Despite another round of negotiations in Brussels on July 15, the situation in the long-contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh remains volatile as violence continues to rage between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In an attempt to stabilize boiling tensions, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has vowed to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. Future U.S.-hosted peace talks between Baku are critical for deciding the region's fate. While peacekeeping proposals focus on the two direct combatants, the involvement of Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan, and Iran, which supports Armenia, will be necessary for potential talks to form an enduring settlement.
Given its shared cultural and ethnic heritage and desire to protect its sphere of influence, Turkey has long supported Azerbaijan’s territorial claims in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Turkey grew bolder in its support by providing infrastructure and weapons assistance, including Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which helped secure Azerbaijan’s overwhelming victory. Ankara’s support has encouraged Baku’s assertiveness and reluctance to grant concessions. This attitude persisted throughout the September 2022 border clashes. Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu directly intervened, tweeting, “Armenia should cease its provocations and focus on peace negotiations and cooperation with Azerbaijan.”
Iran, meanwhile, played a pivotal role in perpetuating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Iranian army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have conducted large-scale military drills along its border with Azerbaijan. While Iran has a sizable Azerbaijani population, Tehran is concerned about Israeli influence in the Caucasus. Baku has received high-tech drones and other weapons from Jerusalem. Azerbaijan also supplies 40 percent of Israeli oil consumption. Iran is also concerned that Israel’s support for Azerbaijan is an opportunity for the former to conduct surveillance on Tehran via unmanned surveillance aircraft. Additionally, if Baku were to construct the Zangezur overland transport corridor, which would connect Azerbaijan and Turkey via southern Armenian territory, Iran could be further isolated from the South Caucasus.
Excluding the regional powers from future Nagorno-Karabakh peace negotiations would be an unwise error. Upcoming Nagorno-Karabakh talks present the opportunity for Armenia and Turkey to make concrete steps in pursuing the normalization of ties discussed in 2022. Iran could also appease its Azerbaijani population by achieving peace with its neighbor.
Reconciling Turkey and Iran could also serve as an avenue for Washington to improve its own relations with Ankara and Tehran. U.S.-Turkey relations have deteriorated since the early 2000s. U.S.-Iran links have been in a deep freeze since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. As a result, the Iran nuclear crisis has worsened, with Iran now possessing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Through cooperation over Nagorno-Karabakh, Washington and Tehran could potentially revitalize peace talks in other areas, including nuclear nonproliferation.
While diplomatic cooperation between Iran and the West may appear unlikely, all parties have clear interests in furthering peace. Iran’s Azerbaijani population, which has staged protests in the past, poses problems for Iranian unity. The United States and France are also home to sizable Armenian diaspora communities. American and EU investors maintain commercial interests in Azerbaijan’s energy projects. Baku helped build 2,174 miles of natural gas pipelines to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. These projects will be critical for the success of the EU-Azerbaijan energy plan to double Brussels’ gas imports from Azerbaijan by 2027.
What conditions will ensure a durable peace settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh? First, Azerbaijan must cease its blockade of the Lachin corridor. This blockade has restricted the freedom of movement for the 120,000 Karabakh Armenians and threatened their access to food and medicine. Ending the blockade would be a suitable concession, allowing Armenia to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory.
Protection of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh will also be crucial for lasting peace and will put to rest Yerevan’s concerns about a potential ethnic cleansing. Persecution of Karabakh Armenians would surely lead to an increase in Iran and Turkey’s military involvement in the region. The United States should make clear that failure to assure the security of Karabakh Armenians would negatively impact Baku's reputation as a dependable trading partner.
If these objectives can be met, a commitment from Iran and Turkey to reduce escalatory practices will keep Karabakh tensions from spiraling into a more significant conflict. UN peacekeepers are ideal, neutral guarantors of preserving these conditions, as Russian peacekeepers have been ineffective in quelling violence in the region. Peacekeepers from the United States are out of the question, as there are no vital U.S. national interests in the South Caucasus that would warrant the risk of starting new wars.
The United States should recognize that it can reap considerable benefits from including Turkey and Iran in future Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks. Not only is it a chance for open dialogue on a myriad of important issues, but it could provide the greatest likelihood of lasting peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.