The Zangezur Corridor: A Pathway for Prosperity or to War?
In a remote corner of southern Armenia, along a 40-mile border with Iran, is a patch of land largely unknown to the rest of the world — the Syunik/Zangezur region. From a resource perspective, it offers little. But from a geopolitical perspective, it could become the trigger for a conflict between Turkey and Iran that would resonate across global energy markets. Ostensibly the byproduct of a centuries-old territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Syunik/Zangezur region — currently under Armenian control — has become attractive to both Azerbaijan and Turkey for economic purposes. Iran, however, has indicated that any effort by Azerbaijan to take over the region would trigger an Iranian military response, a conflict that would likely draw in Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey.
The name of the Syunik/Zangezur region in itself reflects controversy that dates back to the Russian Empire and its collapse in 1917 — which gave birth to the then briefly independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Known by its Armenian name, Syunik, since antiquity, Russian authorities renamed the territory Zangezur in the 19th century, reflecting the Azeri majority population at the time. Britain — which intervened in the region at the end of World War I — sustained that practice when it approved Azerbaijan’s administration of the territory. Armenian forces, however, seized control of the Zangezur region in November 1919, and when Soviet control was asserted over both Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1920, the region was formally transferred to Armenian sovereignty as the Syunik Province.
The First and Second Nagorno-Karabakh Wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, fought in 1993-94 and 2020, respectively, resulted in turmoil that saw the political map of the region drastically changed. A decisive Armenian victory in the first war resulted in the loss of significant territory by Azerbaijan, as Armenia created a land bridge between Armenia proper and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. A similarly decisive Azerbaijani victory in 2020 erased these Armenian gains, and Azerbaijan won control over part of Nagorno-Karabakh. After renewed fighting in September 2023, Azerbaijan gained control over the rest of the break-away region, resulting in an exodus of Armenians, and raising the specter of Azerbaijan trying to seize control of the nearby Syunik/Zangezur region as well.
The importance of the Syunik/Zangezur region goes beyond the assertion of historic territorial claims. A mutual blockade between Armenia and Azerbaijan, instituted in 1989, resulted in the economic isolation of the Nakhichivan enclave, an Azerbaijani-controlled territory wedged between Turkey, Armenia and Iran. During Soviet times, Nakhchivan was connected to Azerbaijan proper by a railroad that ran through the Syunik/Zangezur region. The 2020 ceasefire agreement that brought an end to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War mandated that the 1989 blockade be terminated, and that Armenia facilitate the opening of so-called “transport connections” between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan that would permit the “unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions.”
Initial discussions about the reopening of the Soviet-era rail link, however, soon got bogged down over the concept of a more expansive “Zangezur corridor” introduced into the diplomatic mix by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. In 2021, during meetings with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Aliyev stated that a Zangezur corridor would “unite the whole Turkic world.” Aliyev was playing on a long-held Turkish desire for a direct link between it and Azerbaijan that would eliminate Iran’s physical access to Armenia, while opening a direct land route from Turkey, through Azerbaijan, to northern Iran, where there is a majority Azeri population, and Central Asia. Aliyev outlined this vision in November 2021 at a meeting of the Organization of Turkic States. The subversive aspects of this campaign were reflected in the recent appearances of posters in the Iranian city of Tabriz, home to a sizeable Azeri population, proclaiming that “Zangezur is Azerbaijani” and promoting the creation of a Baku-Tabriz-Ankara axis.
The Iran Factor
Iran’s 40-mile border with Armenia has become one of the most strategically important pieces of terrain when it comes to Iran’s perceptions of its national security interests. Iran deployed some 50,000 troops to the border zone in 2022 in a signal to both Turkey — a Nato member — and Azerbaijan that it would not tolerate any change in international borders in the region and that the territorial integrity of Armenia must be preserved. Those troops remain at a high state of readiness. This isn’t simple posturing by Iran. Indeed, Iran has made it clear that any redrawing of borders that removes Armenia as a neighbor represents a red line. The opening by Iran, in August 2022, of a consulate in Syunik/Zangezur has been seen by many regional analysts as a clear sign of Iran’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Armenia.
For the moment, Iran appears to be seeking a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. In separate meetings on Oct. 4 with the secretary of the Armenian Security Council, Armen Grigorian, and the president of Azerbaijan’s representative for special assignments, Khalaf Khalafov, Iranian President Ebraham Raisi warned both men that Iran viewed the Zangezur Corridor concept as a “springboard for Nato in the region,” and that Iran was “resolutely opposed” to all efforts to facilitate its creation, according to Mohammad Jamshidi, the deputy head of the Iranian Presidential Administration. Instead, Raisi emphasized the need for all parties to make use of the so-called “3 plus 3 format” — which brings together Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia on the one hand, and Turkey, Iran and Russia on the other — when it comes to resolving disputes.
The war now between Hamas and Israel has added a new, extremely dangerous geopolitical twist to an already complex drama. Israel is very concerned about the war with Hamas expanding to include Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps Iran. Armenian politicians, such as the former deputy of the national assembly, Arman Abovyan, have expressed concern that, given the history of close cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan regarding both the Azeri-Armenian conflict and in containing Iran regionally, the Zangezur Corridor crisis could be elevated and accelerated in an effort to divert Iranian resources away from a potential conflict with Israel — either by proxy via Hezbollah or directly — by having Azerbaijan position itself to seize control of the Syunik/Zangezur region by force.
At a time when the world is consumed by conflict (the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian, the still simmering Armenian-Azerbaijani and the freshly erupted Hamas-Israeli wars, to name three), the last thing needed now is a new round of conflict between two regional powers, Turkey and Iran. That would have an undeniably detrimental impact on global energy security. While the Iranian preference for the “3 plus 3” format might bode well for a political solution if the issues were limited to those of the region, the Nato “springboard” dimension and possible desire to create a distraction for Iran complicate any formula for a negotiated settlement. Today, the term “Zangezur Corridor” is known to only a handful of regional specialists. However, if war breaks out, it is a term that will become a household word, given the scope and scale of the global consequence such a conflict could have.