This road will plausibly stand in the place of the “Zangezur Corridor” road that would have run from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan through the southern Armenian province of Syunik.
Armenia had committed itself, in Point 9 of the November 2020 Trilateral Declaration putting an end to military hostilities of the Second Karabakh War, to the construction of such a road.
That declaration specified Armenia’s obligation to “unblock” and “guarantee the security of transport connections,” and to “arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions,” between “the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.”
However, official Yerevan continually postponed and eventually canceled the trilateral interministerial meetings (Russia was the third, facilitating party) that would have planned and implemented the construction of road and rail connections.
Occasional meetings were held, in fits and starts, including even this year, but this project – while it may still eventually be realized in some indefinite future – has now been overtaken by events.
It is worth mentioning that, despite allegations that Azerbaijan sought to make this road extraterritorial, or even part of Azerbaijan itself, that is simply not the case. The Trilateral Declaration put this road in parallel with the Lachin road inside Azerbaijan, which is neither extraterritorial to Azerbaijan nor part of Armenia.
Indeed, according to the Trilateral Declaration, the Border Service of the Russian FSB would provide security for the Zangezur Corridor, just as it now provides security for nearly all of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan.
Significance of the new road construction
The construction of a road from Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan through Iranian territory potentially marks a significant shift in regional dynamics.
On October 6, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev and Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mehrdad Bazrpash attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a highway bridge, with customs and border infrastructure, in Aghband, located in Azerbaijan’s Zangilan district.
The bridge will span the Araz River to connect to the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan. A bridge for rail traffic and construction of railroad links are also foreseen.
A memorandum of understanding for the building of the new road had been signed in March 2022. However, this diplomatic progress was halted in late January this year, when an Iranian individual launched a deadly attack against the embassy of Azerbaijan in Tehran.
The repercussions were immediate: Azerbaijan closed its embassy, and bilateral relations, which have always been complicated for intricate historical reasons, reached their lowest point in the last 30 years.
Azerbaijan demanded the trial of the perpetrator. Two days after the assailant’s conviction and sentencing to death in early October, the Azerbaijani president’s special assistant Khalaf Khalafov met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran.
Not only will Azerbaijan’s embassy be reopened, but moreover Amir-Abdollahian stated that Iran is “determined to expand relations” with Azerbaijan “in all areas.”
Intra-elite conflicts within the Iranian leadership are opaque, but one might suppose that the attack could have been motivated by factions opposed to the road’s construction for their own particular reasons. The result is that these factions appear to have lost that political battle.
Nakhchivan’s status and historical significance
Nakhchivan has the status of Autonomous Republic within the Republic of Azerbaijan. It had an analogous status in Soviet Azerbaijan.
The March 1921 Treaty of Moscow between Soviet Russia (the USSR was created only in 1922) and the Turkish Republic confirmed Nakhchivan as part of Azerbaijan and gave Turkey a short border with it. This status was confirmed seven months later by the Treaty of Kars, which named Turkey (and Russia) as guarantor of Nakhchivan’s status of autonomous republic within Azerbaijan.
It was therefore symbolic when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to meet Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on September 17 in Nakhchivan city, where he publicly welcomed possible Iranian participation in the construction of a road to Nakhchivan from the main body of Azerbaijan proper.
The occasion for the meeting was a groundbreaking ceremony for construction of a long-planned gas pipeline from the Turkish city of Igdir, so as to end the exclave’s dependence on gas imports from Iran.
Current gas demand is estimated at 500 million cubic meters per year (mcm/y), while the pipeline is planned for 730mcm/y, which could subsequently be doubled if there is sufficient demand. This provision suggests that Baku foresees the dynamic economic development of Nakhchivan and possible increase of the population there.
In 1987 and 1988 – even before Armenian military forces launched hostilities in the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) – as many as 180,000 Azerbaijanis lived in Armenia’s Syunik province. They were ethnically cleansed and turned into refugees in Azerbaijan.
It is noteworthy that this oft-unmentioned ethnic cleansing took place before the NKAO’s unilateral declaration of independence later in 1988.
Today, many Azerbaijanis forcibly expelled from southern Armenia are still alive. Azerbaijan, with its historical memory, posits that the return of Armenians to Karabakh should be paralleled by the return of Azerbaijanis to their ancestral lands in southern Armenia. Such a move, Azerbaijan argues, would not only be a gesture of justice but would also benefit Armenia.
The proposed Zangezur Corridor road could be a catalyst for economic development, transforming the region’s economic sociology. It could bolster the formation of a middle class outside of Yerevan, potentially benefiting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
However, the realization of this vision, as of now, seems uncertain, although bilateral negotiations over a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan might bring forth new understandings in this regard.
Robert M Cutler was for many years a senior researcher at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, and is a past fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.