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Iran and Russia denounce West over Caucasus tensions

Tehran, Iran — Iran and Russia on Monday denounced European and US interference in tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan at a meeting in Tehran aimed at finding a solution without the West.

Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the talks in the Iranian capital seeking to ease the tensions, which soared with Baku’s lightning offensive to retake the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

On the same day as the meeting, however, Azerbaijan announced the start of joint military drills with its ally Turkey near the border with Armenia just weeks after Baku seized Karabakh from pro-Yerevan separatists.

At the meeting — which also included foreign ministers from Turkey, Russia and Iran — the envoys noted a push for peace in the Caucasus.

“The problems of the region cannot be resolved by the intervention of foreign forces,” Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said, quoted by his office.

His foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said: “The presence of foreigners in the region not only does not solve the problems but complicates the situation”.

At the end of the talks, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov denounced “attempts by, first and foremost, the EU and, to a certain extent, the United States, to interfere in the process of delimiting” the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In a joint final declaration, the participants reiterated the “importance of peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity… and non-interference in internal affairs”.

Lavrov, who had a one-on-one with Raisi, told the meeting that “the door remains open” for Georgia, which was absent on Monday, and that a further meeting was planned in Turkey around the first half of next year.

The talks are seen as Moscow’s attempt to reduce growing Western influence in the Caucasus — a region it has long considered as its backyard.

According to Moscow’s original plan, the “3+3 format” was meant to also include Georgia. But Tbilisi, which aspires to join the EU and NATO, has rejected the proposal.

Since Moscow brokered a 2020 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the European Union and United States have stepped up their own efforts to mediate a peace agreement between the two sides.

Russia, the traditional power-broker in the region, has seen its role diminished since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Azerbaijan-Turkey drills

Ahead of the talks, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Monday it had begun joint drills with its ally Turkey near the border with Armenia.

Azerbaijan last month took control of the enclave in a 24-hour military operation that ended decades of Armenian separatist rule.

The ministry said “up to 3,000” troops would take part in the tactical drills held in the capital Baku, the Nakhichevan exclave between Iran and Armenia, as well as territories retaken from Armenian separatists.

The exercises — dubbed “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk 2023” — involve dozens of artillery weapons and aviation.

Baku said they were aimed at “ensuring combat interoperability” between the allies.

Tensions are running high between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a month after Baku’s lightning offensive.

Yerevan fears energy-rich Baku may seek to press its advantage — with the help of Ankara — to forcibly connect its Nakhichevan exclave with Azerbaijan proper by capturing lands in southern Armenia, along the Iranian border.

Iran opposes the idea of a so-called Zangezur corridor, as it would create a direct land link between Azerbaijan and Tehran’s historic rival Turkey.

Armenia said it is ready to reopen transport communications between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan via its territory under condition that its sovereignty over the area is not questioned.

Baku has denied having any territorial claims over Armenia.

Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and for decades home to a majority Armenian population, was at the centre of two wars between Yerevan and Baku — in 2020 and in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After a months-long blockade of the region, Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive against Armenian separatist forces on September 19, 2023.

After less than a day of fighting, separatist authorities agreed to lay down arms and reintegrate with Azerbaijan.

Almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population — some 100,000 people — fled for Armenia after the offensive, sparking a refugee crisis.

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