The name of Karabakh, instead of being a reminder of its beautiful nature as well as historical and cultural characteristics, has mostly come to be associated with one of the most lasting ethnic disputes over the past few decades, which in the political literature of the Caucasus region and usually along with ethnic crises in Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, has come to be known under such titles as the “frozen conflict” or “unresolved conflict.”
Unlike the viewpoint expressed by Samuel Huntington in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
,” where he has mentioned the dispute in Karabakh and differences between Armenians and Azeri people as an example of the confrontation between the Christian and Muslim worlds and an evidence to widening civilizational fault lines and conflicts, during the past few decades, the ethnic (Armenian vs. Azeri) element has prevailed over the religious (Christian vs. Muslim) element in the course of the Karabakh dispute.
However, in view of the current developments in the region and given the unprecedented spread of new waves of extremism in the Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus, there are other ramifications possible for this scenario. One of those ramifications is involvement of extremist elements from Daesh and other extremist religious groups, which are active in North Caucasus region, especially forces affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, in the Karabakh conflict. If this happens, it can change this conflict from a purely ethnic one to a full-fledged ethnic and religious conflict like the conflict that is currently going on in Kashmir.
Saudi Arabia is among those actors, which in view of the current equations in the region and due to its adversity to both Iran and Russia, can take advantage of the current situation in its own favor. The important point is that Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan are three Islamic countries, which due to what they call occupation of part of the Islamic world’s territories by the Christian Armenians, have so far refrained from recognizing the Republic of Armenia. On international level, Saudi Arabia has played an important role in Azerbaijan's accession to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as its non-permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council. This issue has been of high importance to the government in Baku because it has enabled the Republic of Azerbaijan to pursue the crisis of Karabakh both through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (as occupation of the territory of an Islamic country by the Christian Republic of Armenia), and through the Security Council (as violation of international law and the Charter of the United Nations with regard to national sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries).
Moreover, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Azerbaijan have greatly expanded during the past years, an evident example of which was a trip by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to Saudi Arabia in April 2015 at a time that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the crises in Syria and Yemen were at their peak. That visit was widely covered by Saudi and other Arab countries’ media, which gave extensive coverage of Aliyev’s pilgrimage to Kaaba in Mecca and Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. On the other hand, those media outlets did their best to highlight the closeness between viewpoints and positions of a Shia country and Saudi Arabia as the most powerful country in the Sunni world, which has a claim to the leadership of the entire Arab world. Therefore, when it comes to the crisis in Karabakh, the government of Azerbaijan is trying to have not only Turkey (which is its traditional ethnic ally), but also Saudi Arabia (as a religious ally) on its side in order to put more pressure on Armenia as well as Iran and Russia. The recent conflict in Karabakh can provide Baku with further ground to do this.
The final point is that the opening of a new front of insecurity and threat in Iran's peripheral regions, which in this case is in the strategic Caucasus region, which can pose serious threat to Iran's national interests and security and as such, calls for sufficient vigilance and attention from Iran to keep various aspects of this crisis under control. The Islamic Republic's successful experience in putting an end to the domestic war in Tajikistan and Iran's mediatory efforts aimed at terminating the Karabakh war in the early years of 1990 (which due to various regional reasons and considerations did not bear fruit at that juncture) can provide Iran with good support and capacity in this regard. By taking advantage of that capacity under the present hectic conditions, Iran can invite the two conflicting side to exercise self-restraint and establish immediate cease-fire, while helping to provide ground for negotiations and interaction between the two sides with support and assistance from other regional actors. It must be noted that the current dispute in Karabakh has occurred under regional conditions, which are totally different from conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the 1990s. Therefore, if its scope and dimensions are not brought under control, in view of the existence of new grounds for violence, terrorism and extremism, this conflict can rapidly evolve into new dimensions and transcend beyond the limited geographical expanse of Karabakh, thus, making its control and management very difficult and highly expensive.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at The IRAS Institute.