Iran last week again said it is willing to mediate between the two Southern Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan to help them settle their long-standing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. International mediators agree that Iran -- which first offered its mediation during the years 1992 to 1993 -- should be kept regularly informed about the peace talks. But regional experts wonder whether Tehran has enough leverage to be able to resolve the dispute. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.
Prague, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking last week (20 July) in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, a high-ranking Iranian official said his country was ready to help settle the 13-year-old territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has killed more than 30,000 people and driven at least 800,000 Azerbaijani civilians from their homes.
The Iranian official, Hassan Rowhani, who is the secretary of Tehran's Supreme National Security Council, was quoted on 21 July by a Baku newspaper -- the Russian-language "Bakinskii Rabochii," or "Baku Worker" -- as saying that if both sides agree to Iran's mediation, Tehran would do "everything it can."
The newspaper said Rowhani made the remark at a meeting with Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev the day before.
Earlier in the week, the Iranian envoy held security talks with Georgian and Armenian officials in Tbilisi and Yerevan.
In comments broadcast on 21 July on Iranian television, Rowhani urged closer ties between Iran and the three Southern Caucasus states. He said that he and his Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani counterparts had agreed to hold regular security meetings. He added that, in Tehran's view, such talks should involve the other two regional powers -- Russia and Turkey.
Rowhani did not specify how Iran could help settle the Karabakh dispute. But his statement clearly reflects Tehran's growing concern as hopes for the dispute's imminent settlement seem to be fading.
A new round of talks between Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian, scheduled for 15 June in Geneva, has been postponed indefinitely.
The two heads of state are likely to meet early next month on the sidelines of an informal CIS summit in the Russian resort of Sochi. But regional analysts do not think that their meeting will provide any breakthrough in the peace process.
Representatives of the so-called "Minsk Group" of nations that has been tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the Karabakh peace process have recently expressed their concern that bellicose rhetoric both in Baku and Yerevan could trigger new violence around the enclave.
Opposition parties, refugees, and war veterans in Azerbaijan have pressed Aliyev not to compromise on the Karabakh issue, lest some of the six Azerbaijani districts currently occupied by Armenian Karabakh troops end up under permanent Armenian control. Likewise, Kocharian is facing pressure from Armenian nationalists not to -- as they put it -- "give Karabakh away to Azerbaijan."
Geneva-based analyst Houman Peymani, a specialist in Caucasus affairs, told RFE/RL's Persian Service last week that Tehran has a great interest in preventing a resumption of military operations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
"Given that Iran has historical and cultural roots in the region, it cannot remain indifferent. On the other hand, another war in the region would threaten Iran's security and stability. It would trigger a flow of refugees that without doubt would head for Iran [as happened in 1993 and 1994]. And it could also flood the region with light weapons. Therefore, Iran must actively get involved in the region."
The idea that Tehran might in one way or another be associated with the Karabakh peace process was floated by the Minsk Group co-chairmen -- France, the United States, and Russia -- during the latest round of bilateral talks that took place in the Florida resort of Key West almost four months ago.
But on 28 May, France's former Ambassador to Tehran and Minsk Group co-Chairman Philippe de Suremain told our correspondent that Iran's direct involvement in the peace negotiations was not being sought.
"[Our aim is] to keep the Iranian authorities informed and to make it clear to them that no one will be kept aside. We certainly do not want to give the impression that we are acting against the interests of one or another country in the region. There cannot be a stable and long-lasting peace if it is not endorsed by all regional countries."
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 probably had a greater impact on Iran than on any other neighboring country. Tehran suddenly found itself sharing borders with five new independent states. Among them, Azerbaijan certainly presented the biggest problem.
Ties between Iran and Azerbaijan have significantly improved since Aliyev took power in 1993. But even today bilateral relations are far from ideal.
Iran fears that its northwestern provinces and its 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis -- one-third of the country's total population -- might be contaminated by what it usually describes as "Turkic nationalism." Tehran's concerns were particularly acute during the tenure of nationalist Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, who took over from former Communist Party boss Ayaz Mutalibov in 1992.
Both Iran and Azerbaijan are predominantly Shia Muslim countries. Authorities in Baku fear that the influence of Iranian religious clerics on the Azerbaijani population might threaten their Turkey-like secular statehood.
Iran sees stability along its 611-kilometer-long border with Azerbaijan as a prerequisite to its security. In early 1992, Tehran began to mediate between the warring sides in Karabakh and succeeded in brokering what turned out to be a short-lived cease-fire.
Weeks later, a meeting between then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian and Azerbaijan's parliament speaker and acting head of state Yakub Mamedov took place in Tehran. But it produced no substantial result.
In a telephone interview with our correspondent, former Azerbaijani President Mutalibov -- who now lives in exile in Moscow -- welcomed Iranian security official Rowhani's comments last week. He also blamed Elchibey, his successor as president, for a pro-Turkish orientation and an "anti-Iran stance" which, Mutalibov said, was responsible for the collapse of Tehran's mediation in 1993.
"This has had a negative effect on relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. Maybe this is at the core of the coolness that still prevails today between the two countries. Personally, I can only regret this because we share a huge border with Iran, and Azerbaijan must have transparent and friendly relations with this state."
Some regional experts, however, do not share Mutalibov's view. Rasim Musabekov is an independent political analyst who in 1992 worked as an adviser to Azerbaijan's presidential administration and took part in the Iran-sponsored peace negotiations. In an interview with RFE/RL, Musabekov said responsibility for the failure of Tehran's mediation lay primarily with Russia, which he said stubbornly refused to allow any other regional power to exert influence in what it still considers its "fiefdom."
"In 1992, while Iranian Foreign Minister [Ali Akbar] Velayati was visiting Karabakh, a Russian motorized regiment, together with Armenian forces, committed the Khodjali [massacre]. [Weeks] later, on the very day Ter-Petrosian and Mamedov signed a joint communique [on the need to restore stability in the region] in Tehran, Armenia seized [the Karabakh town of] Shusha with the help of Russia. This shows that Russia was not at all interested in letting Iran seriously mediate [in the peace talks] and strengthen its influence in the region."
Musabekov was referring to events in February 1992, when hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians were killed while fleeing their Karabakh hometown of Khodjali ahead of a large-scale Armenian offensive. The massacre, which has never been fully investigated, eventually led to Mutalibov's resignation on charges of having abandoned the local population undefended.
Although Musabekov welcomed Iran's latest statement about its willingness to contribute to the Karabakh settlement, he said he doubted Tehran -- which has good relations with both Russia and Armenia -- could really influence the peace process.
Musabekov said Iran has little weight in the region -- or "nothing to put in the balance." That contrasts, he said, with the European Union -- which is committed to investing massively in the region's economy when peace is restored -- as well as with the United States, which has a substantial stake in the development of Azerbaijan's oil fields, as well as with Russia, which maintains an important military presence in the area.
"That one of the big powers bordering Azerbaijan declares that it is willing to help settle the conflict is not a bad thing, even if it is just a matter of words. But it is another question whether Iran has enough leverage to make the [peace] process move forward. In my view, it has practically none. I think that at the present stage, Iran's role cannot go beyond mere consultations and exchange of information."
In addition to differences on ethnic and religious issues, Iran and Azerbaijan are at odds on how to divide the Caspian Sea's vast hydrocarbon and water resources. Iran is pushing for a division of the sea into five equal sectors, but Azerbaijan argues that the size of each riparian country's sector should be proportional to the length of its coastal line -- which would leave Iran with the smallest slice.
Relations between the two countries soured further early this week (23 July) when Azerbaijan accused an Iranian warship of violating its territorial waters, forcing a geological survey vessel to return to shore. Two days earlier, Iran had protested Azerbaijan's plans to explore Caspian oil deposits in what Tehran considers its national sector.
It in unclear whether the Caspian incident will have serious effects on bilateral relations. But it has certainly overshadowed the recent signing of a security pact between the two countries and Iran's stated commitment to contribute to the Karabakh peace talks.
The incident may also prompt Aliyev to put off a much-awaited visit to Tehran, which would be his second to Iran since he became president in 1993. The visit has been tentatively scheduled for next month, but a date remains to be confirmed.