Ali Shamkhani in the Iranian capital on Apr. 9.
- Shamkhani told the visiting top Armenian official that Iran opposes “any geographical changes in the Caucasus” because it would only “cause tension.”
- The SNSC secretary was referring to Baku’s plans to establish a corridor to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Iran fears that the route will cut its land border with Armenia.
- Shamkhani hailed economic ties with Armenia and insisted that annual trade of 3B USD “is an achievable target.” Current bilateral trade is just over one-tenth of that figure.
Grigoryan spoke about economic cooperation with Tehran and particularly emphasized a proposed deal to transfer natural gas from Turkmenistan to Armenia via Iran.
- Iranian Petroleum Minister Javad Owji said in May 2022 that talks on the gas swap deal had started.
- Tehran has had a similar deal in place with Baku since Nov. 2021. In June 2022, the two sides agreed to double the volume of gas reaching Azerbaijan.
The meeting in Tehran took place just days after the foreign ministers of Iran and Azerbaijan held two telephone conversations amid a deterioration in ties.
- The Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement on Apr. 8 that Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ceyhun Bayramov spoke “extensively” on the phone over Apr. 7-8.
- The top diplomats spoke “frankly and transparently” and discussed how to address “problems and misunderstandings,” according to the foreign ministry’s read-out.
- Referring to alleged Israeli “conspiracies” against regional security and unity, Amir-Abdollahian told Bayramov that “only enemies” benefit from disputes in the region.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani stated on Apr. 10 that he has a “positive assessment” of the phone conversations between the foreign ministers.
- “We will try to take the next steps in coordination with the Azerbaijani side,” Kanani told reporters.
Azerbaijan on Apr. 6 declared four Iranian diplomats persona non grata over “provocative actions.”
- The following day, Kanani criticized the expulsions as an “emotional and unconstructive” decision and said Iran intends to take reciprocal action.
The context/analysis: Azerbaijan and Iran have for years been at odds over Baku’s growing relationship with Israel. More recently, tensions have also surged over Azerbaijan’s alleged attempt to cut off Iran’s land connection to Armenia.
- Israel and Turkey reportedly aided Azerbaijan during its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Iran has long been an ally of Armenia, though it was careful to avoid taking sides during the conflict.
- Azerbaijan captured large swaths of territory during the 2020 war, which ended with a Russian-brokered peace deal. Under the accord, Armenia agreed to the establishment of a corridor along its southern Syunik region linking the Azerbaijani mainland to the Nakhchivan exclave.
- Iranian media see the corridor as a Turkey-backed attempt to cut Iran off from Armenia as Ankara seeks to expand its influence in the South Caucasus. Iranian officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly warned against “border changes” in the region.
Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf declared on Jan. 10 that “misunderstandings” with Baku had been “resolved” after meeting his Azerbaijani counterpart Sahiba Qafarova.
- However, tensions have only worsened this year—especially following the deadly Jan. 27 attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran as well as Baku’s opening of a diplomatic mission in Israel on Mar. 29.
- Azerbaijan ordered the evacuation of its Tehran embassy on the day of the attack, which left the head of security dead and two others wounded. The alleged assailant is reported to have been motivated by a personal dispute.
The future: An armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran would promptly drag in several external actors, pushing the South Caucasus into a second major confrontation in recent years. As such, neither side seeks all-out confrontation.
- The escalatory discourse and diplomatic spats have reduced space for a political resolution to rising tensions. These dynamics are made more complicated by Israel and Turkey’s separate contests with Iran for regional influence.
- If Baku and Tel Aviv pursue closer military and security collaboration that is perceived as a threat by Tehran, it could trigger targeted Iranian military action against select sites on Azerbaijani soil.