Caucasus analysts are weighing up whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan means what he says when he states that Turkey and Azerbaijan would settle for a land corridor that links their two countries via Iran rather than Armenia.
Earlier this week—with Armenia facing a grave crisis with tens of thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees pouring over the border following the Azerbaijani military blitz that retook control of their enclave homeland—Erdogan and Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev hinted that they would push for Armenia to accept their long desired “Zangezur Corridor”. This envisaged link would connect mainland Azerbaijan with Turkey via Armenian territory and the Azerbaijani Nakhchivan exclave.
However, as Erdogan returned to Turkey from a meeting with Aliyev in Nakhchivan—where on September 25 the two presidents jointly opened a modernised Azerbaijani military installation—he spoke with reporters accompanying him, saying that the land bridge project could be realised even without the use of Armenian territory. "If Armenia does not pave the way for [the corridor], where will it pass through? It will pass through Iran," Turkish media reported him as saying. "Iran currently considers this positively. So, it would be possible to pass from Iran to Azerbaijan," he added.
At a cabinet meeting later the same day, Erdogan reiterated the statement.
RFE/RL noted that a September 17 article on Haqqin.az, a website associated with Azerbaijan's security services, differentiated between a "Western Zangezur Corridor" passing through Armenia’s Syunik province and an "Eastern Zangezur Corridor" taking a route through Iran.
The piece concluded: "If Yerevan continues to delay the opening of the Western Zangezur Corridor, then Azerbaijan will open the Eastern Zangezur Corridor with Iran, which means that Armenia will remain outside of yet another strategic project and will once again be a loser."
A senior official in Azerbaijan's foreign ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to RFE/RL that the Iranian route would be acceptable for Baku. "The ball is in Armenia's court. If this country wants to establish overland communication with the outside world after 30 years of self-imposed isolation, they have to live up to their obligations on the Zangezur Corridor. If not, the communication will be established anyway, but in this case via Iran thus bypassing Armenia," the official was cited as saying.
Armenia is concerned that an agreement for a Western Zangezur Corridor running across its territory would mean a loss of sovereignty if it was unable to monitor traffic on the road and planned railway. But the quoted official dismissed this anxiety as a secondary concern, saying it would be a matter for negotiations. "The most important [thing] is the opening of the traffic itself," the official added.
One hypothesis advanced by analysts is that Aliyev is wary of putting too much pressure on Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan in the wake of Azerbaijan’s crushing of what was left of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (the name the ethnic-Armenians gave to their internationally unrecognised breakaway state) because he does not want to see Pashinyan toppled amid Armenian outrage over the fate of the enclave and replaced by a revanchist administration that might have designs on launching an attempt to take back the lost lands.
"Aliyev will give Armenia a bit of time to handle domestic unrest," Fuad Shahbaz, a Baku-based political analyst, told RFE/RL, noting that Aliyev conspicuously praised Pashinyan—who during the Azerbaijani offensive in Karabakh announced publicly that Armenian armed forces would not intervene—in a victory address to the nation on September 20, saying: "During this period, today and yesterday, Armenia has unexpectedly shown political competence, which we appreciate."
But the fear remains that Aliyev and Erdogan are just biding their time and, when the international spotlight is not shining so brightly on the fate of the “Artsakh Armenians”, will return to their demand that a Western Zangezur Corridor, running through Armenia, must be accepted.
Should that happen, however, they would likely be dealing not only with Armenian objections. Iran too has so far objected to the idea of a corridor running across Armenia, a short distance from the parallel Armenia-Iran border, fearing it would disrupt transit routes used by Iranian traders and open the way to more Turkish geopolitical influence in what it sees as its South Caucasus backyard.
Zangezur is important to Turkey in that it would give the country direct passage to both "brother nation" Azerbaijan and the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.