Vol. 1, No. 21 (December 1, 2008)

Iran’s growing role in the South Caucasus

Gulnara Inandzh
International Online Information Analytic Center Ethnoglobus
In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war, Iran has assumed a greater role in the calculations of all the states of the South Caucasus as well as in the thinking of the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and the United States and Israel, on the other.  Its location alone makes it a key player, especially given the disruptions in trade routes that the war has caused.  And its growing power – including its moves toward the acquisition of a nuclear capability if not nuclear weapons – means that it can no longer be ignored. 
But precisely what role Iran will be able to play depends not only on its own resources but also on the attitudes of other players, and they are much divided.  On the one hand, Russia and Armenia would like to see Tehran brought into discussions about the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and about the formation of the Ankara-proposed Platform for regional security.  On the other, the United States and Israel hope to continue to isolate Iran and to use Turkey as their agent in the region, although it appears that the two have dropped any immediate plans to use force against it lest such actions further destabilize the entire region. 
Whether Turkey will be willing to be used in this way, of course, is far from clear.  It has its own economic interests in the region which are better served by a cooperative relationship with countries nearby rather than by following the lead of its traditional partners further away.  And its government is now committed to a more independent foreign policy, one that means it may sometimes support Washington and Jerusalem and sometimes Moscow and Tehran. 
But in addition to questions about Turkey’s role in this situation, there is another factor at work.  Many outside powers, and the United States in particular, have tended to ignore Iranian moves other than in the nuclear area.  And consequently, Tehran has been able to expand its influence under the radar screen not only among Shiite groups across the Middle East but with other governments there that it has long been at odds with.  And that is reinforcing its own view of itself as a major regional power. 
These new realities appear likely to lead to a correction in the policies of the United States after Barak Obama assumes office.  His personal background is generating great hopes for the resolution of Middle Eastern and Iranian problems, including in Tehran.  President Ahmadinejad welcomed Obama’s victory as a possible turning point in relations between Washington and Iran. 
And there may be changes in the year ahead from within Iran.  That country faces a presidential election, and at least some of the key leaders in the country are unhappy with the aggressive approach Ahmadinejad has adopted toward Israel and the United States.  Consequently, Iran may prove more open to a new approach, especially if its leaders believe that an end to their diplomatic isolation in the West will pay dividends in the region, such as an invitation to be a participant in discussions about the resolution of local conflicts.
One of the wild cards in this situation is the possibility that the United States and Israel will try to play the Azerbaijani card against Tehran.  Nearly a third of Iran’s population consists of ethnic Azerbaijanis.  Most of them are well integrated into Iranian life: indeed, the supreme ruler Ayatollah Khamenei is an Azerbaijani.  Baku has been reluctant to cooperate with any Western projects in this regard, but the danger exists that efforts by the US (broadcasting) or Israel (agricultural cooperation) could lead the Iranian government to revise its approach to the Caucasus. 
And Israel’s interest in developing contacts with the 20,000 Jews of Iran, combined with its close relations to Baku could also play a role in changing Iran’s approach, possibly in quite unpredictable ways in the coming months.  Interestingly, the Jewish community in Azerbaijan is also keen to make its contribution to the further developments in the region.  In this context, the following appeal of the chairman of the religious community The Jews of Azerbaijan, Director General of the Jewish educational complex Habad or-Avner, and the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazim Jews of Azerbaijan Meier Bruk to Iran’s ambassador in Baku, Nasiri Hamidi Zare, is a logical extension of the actions of the other Jewish organizations in the broader region:

“The development of relations between the two countries has always been based on mutually profitable and vitally necessary conditions and as a rule the principles of public diplomacy have provided the foundation of these ties…  In the Islamic Republic of Iran are living a sufficiently large Jewish community, and according to reports by its members, all the conditions for fruitful activity exist….”  Also, the Jewish educational complex Habad or-Avner whose construction began in 2007 in Azerbaijan is envisaged to have an intake of Jewish students from the entire region, including Iran.

In this situation, because it enjoys good relations with both, Azerbaijan has the chance to serve as an intermediary between the West and Israel, on the one hand, and Iran and other Muslim countries, on the other; or it might be expected to in one quarter or another, expectations that could drive policies as well.