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Iran's Opportunities and Challenges in Caucasus

By Bahram Amir Ahmadian, Tehran University Professor & Eurasia Affairs Analyst
Source: Khabaronline News Website; Translated By: Iran Review

Caucasus is Iran’s trump to play in its game with regional powers. Iran borders Caucasus, which is one of the most critical regions in the world, on northwest. Crises in Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have their roots in this region. Conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia, both Iran’s neighbors, have practically blocked Caucasian railroad which once connected Iran to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Europe. Iran has been deprived of that capacity since 1990 due to serious conflicts between its two neighbors (Azerbaijan and Armenia) over Mountainous Karabakh. Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave of Azerbaijan, is totally surrounded by Armenia. It has been a nidus for various crises and was previously forced to use Iran as the main route for communication. Following collapse of the former Soviet Union, however, it has been in contact with the mainland. Although this is a geopolitically positive point for Iran, Tehran has not been able to make the most of that situation.

Iran’s close relations to Armenia have turned into a trump card which has been frequently played in the political game between the west and the east. Armenia is a small country with which Iran has established close relations to counter pan-Turk tendencies. As a result, it has lost relations with the geopolitically important Azerbaijan. Pan-Armenian advocates believe that “Greater Armenia” is a big land which stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. It includes the current Caucasus from the western coasts of the Caspian Sea (now part of Azerbaijan) up to the eastern shores of the Black Sea (Georgia). On the south, it includes part of Iran down to Urmia Lake. A relevant map has been printed on the cover of Armenian schools’ geography book. On the opposite, there are Pan-Azeri and Pan-Turani tendencies which claim the entire Azerbaijan, Armenia and eastern part of Georgia (where Borchali Turks live). Iran’s east and west Azarbaijan, Zanjan, Ardebil, and Qazvin provinces (in some maps up to western limits of Tehran) have been also included. If Iran failed to give a logical response to those claims, future generations in those countries may actually believe that Iran is occupying parts of their ancestral land. Thus, the limits of greater Azerbaijan and greater Armenia overlap and sometimes even include parts of the Greater Kurdistan as defined by the Iraqi Kurds. A new generation is being raised in that region which is living under conditions of extreme ethnic plurality and territorial debates.

Iran is facing other big challenges in Caucasus which include presence of western and other transregional powers whose interests sometimes conflict and sometimes converge. Russia and Turkey see Iran an obstacle to their regional presence while pursuing conflicting interests. Of course, Turkey as a regional player and the United States as a transregional player have been able to marginalize Iran and Russia in Caucasus. Therefore, Iran’s cultural and economic interests in Caucasus are at odds with Turkey while it is also at loggerheads with Russia in terms of economic and strategic interests. At present, Tehran is playing an insignificant role compared to its potential capabilities. On the whole, Iran and Russia have been competing as potential routes for regional oil and gas pipeline and have, as such, lost their clout to western and European rivals. The rivalry between Iran and Russia in Caucasus is similar to a futile fight between two children over a walnut they have found. The more experienced politicians in Turkey and Europe have divided that walnut by half between Iran and Russia.

Russia is covertly and overtly competing with Iran over energy and strategic issues. Russia claims that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran in its southern neighborhood to gain points at G-8. Without using Iran’s trump, Russia would have not been able to gain that status.

In economic terms, Caucasus is heavily dependent on the west. Europe is currently interacting with Caucasus. Iran already claimed that Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan pipeline will be never built as Iran was the best route for transfer of regional energy resources. However, the pipeline has been built in the absence of Iran and is taking the Caspian oil to the European markets. A little study would have shown that Iran’s route started from the Caspian Sea and after going through the Iranian territory (where some circles threatened to block flow of energy even before the above pipeline was proposed) reached the Persian Gulf. Thenceforth, energy consignments would have to cross the Strait of Hormuz (which Iran threatens to close in critical conditions) as well as the Sea of Oman and Arab Sea before reaching Bab-el-Mandeb (which is currently being controlled by Somalian pirates and is one of the least secure shipping routes). Thereafter, oil tankers would have to cross the Red Sea en route to Suez Canal where they should have paid hefty duties to cross into the Mediterranean whose littoral countries had paid the costs of oil exploration and production as well as construction of the pipeline. This route is about 7,000 km long with many security and technical complexities. The present route is just 1,740 km long without those security concerns. As for Nabucco pipeline, we should avoid of uncalculated remarks as a transparent and calculated foreign policy approach can help to promote a country’s international standing.

Different peoples live in Caucasus. About 70-80 percent of Azerbaijan’s population is Shia, but this does not mean that they are as faithful to all principles of Shiism as Iranians. Therefore, it would be mistaken to consider this a unifying factor. All told, the religious factor will not be able to connect the two nations, but may even lead to divergence. The government of Azerbaijan is secular and religion is separate from politics. Iran, on the other hand, is a religious and Shia state. Political ideas of the Azeri government are based on Azeri language, literature and music and that government has frequently introduced the Iranian government as the main barrier on the way of the unity of Azeri people living on two sides of Aras River. They insist that Iran has made the division in cooperation with Russia and have repeated this historical mistake in their books and media so frequently that their nation has totally believed it. Therefore, culture cannot lead to adhesion between the two nations, but will make them farther apart. The current nostalgia among Iranians about Caucasus as a land which has been separated from mainland Iran has no value in the contemporary world. As an independent country and a member of the United Nations, Azerbaijan does not care for that nostalgia and, on the opposite, puts the highest emphasis on national elements and a new historical narration of the country. This also somehow applies to Armenia and Georgia.

We can engage in equal interaction with neighboring countries without so much emphasis on cultural, historical and religious commonalties, which are of less importance in contemporary world. Iran is a powerful country in the region and any kind of undue attention to northern neighbors will scare them off. It will also make them look for a powerful ally such as the United States which is able to both protect them against strategic, military and economic threats, and prevent exportation of Shia and revolutionary version of Islam which is dominant in their southern neighbor. From Qajar era onward, Gregorian Armenians and Orthodox Georgians have looked to Russia as a support against Shia Iran and Sunni Ottomans. Such tendencies were the main reason for southward progress of Russia to Iranian territories in Caucasus which led to ultimate marginalization of both Iran and the Ottoman Empire in that region.

Shia faith has been separate from politics in Azerbaijan since many years ago and even before the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. Therefore, the current Azeri generation is not as faithful to Shia as its Iranian counterpart.

When they say in Iran that Nezami Ganjavi, Khaqani and many other Persian speaking poets belong to the Iranian nation, Azeri people feel alarmed and try to keep their distance from Iran. This is also true about Central Asian republics. Recent measures taken to undermine the clerical leader of Caucasian people, Sheikh-ul-islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh who is Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, will not help to promote Iran’s regional standing, but will further deepen the existing misunderstandings.

At present, a big regional market is open to Iran, but restoring past relations needs tact and expert studies. Cultural or religious feelings are no more effective to further relations. Although unifying cultural elements can help to promote relations, a different kind of relations should be defined in Caucasus. Iran’s presence in Caucasian markets has been low-key for a long time. Taking advantage of Turkey’s experiences and cooperation with that country may help Iran to be more active in that region. As long as Iran insists on working with Russia in Caucasus, its regional presence will become even weaker. Russia is a player that is undermining Iran’s position in Caucasus. Any effort to mediate in Karabakh will lead to further isolation of Iran and no win-win situation is imaginable for Iran in that crisis. Armenia will have to return occupied lands after a possible peace. In any case, there will be a loser in this game. It will be either Azerbaijan (with low possibility) or Armenia (with high possibility). The losing side is sure to downgrade relations with the mediator, that is; Iran. It is not even advisable for Turkey to get involved in Karabakh. The best mediators are foreign ones which are situated out of the region.

There are two crossing currents in Caucasus. The first is a west-east current which starts at the Black Sea and crosses Caucasus to reach the Caspian Sea and the Central Asia. Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) is the main transport corridor of this current. The other current is a north-south one which crosses Northern Europe toward Russia, the Central Asia and Iran en route to the Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman, the Indian Ocean and the Indian Subcontinent. Its main transit route is North-South Corridor. Since Iran is considered by Russia as a main rival, it is obstructing development of North-South Corridor. Therefore, ten years after it was launched, the North-South Corridor has not reached, and will probably never reach, its full capacity. Russia has set that corridor aside to increase its geostrategic depth in time of crisis and is not interested in economic activities or establishing deep relations with countries along that corridor. Iran’s future outlooks depend on the country’s alignment with the west-east current which will help the country to head off threats from the north and strengthen its regional position. Distance from Russia will be both to Iran’s and region’s benefit. It is a bitter reality that Russia has been the main cause of tense relations between Iran and the west. Therefore, Moscow is willing for our energy lines to move eastward toward a bankrupt country like Pakistan in order to take us away from Europe and become the sole supplier of energy to that continent.

About Iran Review: Iran Review ( is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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