Iran and the 3 + 3 regional cooperation format in the South Caucasus: strengths and weaknesses

Over the past three decades, various regional cooperation initiatives in the South Caucasus have been proposed, including the “Peaceful Caucasus Initiative” (Eduard Shevardnadze), “Stability Pact for the Caucasus” (Suleyman Demirel, January 16, 2000), “” Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform ”(Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, August 13, 2008) and“ United Caucasus ”(Mikheil Saakashvili). But none have been successful or long lasting, as each has failed to include all the key members of the wider region.

After the second Karabakh war, Ankara suggested a new format, the “Six Countries Regional Cooperation Platform”, which would bring together Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia and Armenia (Hüurriyet Daily News, December 11, 2020). And around the same time, Tehran introduced a similar “3 + 3” model (i.e. the three South Caucasus countries, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan plus Russia, Turkey and Iran) which could serve as a new post-war regional integration platform. Last January, during a visit to Moscow as part of a wider regional diplomatic tour, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stressed that “we are seeking to form a six-party cooperation union in the region, and this is the most important objective of this regional trip ”. (Tehran Times, January 26).

Although the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan have both expressed support for comparable regional plans proposed by Iran and Turkey, Georgia and Armenia have serious concerns. The two models are similar in form and content, especially with regard to membership (bringing together the three South Caucasus countries and their three large regional neighbors) and topics of interest (expansion of road and rail networks In the region). And while the Turkish proposal faces its own opportunities and challenges (The Middle East Institute, February 3), Iran’s 3 + 3 model also has important strengths and weaknesses that Tehran and other regional capitals will need to take into account.

The first serious challenge and weakness of the Iranian plan is Yerevan’s opposition to it. For Armenia, the Karabakh conflict is still a matter of national defeat, and the nation has yet to absorb the new reality. At the same time, it would be difficult for the incumbent Armenian government, which faces strong political opposition internally, to shake hands with Turkey and Azerbaijan at this time, especially ahead of the snap elections on June 20 (Hürriyet Daily News, February 1). A big challenge is the difference in how Yerevan and Baku interpret Article 9 of the Karabakh war ceasefire agreement of November 2020. While the Azerbaijani side believe the document gives it the right to establish a land transit corridor connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its enclave of Nakhichevan via the province of Syunik in southern Armenia (what Azerbaijan calls the “Zangezur corridor”), the Armenian side emphasizes that , in agreement, the term “corridor” refers only to Latchin. Until the two sides reach a further agreement to dispel the ambiguity found in Article 9 of the Karabakh ceasefire document, the implementation of any other regional plan, including those proposed by the Iran and Turkey, therefore, is unlikely. The main question remains whether Armenia will ultimately agree to join the proposed effort to expand intra-regional economic ties between all parties. But again, Yerevan is unlikely to make any progress in this direction before the early elections.

The second major obstacle – and similar to the first – is Georgia’s opposition. Tbilisi has said it will not participate in any regional body with Russia unless Moscow ends its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “Georgia will not be able to engage in the peace platform, in which the country occupying Georgian territories also participates,” said Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Khvtisiashvili (Hürriyet Daily News, February 1). In addition, Tbilisi fears that the northern trans-regional route passing through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (first and foremost the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway) will be marginalized by the revival of road and rail corridors. south (see EDM, February 16).

But in addition to the weaknesses and obstacles mentioned, Iran also has key strengths and opportunities compared to Turkey and Russia. First, Iran is geographically the only country bordering Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan region. As a result, Iran has for decades been the only line of communication between Nakhichevan and mainland Azerbaijan. Iranian participation is also crucial in reviving Soviet-era railways along the southern edge of the South Caucasus region. This initiative, if successful, will provide Iran with two new railway lines that depart from the city of Julfa, in the province of East Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran. The first route (south-north) is the rail link from Julfa to Nakhichevan, then to Yerevan and Tbilisi. The second road (west-east) runs from Julfa to Nakhichevan, which crosses the southern borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Baku and from there to Russia.

Second, Iran is the only country that maintains regular diplomatic relations with the three countries of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Armenian-Turkish relations have been severed since 1993. While relations between Georgia and Russia have been strained since 2008. Therefore, only Iran would be in a leadership position to host a high-level six-party or “3+” meeting. 3 ”format.

Third, Iran straddles two important transcontinental transport corridors. The “north-south corridor”, which crosses Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia, has at its center the Rasht-Astara railway line (from Iran to the Azerbaijani border). In addition, the “Persian Gulf-Black Sea Transit Corridor” connects Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece. Therefore, Tehran’s 3 + 3 Cooperation Plan for the South Caucasus region can combine these two important and strategic transit corridors.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, the only factor likely to bring about the emergence of the Iranian or Turkish 3 + 3 (or six) model is that regional actors focus on the development of cross-border rail networks. Arguably, the revival of Soviet-era railways in the South Caucasus could help the region converge and play the same peacemaking role for Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan as the Coal and Coal Community. steel played for postwar France and Germany in the 1950s.

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