Vol. 3, No. 19 (October 01, 2010)

Iran becoming a major player in the South Caucasus

Paul Goble

Publications Advisor

Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

For most of the post-Soviet period until recently, Iran played a relatively restricted role in the South Caucasus either because Tehran was focused on other regions and issues or, more often than not, because both the major powers and the countries of that region had their own reasons for excluding Iran or keeping their distance from it.  But now, in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war which reflected the growth of Russian influence at the expense of American and led Turkey to seek to play a larger geopolitical role, and has led ever more people to ask questions about the effectiveness of the OSCE Minsk Group in which Tehran is not represented, Iran faces fewer limits on its activities or far more opportunities for involvement.  As a result, Iran is rapidly expanding its activities both bilaterally with each of the countries in the South Caucasus and multi-laterally as a new center of geopolitical power in its own right and a counterweight to other outside powers.

To appreciate just how significant this shift is or even more may become, it is worth recalling that throughout most of the last two decades, most leaders in the region and beyond assumed that the major geopolitical competition in the South Caucasus was between a receding Russia and an expanding American role.  And such people could point to the reality that the United States insisted on using the OSCE as the source for mediation of the Karabakh conflict because it was and remains the only international body of which all the countries of the region are members except Iran.  Moreover, while the United States was pushing forward Turkey as a counterweight to Iran, Ankara was not able to deal at all with one country in the region—Armenia—and did not have a significant role in a second—Georgia—even as it did develop ever closer ties with the third—Azerbaijan.

Moreover, during that period and even afterwards, Iran was focusing its attentions elsewhere, toward the Shia populations in the Arab world and in support of radical Islamists in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and terrorist groups elsewhere.  And because these steps and Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear power left it internationally isolated at least diplomatically, Iran was not able or willing to deploy the diplomatic muscle needed to overcome both the resistance of each of the three countries in the region and of the larger outside powers to an expansion of its influence there.

These obstacles were and, to a certain extent, remain serious.  Azerbaijan, despite its borders with Iran and the fact that two-thirds of its population are Shia, traditionally has had a troubled relationship with Tehran because more than a third of the population of Iran is Azerbaijani Turkish, a group the central authorities of Iran have often treated harshly.  Armenia was more interested in developing ties with Iran even then, seeing the land bridge of Zangazur as its way out of Turkic encirclement, but the sometimes difficult status of Armenians in Iran and its own status as an ancient Christian nation restrained Yerevan from forming close political as opposed to economic links with Iran.  And Georgia, which lacks a common border with Iran and which has positioned itself as an outpost of Europe, was even more constrained by that than either of the other two.

Moreover, in the 1990s, three major outside powers were also opposed to an expansion of Iranian influence in the region.  Although its power in the region was receding in the 1990s, Russia was reluctant to see Iran expand influence at Moscow’s expense.  The United States, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, has sought to contain Iran and particularly to prevent Tehran from expanding its influence in the historically Muslim regions of the former Soviet space.  In the 1990s, those calculations defined Washington’s policy both bilaterally and in the case of the Minsk Group multilaterally as well.  And Turkey, which the United States hoped would play the role of an alternative—to Iran—source of influence in the post-Soviet south because of its very different religious and cultural history and because of its longstanding hostility to Iran, largely found itself unable to play that role because of Russia’s traditional concerns about Turkey, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey’s own domestic focus during that decade

The turning point for the region and for Iran in it was the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008.  That conflict underscored the rise of Russian power and influence in the region at the expense of the United States, a rise that led two of the countries—Armenia and Azerbaijan—to be more deferential to Moscow and all three to be interested in developing links with countervailing powers.  Turkey sought to play this role with its new proposals on a Caucasus “platform,” but so too did Iran, which supported Georgia regarding the breakaway republics and which found more doors open to it in both Baku and Yerevan.

Over the last two years, Iranian officials have visited all three South Caucasus capitals, and more visits are planned including one by the Iranian president to Baku before the end of the year.  Armenia and Tehran have signed a broad series of economic cooperation accords, agreements Yerevan sees as a necessary balance to its dependence on Russia and a way to keep the pressure on Turkey to move forward with rapprochement.  Georgia increasingly stresses its ties with Iran to underscore its support from a major regional player against Russia and thus gain greater freedom of action.

And as readers of the chronology section in this and other recent issues of Azerbaijan in the World know, Iran and Azerbaijan have exchanged more visits and signed more agreements on a broader range of issues over the last three months than in the previous two decades, a development that reflects both Baku’s commitment to a balanced foreign policy, in this case between the Russian North and the Iranian South, and Iran’s interest in exploiting that to burnish its self-image as a country which can play a positive role internationally—hence its support of the principle of territorial integrity in the Karabakh conflict—and bilaterally with all the countries of the region.

But if it is important to take note of this change, it is equally important to recognize what it means and what it doesn’t.  Iran is again a player in the South Caucasus as one would expect of a country of its size and power located where it is, but both its actions and the responses of the countries of the region and to a lesser extent of the outside powers to what Tehran does are not driven by a consistent ideology but by pragmatic calculation.  And that reality, one that many who grew up with the Cold War’s ideological competition find hard to accept, means that most countries, including those in this region, will form multiple and often short-lived ties, changing them in kaleidoscopic fashion as events appear to dictate.

That will not make the analysis of any particular situation any easier, but a failure to recognize this new reality will guarantee that any analysis offered will be defective.  And consequently, the return of Iran to the Caucasus may prove instructive even to those who are most opposed to what they are certain to view as an unfortunate expansion in Tehran’s influence there.  At the very least, an appreciation of these new realities will prevent the kind of apocalyptic conclusions that some analysts of this region have offered in the past.