Recently, on 20 April, the first trilateral political consultations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Republic of India were held. The meeting took place in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The delegations were headed by Mnatsakan Safaryan, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, the Assistant of the Foreign Minister of Iran, Head of the Regional General Department of South Asia and J P Singh, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs of India.
“During the meeting, the sides particularly discussed economic issues and regional communication channels and outlined the prospects of deepening cultural and people-to-people contacts as well as trilateral cooperation in various fields. The sides agreed to continue consultations in a trilateral format,” a statement by the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
India's Connectivity Ambitions
Economic issues and regional communication channels are key to this trilateral cooperation, which has been in the making for a while and is inevitable. The meeting also came soon after tensions erupted between Iran and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s arch-enemy when the latter arrested some men on charges of espionage for Iran.
India has been, in recent years, deepening its ties with Armenia, with which it already had ancient, civilizational ties. More recently, it has been supplying weapons to Armenia, as the latter found itself embroiled in military conflict with Azerbaijan over the contested territory of Nagorny-Karabakh, while Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey increased cooperation, including in the military sphere with Pakistan.
However, India’s cooperation with Iran and Armenia, both of whom share a common border, are important for its connectivity ambitions too, and much of the trilateral cooperation will undoubtedly be focused on that.
Since its victory over Armenia in the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijan has been making, albeit indirectly, irredentist claims on lands that it believed historically belonged to it. Some of these are in Northern Iran, also known as Southern Azerbaijan. The war also resulted in some bordering areas of friendly Armenia now becoming part of Iran’s border with Azerbaijan. A year later, Baku conducted military drills on its territory together with Turkey and Pakistan. Iran is also wary of Israeli presence on Azerbaijan’s territory, though for India Israel is a close friend.
The Importance of the Zangezur Corridor
However, Azerbaijan’s pro-Pakistan position on Kashmir complements Turkey’s belligerence on Kashmir. For instance, last year on 27 October an event hosted by Pakistan’s embassy in Baku to commemorate “Kashmir Black Day”, was attended by members of Azerbaijan’s parliament as well as officials from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both India and Iran are wary of Baku’s newfound belligerence.
However, more importantly, it is the politics of the international trade routes that have been a major driving force behind the trilateral alliance. A common threat for all three would be the Zangezur Corridor which Azerbaijan has been insisting on since the time it won the Second Karabakh war.
But what is the Zangezur Corridor?
The Zangezur Corridor is a land corridor that Azerbaijan envisages would connect it to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan in western Armenia and onward to Turkey without Armenian border control over it. It cuts through Armenia’s southernmost province of Syuni which borders Iran’s Azeri province in the north. Armenians explain they are not against any land corridor as connectivity is critical for countries like it. However, since it runs through Armenian territory, it should be subject to Armenian control.
For both Azerbaijan and Turkey, this land corridor without Armenian control would open up routes to Central Asia, fan pan-Turkism, and would give Azerbaijan control over the borders with Iran which it can then cut off at will, cutting Iran completely off from northern route, rendering the 7,200-km long International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) - a multimodal trade route which connects India to the Russian Federation through Iran - useless, or put it at the will of Azerbaijan-Turkey combine.
In 2021 in a joint press conference together with Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said that "Both Turkey and Azerbaijan will take necessary steps for the realization of the Zangezur Corridor” which would "unite the entire Turkic world."
Most Armenians as well as Iran see the corridor as a joint Azerbaijan-Turkey project.
This is also why Iran is against the corridor. Since the 2020 Karabakh war, while Iran cheered for Azerbaijan, it has also been warning against any changes to Armenia’s international borders – effectively any change in Iran’s borders with Armenia, which gives it land access to Russia, the Black Sea and beyond through the territory of a friendly country. In a recent article the former Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Kharazi, now Director of Iran’s Strategic Council of Foreign Relations, made a stark warning against the Zangezur Corridor, in the model that Azerbaijan envisages, which Iran sees as a NATO-created Turan (pan-Turkic) corridor.
Reporting on the 20 April meeting the Iranian media also referred to trade routes and underscored Iran’s antipathy to the Zangezur Corridor.
Trilateral Cooperation is Imperative
For India, this is also bad tidings. In case Azerbaijan gets its way with the corridor, Indian access would be subject to its will, and it can cut off access anytime. It is a scenario all parties would like to preempt.
This is why perhaps both Iran and India have, for a while, been mulling having the International North South Transit Corridor run through Armenia and not through Azerbaijan, as earlier envisaged. In 2021, India invited Armenia too, along with its traditional partners, to the virtual meeting to mark Chabahar Day, even as it pitched for connecting the Chabahar port to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port which connects to the INSTC.
Soon after, the Indian Ambassador to Iran, Gaddam Dharmendra announced that India was planning to connect the Chabahar port, which India is investing in, on Iran’s eastern coast and the Indian Ocean with Eurasia and Helsinki through the INSTC which would run through the territory of Armenia.
Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, Alireza Peymanpak, announced not long after: “Two alternative Iran-Eurasia transit routes will replace Azerbaijan’s route. First opens in a month via Armenia after [the] end of repair work, and the second via sea by purchasing and renting vessels.”
For all three countries, therefore, trilateral cooperation is imperative to keep communication and trade routes open. This would mean, first and foremost, to ensure Armenia’s territorial integrity. Azerbaijan, strategic thinkers converge, is acting not only in its own interest but largely also fulfilling the Turkish agenda. Turkey’s military inroads into South Asia are already substantial. With Azerbaijan is closely allied with both Pakistan and China, trilateral Indian, Iranian, and Armenian cooperation is inevitable.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)