Vienna, April 29 – Despite often heated and even extremist rhetoric and the expectations of others as a result that Tehran will follow its religious impulses, the Iranian government has “more than once shown its ability to conduct a pragmatic game” in the Southern Caucasus, according to a leading Moscow analyst of that region.
In an extensive essay posted on the Polit.ru portal today, Sergey Markedonov argues that despite Tehran’s current focus on the Persian Gulf and the Greater Middle East, Iran has always considered the Caucasus its “backyard” and devoted consideration important to that region in its foreign policy thinking and actions (www.polit.ru/author/2010/04/29/iran.html).
He notes that “Iran has a 660 kilometer border with Armenia and Azerbaijan,” more than twice the length of the Turkish-Armenian border and of the Turkish-Georgian border. As a result, Tehran clearly believes that it has, in the words of an Armenian analyst, “much more weighty reasons” than Turkey to play an active role in the South Caucasus.
According to Markedonov, Iran has three major priorities in its relations with the countries of that region. Tehran’s first priority is to block the entr4ance of any external players into the region. Thus, it is unhappy with the Minsk Group proposals for peacekeepers from other states as part of the resolution of the Karabakh dispute.
(Another major reason Tehran is unhappy with the Minsk Group is that it was originally set up by the United States as an arm of the only international organization in which all the countries of the region except itself are members, a decision that Iranians to this day see as part of an American effort to exclude them from their own neighborhood.)
Iranian diplomats have “always declared,” Markedonov continues, that “only regional forces” should be involved in the South Caucasus, a category that includes according to their lights those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Iran and Turkey. As this list shows, he says, “in Tehran, Russia and Turkey are viewed as both partners and competitors.”
Not surprisingly in the light of Iranian rhetoric, Markedonov says, Tehran has been especially upset by Israel’s involvement with the Caucasus. When the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Baku was announced, the chief of the Iranian general staff, Hasan Firuzabadi said that such a visit would “create problems” in ties between Tehran and Baku.
And earlier this month, the Moscow analyst points out, the Iranian government delivered a special report on Israel’s involvement in the countries of the Southern Caucasus to the Iranian parliament, a report that reiterated Tehran’s opposition to any role for Israel in any of the Caucasus countries.
Tehran’s second priority in the South Caucasus, Markedonov says, is the preservation “where possible” of the status quo. If in its efforts to block outside players from coming into the region, Tehran is opposing the US, Israel and the European Union, in its work to block any change in the map there, the Iranian authorities are “the opponents of Moscow.”
Tehran has been clear that it is not prepared to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though its diplomatic representatives have blamed Georgia for starting the August 2008 war. Iran believes that recognition of these states would “provoke other wars and bloodlettings.”
And Tehran’s third priority in the region, the Moscow expert says, is to promote its national interests rather than advance any “religious dogmatism.” Thus, even though Azerbaijan also has a Shiite majority population like Iran, Tehran has dealt with Baku in terms of Iran’s national interests.
That has meant, Markedonov points out, that the two governments have found themselves in conflict not only over Baku’s development of relations with the West but also over the issue of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, one that makes up a third of that country’s population, and the delimitation of the oil-rich Caspian Sea bed
But despite these neuralgic conflicts, Tehran has been able to develop energy and transportation ties with Azerbaijan and has supported Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue on many occasions. In the last month alone, Markedonov notes, Iran’s suggestions that it could help resolve that conflict have generated a positive result in Baku.
One indication of the way in which Tehran has put national interests above religious ones in the Caucasus is the close relationship it has developed with Armenia, a relationship that is driven by the Iranian government’s desire to prevent any strengthening of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus even though Tehran does not back Yerevan on Karabakh.
Another example is Tehran’s development of ties with Georgia, despite President Mikhail Saakashvili’s pro-American stance. During most of the last five years, contacts between Iran and Georgia were “minimal,” but “nevertheless,” Iran did provide assistance to Georgia during that country’s energy crisis in February 2006.
More important perhaps now and in the future, Markedonov says, the Iranian media showed a clear tilt toward Georgia during and after the August 2008 war, especially with regard to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that tilt is something Georgian analysts have commented upon.
Iran’s relations with Russia, of course, are not limited to issues of the Caucasus, but that region nonetheless plays an important role in Tehran’s thinking about Moscow. “On the one hand,” Markedonov says, Tehran does not want to see Moscow pull out of the North Caucasus lest Turkey, “the historical opponent of Iran,” assume a larger role.
But “on the other,” Tehran’s support for radical Islamist organizations like HAMAS, Hizbullah, and Monafegin, who support Islamist groups in the North Caucasus and view them as their “strategic allies,” means that Iran can be seen as playing a complex game, even though officially it never comments on the “internal affairs of the Russian Federation” in that region.
Iran’s relations with Turkey are similarly driven by national rather than religious concerns, the Moscow analyst says, although he suggests that Ankara’s increasing involvement with Muslim states and its cooling of ties with Israel have helped to promote expanded ties between the two longtime competitors.
All this allows one to conclude, Markedonov says, that Iran’s approach in this area reflects the general pattern that “very often the loud rhetoric and real actions” of a country do not correspond” and that in the Caucasus at least, “the Iranians have frequently shown themselves to be capable of conducting a pragmatic game.”