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Who is at the turn of interests? US, Russia and new reality on the border with Iran

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An unprecedented stir is up over Nagorno Karabakh. It seems that the Armenian-Azeri presidential meeting in Rambouillet, on February 10-11, has broken the very logic and the very format of the peace talks, the OSCE Minsk Group has been mediating for as many as 15 years so far.

The remarkable meeting of Robert Kocharyan and Ilham Aliyev in France, when the sides — as the Armenian President said — failed to agree on “one key issue,” was followed by a meeting of the mediators in Washington on March 9 — a rendezvous that gave the process quite an sudden turn. For some unknown reasons, the OSCE MG co-chairs began acting autonomously, and the Russian co-chair Yuri Merzlyakov — the most passively of all. US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Daniel Fried visits the region on March 13-16 and March 20 the co-chairs meet in Istanbul without Merzlyakov. Then, the Armenian and Azeri FMs are invited to Washington, and Frieds deputy Matthew Bryza visits Yerevan and Baku. In the meantime, the Armenian FM goes to Moscow, while the US and French co-chairs come to Yerevan and Baku. Then comes the climax: the visit of the Iranian DM to Baku, the consultation of the regional (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia) ambassadors of Russia and the Russian Deputy FM in Yerevan (Moscow makes a kind of diplomatic gesture by holding such a meeting in Yerevan), and the preparations for Ilham Aliyevs visit to Washington.

This chronology will help us to see what may happen in the Karabakh peace process in connection with the growing activity of the US and the prospects of the key regional factor the Iranian nuclear problem.

Much has been said and written about Washingtons plans and specific efforts to involve Irans neighbor Azerbaijan in its future anti-Iranian coalition and to use that countrys territory as a base for its relevant actions. The US has been and is making these efforts with persistence it would better apply for better purposes. For the first time, US sources said that the final agreement on the matter was reached during the “noiseless” visit of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Baku on April 12, 2005. They obviously hurried with the news as Baku was stalwartly resisting. Bakus motives are clear and come from its full insight into Washingtons plan to put Tehran down. With all mercantile interests put aside, the Bush administration just wants Baku to be an accomplice in its in-depth destabilization of the whole Black Sea-Caspian Sea region. Whatever its outcome, this operation will be hardly pleasant for the South Caucasus and hardly short — considering the US endless campaign in Iraq.

But this is obviously the least concern for Washington, who is already so keen on its Great Game that it no longer sees states and nations around. Even more, since recently more precisely, after the scandals over the tortures in Abu Ghraib, CIA jails in some “democratized” countries and phone tapping in the US the Bush administration began acting bluntly. They are no longer bothering with the fading-out democracy flag now their stakes are on the power of arms and bucks.

The interweaving aspects of the Karabakh and Iranian problems give experts a certain foreboding: the almost simultaneous escalation of diplomatic activity over the problems, the magic-like up-and-downs in Azeri-Iranian relations, Tehrans changeability towards Yerevan and Baku, the unambiguous statements of the Iranian DM in Baku (he expressed hope in Baku on April 20 that in Washington Azeri President Ilham Aliyev will explain to the Americans that they should think over their attitude towards Iran and said that Iran is ready to help Azerbaijan to settle the Karabakh conflict) all this looks like somebody is trying to mix these two problems and to serve this fire-damp mixture on one plate to the Azeri leadership.

If so, we should also think about what trumps the US may have promised to Azerbaijan in exchange for its “anti-Iranian loyalty.” In fact, there might be several promises: not to interfere in the internal political affairs of that country, to help to return the territories controlled by the Armenians and, later, to solve the Karabakh problem itself — and also, probably, to become the security guarantor and the stable buyer of the Azeri oil and to do everything possible for the international markets not to notice the catastrophic shortage of that oil. i.e. to do its best to involve Kazakhstan in the oil- and gas-transit projects of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Quite a lot, as we see. We cant be sure, but the US may offer another attraction for Azerbaijans national consciousness the factor of Southern Azerbaijan and the possibility of territorial enlargement at the expense of Iran. This may seem a utopia, at the first glance, but who could imagine some ten years ago that there would be a de facto Kurdish state in the north of Iraq? But how to act in case of failure how to solve the ensuing conflict with Iran? Here Azerbaijan has little choice.

Lets note that though bigger than Armenias, Azerbaijans military, diplomatic and human resources are still not enough for it to solve the Karabakh problem independently from the general geo-politics. Today, its, in fact, all the same for the Azeri authorities how the problem will be solved. What they actually care for is the internal political stability, and the Karabakh problem is the key threat to it.

Meanwhile, it was the father of the present Azeri president, Haydar Aliyev, who first said that “Karabakh is lost for us.” On July 22, 2002, while receiving the founders of the Baku Press-Club in his palace, Aliyev made a number of avowals. The full text of Aliyevs interview was published by Zerkalo daily on July 23, 2002. In particular, Aliyev said that as the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR “he did much to help Nagorno Karabakh to develop, but, at the same time, he tried to change the local demography.” “Nagorno Karabakh asked for an institute. I decided to open one, but on condition that it would have three sectors Azeri, Russian and Armenia. We opened the institute and began sending Azeris from nearby districts there rather than to Baku. We also opened a big shoe factory. Stepanakert had no sufficient labor force, so we began sending there Azeris from places around the region. By doing this I tried to increase the number of Azeris and to reduce the number of Armenians,” Aliyev said. He also noted that “when I left Azerbaijan, the situation there got worse Armenias influence grew bigger, and our authorities did nothing and missed the moment.” “When in Feb 1991 I was elected deputy from Naxcivan and came to Baku and said in the parliament that Nagorno Karabakh was already lost,” Haydar Aliyev said.

Returning to our topic, lets try to describe the consequences the war in Iran may have for Armenia.

The armed crisis in Iran, the preventive strikes on or the military invasion of the US and the “accomplice-countries” in that country and the possible consequences this may have for Armenia are a question that can knock out any Armenian politician. They in Armenia have no answer to this question they just well realize how serious this threat is. The possibility of a US-Azeri or any other conspiracy over the Karabakh-Iranian problem as a whole is an even bigger trap for the Armenians. We can hardly imagine them to rule out this possibility at all. The region is too small, and there is just one step from Iran (and, most importantly, from its regions where the ethnic Azeri majority is several times bigger than the whole population of Armenia) to Karabakh.

Yes, its not calm in Armenia, and not only because of the daily shuttle visits of US politicians and diplomats. In fact, any destabilization will reveal the real balance of forces in the region and will blow up the whole foreign political doctrine of Armenia. The country will have to instantly choose which camp to join. The situation is going beyond short-term predictability, which means the end of the epoch of complimentarity a wait-and-see policy, a policy of balance between the interests of macro-players.

Yerevan seems to have already taken the first steps in this direction… not without Moscow. In the chronology we give in the preamble shows that after the usual OSCE MG format broke up and the Russian co-chair went into the shadow, it was only the Armenian FM that visited Moscow. But this was overshadowed by an unprecedented meeting of the Russian ambassadors to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey and Russian Deputy FM Grigory Karasin in Yerevan. Even in calmer times such a meeting would look intriguing. The N1 topic before and after the military exercises in Nagorno Karabakh was the Armenian-Russian military cooperation. Apr 19 the chief of the general staff of Armenias armed forces Mikayel Haroutyunyan said that “Armenia and Russia should conduct joint exercises more frequently and should involve the Karabakh armed forces therein.” In the meantime, Armenian Defense Serzh Sargsyan said in an interview to Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper that Armenia would welcome the training of Russian military students in highland conditions.

Such statements during military exercises in Nagorno Karabakh cant but have a serious implication. The region is facing hard times, and for Armenia things are even harder. The fact is that its Azerbaijan and not Armenia the US is talking with including about the Karabakh problem. Even more, the US has already made it clear that it is concerned over the growing presence of Russia in the South Caucasus. On April 14, the chairman of the subcommittee on foreign operations Jim Kolbe said that the US is actually concerned for Russias growing presence in the South Caucasus. And where is Russia present most of all? Certainly, Kolbes hint was at Armenia. But the US concern is in no way for Russias economic growth in Armenia, and its quite remarkable that the statement was made in Baku. Earlier the UK special representative Bryan Fall clearly said that there are states and organizations who would not object to replacing the Russian military bases in Armenia.

Is a local war in Karabakh possible? It is — as war is still regarded as one of the possible ways to resolve the dragging conflict. But who will it benefit? The benefits are many, but they depend on what the beneficiaries want. Lets consider some of the possible scenarios:

The US involves Azerbaijan in a local war with Armenia and deploys its military bases in the Azeri territory to protect its oil-gas interests and, at the same time, pressures on Iran from the north. This scenario fits well into the US strategic plan of Irans military-political encirclement.

The US persuades Azerbaijan and Armenia into starting a new local war and actively puts it down to Armenias disadvantage, thereby showing Yerevan the inutility of the Russian presence. This scenario will allow the Americans to force the Russians further out of the South Caucasus. Objectively, if Azerbaijan attacks Armenia, Russia will have to help its strategic partner and CSTO ally. But given Armenias communication blockade and Russia narrow operation scope (due mostly to the US efforts in Georgia), the Russian help may prove ineffective. This may urge Armenia to change its national security course towards the Atlantic system.

The mediators in the Karabakh peace process (the US, Russia and France) and the parties to the conflict agree to start a local war for giving back to Azerbaijan the territories occupied by the Armenian side, and, as Armenian FM Vardan Oskanyan put it, “for legalizing the self-determination of Nagorno Karabakh” with no internal political shocks in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Thereby the mediators keep their promise to resolve the conflict in 2006.

Azerbaijan goes into battle voluntarily, with no coercion, to see itself and to show to its people the final of the conflict. This is the least probable scenario for this adventure will bring Azerbaijan to nothing but a new long bloodshed with Armenia and new instability in the region.

The US and Russia are beginning to re-share the region again Russia gives OK to the US strikes on Iran, the US uses the region as a base, but agrees not to torpedo Russias policy and economic interests in the South Caucasus. This is also quite possible, especially as Iran has, in fact, rejected all Russias initiatives to solve the nuclear problem and may in the future become Moscows real rival in the region, an alternative energy policy-maker and a potential nuclear bomb-owner. On the other hand, Russia needs the US non-interference in its relations with the post-Soviet republics, especially with Ukraine and Georgia.

Conclusion

In fact, there may be a few more scenarios. In any of them a new war in Karabakh will lead to a new reality in the whole region. Obviously, the US and Europe have quite different positions on Karabakh the US is openly trying to use this factor in its own plans and projects and to slow down the flow of solutions by the European mediators. Washington needs the Karabakh conflict at this crucial historical point. In fact, it wants to use the Karabakh factor in its plans against Iran by implicating Baku in something that may end in a catastrophe for the whole region. Experts perfectly see that the US key priority is Iran and all the other factors and countries will be made subservient to it.

Speaking of Russia, we should keep in mind that in the present historical period its regional policy is based on two platforms Iran and Armenia. Russia still is dominant over the balance of forces in the conflict zone and, knowing this, one can hardly imagine how the US will come to terms with Azerbaijan. Possibly, in cooperation with Russia. However, the key question here is in what cooperation? The MG co-chairs are visiting the region separately, their states are at variance on Iran and, obviously, on Armenia, too. Can a new war reconcile them? Or, perhaps, they can still agree by harmonizing their positions on Armenia? There is, at least, one fact that gives us such hope Azerbaijan is getting involved in the anti-Iranian processes separately from its strategic ally Turkey. Today Ankara is very busy with the Kurdish problem, which is being actively kindled by the selfsame US. While Baku is weighing the “pros” and “cons,” the Turkish army is planning a big campaign in the south-east of its own country. The headquarters of the Turkish land troops are being moved closer to the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria for organizing the large-scale decisive blow on the Kurdish armed units.

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