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Friends in misfortune. What will rapprochement with Armenia and Russia give Iran?

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Image source: kremlin.ru

The geopolitical situation in the region of the South Caucasus has been dramatically changed after the victory of Azerbaijan in the Second Karabakh war that resulted in liberation of the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan from the Armenian occupation, which lasted for about three decades.

The victory of Azerbaijan and the restoration of historical justice, which marked the beginning of the “great return” of Azerbaijanis to Karabakh along restoration of liberated territories on the initiative of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev bring an element of urgency to the issue of post-conflict agenda for the region of the South Caucasus. Against this background main international actors try to obtain political leverage in the mentioned region.

In fact, the only country left without any benefits, except defeated and capitulated Armenia, is Iran that represents itself as Armenia`s closest friend and ally, moreover the guarantor of its security. The chronology of the rapprochement between two rogue states is replete with futile attempts to build up multilateral cooperation against the backdrop of international sanctions imposed on Iran and the aggressive policy of Armenia, which has territorial claims not only to Azerbaijan, but also to Turkey and Georgia.

It is noteworthy that after the end of the Second Karabakh War, Baku, adhering to the course of normalizing relations with Iran, offered Tehran cooperation within the “3+3” (3+2) format, as well as invited Iran to join to the Zangazur corridor project. However, Iran consider this project as a threat to its national interests and afraid from being cut off from the Caucasus.

In this regard, the Iranian expert community and mass media make statements about supporting the borders of Armenia in order to torpedo the process of opening the Zangazur corridor through the territory of the latter.

Hence, in current geopolitical game Tehran is betting on Armenia in order to play on the contradictions in the regional agenda, because the constructive atmosphere of political dialogue and healthy cooperation is exactly the wrong environment for Iran, which is mired in the abyss of internal state chaos, aggravated by international sanctions.

At the same time, paradoxically, Armenia, positioning itself to the West as a stronghold for democracy and human rights in the South Caucasus, supports the thesis of the Iranian leadership on preventing non-regional states from entering the South Caucasus. This is another confirmation of the hypocrisy of Armenian political leadership, warmly welcoming the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the US Congress Nancy Pelosi during her recent visit to Armenia, and simultaneously increasing comprehensive cooperation with anti-American “brotherly” Tehran, which calls the US “the main and malicious enemy” of Iran.

In this regard, the recent visit of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to Tehran after the trilateral meeting of the Armenian leader with Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev in Sochi is not surprising. The official agenda of Pashinyan’s visit to Iran included discussions on deeper bilateral relations, review the implementation of joint projects and the problems of cross-border cooperation.

The main topic of the economic agenda of the Armenian Prime Minister’s visit to Iran was the construction project of the 7.2 km Kajaran Tunnel. According to the Armenian Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure Gnel Sanosyan, who arrived in Iran with an Armenian delegation, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, “large-scale road construction projects underway in Armenia, which will enable to increase the volume of Iranian cargo transportation in the near future along these roads”. Iranian news agency ISNA reported that during the meeting it was decided that Iranian companies will begin construction of the 7.2-kilometer Kajaran Tunnel in Armenia in the spring of 2023. “The North-South corridor from Norduz to Verzegan and Tabriz, will facilitate movement of goods and transit opportunities for Iran and Armenia. One of the peculiarities of this route is a significant reduction in the length and travel time,” – said Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development Rostam Ghasemi. Most recently, he also announced exporting engineering and technical services from Iran to Armenia and emphasized the full readiness of Iranian companies to develop transportation between the two countries and create a new transit corridor between Armenia and the Persian Gulf.

Regarding trade issues, it should be noted that Iran targeting $3 billion in annual trade with Armenia. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stressed that “during the previous months, 43 percent increase in trade and economic relations with Armenia was recorded, but the goal, the target is 3 billion USD. We will definitely achieve this goal. Good relations between the two countries will surely lead to strengthening of relations and security in the region”.

In addition, Iran and Armenia have agreed to double the amount of natural gas that Iran sells to Armenia, and to extend their gas trade agreement to 2030.

Finally, apotheosis of Iran’s rapprochement with Armenia is the opening of the Iranian Consulate General in Kapan, as well as the intention of the Armenian side to open the Consulate General in Tabriz.

Noteworthy, sticking to Iranian traditional phobia of “intervention by external forces”, which obviously means the West, and in particular the US, Raisi warns the latter against interfering in the affairs of the Caucasus, stating that “the Caucasus region is a cultural and civilizational part of Iran’s historical past, and we are very sensitive towards that region…The presence of foreign powers not only does not solve any problems, but creates additional problems”.

Such an escapade of Iran is obviously aimed at sweetening its comrade-in-sanctions – Russia, the relations with which entered into a period of rapid flowering after the war in Ukraine. In response to Western sanctions, Moscow set about looking for alternative partners among other traditionally anti-Western countries—including to bypass trade restrictions—and Iran looks set to be one of the most promising. However, the grandiosity of the plans does not negate the fact that the objective possibilities for building up Russian-Iranian cooperation are very limited.

Obviously, Tehran will not be able to effectively help to save the Russian economy by circumventing Western sanctions, and the deep internal political crisis in Iran itself makes it difficult to implement any agreements. Today, Iran is mired in large-scale protest waves that have not subsided for more than a month, which in itself is an unprecedented case for Iran. As it was known, the latest aggravation began in September due to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran, who was detained by the morality police for wearing the hijab incorrectly. The outbreaks of unrest are becoming massive, protracted, and uncompromising in their criticism of the Iran’s political regime. This level of instability is creating serious investment risks and getting in the way of implementing any agreements.

At the same time, Russia and Iran managed not only to agree on the supply of weapons, but also to take immediate steps in this direction. The aspect of their relationship that has attracted the most attention recently is Russia’s use of Iranian drones to strike Ukrainian cities. Not surprising that both the Russian and Iranian governments have denied that the kamikaze drones the Russian army is using in Ukraine are Iranian, but all the evidence suggests that they are. Moreover, Ukraine’s military intelligence services reported that “Iran was also about to start supplying Russia with missiles”.

It should be noted that the agreements between Iran and Russia may provoke a new round of protest movement in Iran, given the historically rooted view in Iran about Russia as a colonial power seeking to gain control over local resources. Furthermore, at the beginning of this year there were even small-scale protests in Tehran against Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine. 

To sum up, politically ostracized Iran, being a stronghold of obscurantism and massive violation of fundamental human rights, in an attempt to present itself as a geopolitical player in new realities that have been established after the Second Karabakh war, enlisted the support of only two states – Armenia and Russia. In fact, Iran is continuing to pose a threat not only to regional, but also international security. This is confirmed by Tehran’s recent appeal to Russia for assistance in developing nuclear weapons.  The US intelligence officials believe that the fuel could help Iran power its nuclear reactors and could potentially further shorten Iran’s so-called “breakout time” to create a nuclear weapon, which will further exacerbate an already tense situation in a world on the brink of a dangerous new nuclear era.

Dr. Ceyhun Osmanli is a former Member of Parliament, Researcher and Analyst on International Relations and Political Economy, Director of TLM – Initiatives and Projects Center in Azerbaijan

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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