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Nov 20, 2013 | 11:07 GMT

5 mins read

How the U.S.-Iranian Talks Could Affect Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian military scouts outside Yerevan on Nov. 5.
(KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The effects of the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Tehran are rippling through Iran's broader neighborhood, and the shifting strategic climate has spurred diplomatic engagement among several countries over ancillary issues. On Nov. 19, for example, talks were held between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh — the first efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict since Russian-mediated discussions in January 2012. Though Sarkisian said the talks proceeded normally and would continue, the issue has long been an intractable one for the two countries and many previous attempts at a settlement have failed. However, the move toward a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement may disrupt the status quo on Nagorno-Karabakh and other regional issues as well.

A tense standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been going on since hostilities erupted over the disputed territory in 1988 during the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, but neighboring Armenia sought to annex it since the majority of the territory's population was Armenian. The ensuing war lasted until Armenia emerged victorious in 1994, when Nagorno-Karabakh and several adjacent regions broke away from Azerbaijani control. 

Azerbaijan has sought to reclaim the territory ever since the war, but it has yet to make any meaningful progress. Nagorno-Karabakh is financially and militarily supported by Armenia, which itself benefits greatly from its military alliance with Russia (some 5,000 Russian troops are stationed in Armenia proper). Talks in pursuit of a diplomatic settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan were launched in the 1990s by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, with Russia, the United States and France as co-chairs. But the negotiations made little traction, mainly because Armenia is not interested in a settlement.

Though the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been frozen for nearly two decades, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in a web of relationships that has already been affected by the U.S.-Iranian talks.

Russia also favors preserving the status quo, while the United States has been preoccupied with other regional priorities and avoided entangling itself in the issue. However, the high-profile negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and U.S. sanctions on the country are changing the regional dynamic. Though the Geneva talks are still ongoing and a breakthrough should not be taken for granted, Iran's neighbors are nevertheless positioning themselves for a possible settlement.

Regional Interests and Changing Dynamics

A U.S.-Iranian entente would be particularly relevant to the small but strategically important Caucasus states located along Iran's northern border. Though the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been frozen for nearly two decades, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in a web of relationships that has already been affected by the U.S.-Iranian talks. Armenia's strategic partner Russia, for example, is deeply concerned that a U.S.-Iranian settlement would give both countries greater influence in the Caucasus. Moscow has been strengthening its position in the region over the past year and worries that its influence could be undermined by both Washington and Tehran if the two are no longer adversaries. 

For its part, Azerbaijan has sought to counter Armenian cooperation with Russia by diversifying its relationships across the region to avoid being beholden to any particular power. For example, Azerbaijan is exporting energy to Turkey and the West, as well as to Russia and Iran. Baku has also been strengthening security ties with Turkey and Israel in order to balance against its larger neighbors to the north and south, while still building up its own military power in hopes of one day being able to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force.

Azerbaijan's relationships and alliance structure are also being affected by the possible thaw in U.S-Iranian tensions. Indeed, the Nov. 19 meeting between Aliyev and Sarkisian was reportedly spurred by the United States and Turkey, which wants Washington's support for the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations in exchange for backing a deal with Tehran. Ultimately, Turkey hopes to make strategic inroads in the Caucasus, namely by normalizing relations with Armenia. But as an Azerbaijani ally, Turkey wants to see progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first in order to avoid a backlash in Baku similar to the one Ankara provoked when it tried normalize ties with Armenia in 2009. Those efforts, which did not include parallel talks over Nagorno-Karabakh, failed to produce a deal with Armenia, and they temporarily damaged Turkey's ties with Azerbaijan to Russia's benefit.

Meanwhile, the United States would like to increase its ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and, of course, Azerbaijan is interested in seeing movement on this issue so long as a settlement allowing it to reclaim territory is in sight. But though talks are taking place on all these issues, it is unclear if any will lead to a resolution. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is fueled by the deeply entrenched interests of a number of players, not least of which are Armenia and Russia.

Nonetheless, though Moscow and Yerevan are interested in maintaining the status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Washington, Ankara and Baku are not and have been looking for opportunities to change the dynamics of the negotiations. The U.S.-Iran talks have presented such an opportunity, even if they will also lead to a whole new array of challenges for Armenia, Azerbaijan and countries throughout the Caucasus.

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