Over the last year Syunik, Armenia's southernmost region, has become a hive of diplomatic activity reflecting its increased strategic importance since the end of the 44 day Karabakh War. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu, Benyamin Poghosyan says that Iran has been at the forefront of this activity and it now expects to open a Consulate-General in the region's capital, Kapan, before the end of the year. Syunik has the potential to become a successful economic hub given the right political conditions, but in any case the region is likely to remain in the focus of diplomatic interest going forward.
In late 2021 the Iranian authorities stated their intention to open a consulate in Kapan, the capital of the Syunik region of Armenia. Syunik is the only Armenian region with a land border with Iran, and in December 2017, Armenia established a free economic zone in Meghri. Armenian government hoped to attract investors who would produce in Meghri and then export to Iran. Overshadowed by the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the 44-day Karabakh War, there has been little activity in this zone so far. However, in many ways the importance of Syunik has significantly risen since. As the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic lost its 130 km land border with Iran, Syunik became squeezed between the Azerbaijan mainland and its exclave, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The November 10 trilateral statement envisaged the restoration of communications in the region. Armenia committed to guarantee the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with a view to ensuring the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions.
Immediately after the end of the second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan started to circulate the idea of the so-called “Zangezur corridor," insisting that the November 10 statement envisaged the establishment of a corridor via Armenia from Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan with no Armenian border and customs control in Syunik. Since the Armenian government rejected the “logic of corridor," the Azerbaijani authorities started to claim that if Armenia rejected the corridor logic for Syunik, Azerbaijan would establish Azerbaijani checkpoints along Goris - Stepanakert highway, the so-called Lachin corridor. In November 2021, Azerbaijan closed the main Armenia – Iran international highway for Armenian cars, as 21 km of the highway between Goris and Kapan has been under Azerbaijani control since mid-December 2020 due to the decision of the Armenian government to withdraw its forces in what has now become disputed territory.
Iran viewed the developments around Syunik with suspicion and concern. In early October 2021, the Iranians launched large-scale military drills along the Iran-Azerbaijan border. Although relations calmed down subsequently, Iran continued to follow closely developments in and around Syunik.
Since early 2021 Syunik witnessed a growing number of visits by foreign diplomats. Over the last 12 months alone, the US ambassador to Armenia visited Syunik several times, and the region also hosted the Russian and EU ambassadors. In this context, the decision by Iran to open a consulate in Kapan was a clear sign that Iran needed a presence on the ground to understand the situation better and follow developments. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan intensified its pressure on Armenia, calling on it to “forget about Nagorno Karabakh” and sign a peace treaty accepting that Nagorno Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. According to the Azerbaijani rhetoric, if Armenia continues to speak about the status of Nagorno Karabakh, then the Azerbaijani leadership will remember about Syunik, demanding to bring Azerbaijanis to Syunik and establish an Azerbaijani autonomy there. Earlier this month, President Aliyev reiterated his position that Azerbaijan would provide no status and privileges to the Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh, adding that Armenians should become citizens of Azerbaijan with the same rights and responsibilities as any other person living in Azerbaijan and holding Azerbaijani citizenship.
The recent escalation along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and Azerbaijani demands for the evacuation of the Armenian population (who Azerbaijan claims are Syrian - Armenian refugees settled there since 1994) from several small cities and villages along the current Goris – Stepanakert highway until the end of August and to use the new highway from Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh from September 1, 2022, brought new tensions in the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations process. During the Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting in Brussels on 22 May the sides agreed to remain in close contact and meet again in the same format by July/August. However, as of mid-August, no date for this next meeting in Brussels has yet been announced. Meanwhile the Russian side stated that the Kremlin is working towards organizing “a high-level” Armenia – Azerbaijan meeting in Moscow before the end of August. There appears to be also a pause in the EU-mediated meetings between Azerbaijani President's Foreign Policy aide Hikmet Hajiyev and Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan. The two held two meetings – on March 31 and May 2, 2022, – but no meetings have been announced since then.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, made public statements during his July 19, 2022, meetings with the Turkish and Russian Presidents in Tehran, emphasizing that Iran would not allow the closure of the Armenia – Iran border. The Armenian expert community perceived this statement as a clear position of Iran, one which shows that Tehran is extremely concerned by prospects of possible loss by Armenia of control over Syunik. In the last days, Iran officially appointed Abedin Varamin as its Consul-General in Kapan. He has already arrived in Armenia and according to some sources, the Iranian consulate will be opened before the end of 2022. The arrival of the Consul-General, is another sign of growing Iranian interest in Syunik. On August 11, 2022, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Raisi. Referring to the recent tense incidents in the South Caucasus, the President of Iran again mentioned the statement made by Ayatollah Khamenei during the recent meeting with the presidents of Russia and Turkey, namely that Iran was sensitive about its borders in the Caucasus region and would oppose any attempt to alter them.
Whilst negotiations over the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal have now entered their final phase, Syunik has become one of the focal points of Iranian policy in the South Caucasus. If Iran and the international community successfully sign a deal on nuclear issues, Syunik may become an attractive location for European, Russian and Chinese companies to produce and export to Iran, given the upcoming free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran, and other trade arrangements that Armenia already has with other partners, including the EU. If the nuclear deal fails, Iran will continue to carefully look at the developments in Syunik, seeking to prevent Azerbaijani and Turkish influence there, and making small economic investments to prevent the immigration of the Armenian population from the region. In either case Syunik is likely to remain in the focus of diplomatic activity going forward.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the founder and Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Kapan, the Capital of Armenia's Syunik Region, will soon host a new Consulate-General of Iran
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