Russia’s war with Georgia has triggered a diplomatic upheaval across the region, but also in the international relations of the Caucasus. Not only has Russia laid down a forceful marker claiming its right to an exclusive sphere of influence there and across the CIS, it has moved to follow it up by placing pressure on Azerbaijan’s foreign, defense, energy, and economic policies. Turkey also has jumped into the fray with the revival of an older plan for a region-wide mechanism to address the Caucasus’ frozen conflicts. As a result of this war and the diplomatic currents it has unleashed, Iran too has had to assert its presence by vigorous diplomacy. Iran’s assertion in the Caucasus reflects the complex connections between the regional powers and the larger arena of world politics and cries out for explanation.
BACKGROUND: In the aftermath of the war, Iranian diplomacy has had to contend with new possibilities and factors affecting its position in the Caucasus but also its broader position in world politics. First, it now must reckon with Russia’s determination to be the sole security manager for the Caucasus, a region where it has extensive interests, but from where, as Iranian leaders have never forgotten, it has sought to extend its influence on numerous occasions into Iran. Second, Turkey has now launched its initiative, which implicitly recognizes Russia’s achievement but also seeks to define a place for itself in this new constellation. Both of these trends could lead to a situation where Iranian influence, which is based particularly in Armenia and is a matter of expediency, not affection, is reduced or even excluded from any major role in the region. While Moscow has recently threatened Georgia against allowing itself to be used as a base against Iran for the United States, Tehran cannot be sanguine about allowing Moscow to pose as the defender of Iranian security. This is not just due to the historical memory of past Russian encroachments upon Iranian territory and sovereignty.
The third point coming out of this war is that it has greatly intensified Russo-American rivalry, but made clear at the same time that Iran is regarded by Russia as a bargaining card vis-à-vis the West. On numerous occasions, Russia has indicated it would more strongly oppose Iran’s nuclear program in return for a cessation of NATO enlargement. More recently, despite Putin’s threat to stop cooperating with the West over Iran if it continued to oppose Russia on Georgia, Russia has again voted for sanctions, though watered down ones, and announced that it will not sell Iran its advanced air defense missile, the SA-300 surface to air missile. Both the Iranian media and the government are very aware, and quite unhappy, about the fact that Russia is a fair-weather friend that seeks to use Iran for its purposes although it is quite unlikely that the Iranian government is surprised at this fact.
IMPLICATIONS: Nevertheless, the heightened tension in the Russo-American and more generally East-West relationship poses interesting possibilities for Iran, especially as the Bush Administration comes to an end. On the one hand, Iranian leaders could conclude that an intensified rivalry between Moscow and Washington, especially as Washington is increasingly eager to get out of Iraq and confronted by seemingly ever more intractable problems in Afghanistan, might be more amenable to dealing directly with Iran and its agenda. Certainly Russia seems eager to tie Iran to its plans as it is pushing ever more integration of their energy economies and a renewed effort for a gas OPEC, including Iran. Obviously one purpose of this is to lock Iran up as a pro-Russian force under Moscow’s influence and preclude its return to the West. But this rivalry thus offers Iran opportunities as for example British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has publicly called for Europe to find new energy supplies that can only imply a deal with Iran among other providers.
On the other hand, given the wholly instrumental approach to Iran in Moscow, Iranian leaders and media express the concern that Moscow might seek to alleviate tensions with the West at Tehran’s expense so as not to further aggravate the situation. The Russian vote for sanctions and Moscow’s refusal to sell the SA-300 missile both point in that direction. Finally, as part of Turkey’s initiative to create an organization to deal with the region’s remaining frozen conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh, and other issues, Turkey has made historic overtures to Armenia and bilateral discussions are already underway from which Iran is excluded. Iran cannot afford to lose its connection to Armenia with nothing to show for it, to either Turkey or Russia, or both.
In either case, it is essential for Iran to show that it is an important player in the Caucasus whose interests must be taken into account by all the key regional players, i.e. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia. Only by asserting its ability to offer tangible benefits to local governments and to contribute in a meaningful way to their security can Iran hope to impress upon everyone the legitimacy and credibility of its role in the Caucasus and also convince Russia that it gains nothing from trying to sell it out to the United States. It also thereby tells Washington that it is a recognized and valued legitimate partner to local governments in an area whose importance to the United States has grown. Therefore its equities in the Caucasus and elsewhere as well must then be respected and taken into account in any future regional order.
Iran’s new and vigorous overtures to South Caucasian regimes underscore the complex texture of the region’s international relations and its multiple connections to critical issues in the broader arena of international politics, nuclear proliferation, energy, etc. It also underscores the ever-changing balance of considerations driving each of he main actors here, the three South Caucasian states, Russia, Turkey, the United States, the EU, and Iran. As the conference to resolve the issues opened up by the war in Georgia begins to function, Iran is making a clear bid to be recognized as an indispensable and legitimate regional actor that must be consulted if that conference and the surrounding multilateral diplomacy are to succeed in recreating a legitimate and durable regional order in the South Caucasus.
CONCLUSIONS: Especially as a new administration will be taking power in Washington, we may see the jockeying for influence and leverage among all the players in this region, as well as possibly in Central Asia, further intensify. Certainly, following Senator Obama’s success in Presidential elections, Iran can expect that he will try, as he has promised, to launch an initiative offering direct negotiations on all points of interest to both sides. While the Caucasus and energy will not be the most important issues there, they almost certainly will figure one way or another in that agenda. Had Senator McCain won, Iran would likely have calculated that it needs its Russian insurance policy even more lest Russia either sacrifice it to Washington to gain better ties with the new Administration or President McCain would have continued and even intensified the harsh Bush policy towards Iran. Iran must still demonstrate to both its major interlocutors in Moscow and Washington that it is an important and legitimate regional actor that must be taken into account and is not easily pressured or excluded from areas where it has important or even vial interests. For these reasons it is very likely that we will continue to see an intensified Iranian diplomacy in both the Caucasus and Central Asia for some time to come.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. government.