By Elyas Vahedi, Member of Iran and Eurasia Research Center's Council of Writers (Source: Iran Review)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Armenia was another step in Iran's enhanced efforts to get closer to its northern neighbor. On the one hand, the visit has been considered very important in terms of bilateral benefits and advantages and can actually promote relations between Tehran and Yerevan. On the other hand, some analysts, who have an eye on the complex situation in South Caucasus, maintain that Iran should take regional and transregional factors into account before regulating relations with countries in that region, including Armenia. Otherwise, they say, bolstering bilateral relations will not only fail to increase Iran's national clout in the region, but also be followed by tangible negative results.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has made several trips to Armenia in the past six years. Diversification of foreign trade and increasing Iran's economic and political exchanges with that country, as part of the geostrategic expanse of South Caucasus, is per se a valuable policy. This reality, however, should not be ignored that South Caucasus region has an intricate geography which can give birth to complex regional arrangements. The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a neighbor with many historical commonalities, has many opportunities and advantages in that region, which if used correctly, can help the country to increase its influence in that region.
Expansion of relations between Iran and Armenia is per se a correct policy based on the principle of good neighborly relations. However, the energy that Iran has put in its efforts to establish diplomatic ties at the highest level (as evidenced by Iranian president's frequent visits to Armenia in the past six years) have not been matched by benefits that those visits have had for Iran's national interests. Speaking in geographic terms, Armenia is a land-locked country which has no access to free waters or even regional waters such as the Caspian Sea. Although it has occupied Mountainous Karabakh and seven Azeri areas around it to use them as trump card, regional economic exchanges (including construction of huge oil and gas pipelines) have been rapidly going on with no regard for Armenia.
Due to absence of oil and gas reserves, Armenia has to expand relations with all neighbors. It lacks proper relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan and Yerevan's relations with Georgia are not warm either, due to ethnic reasons and Tbilisi's confrontation with Russia. Therefore, Yerevan has no other choice but to have good relations with Russia and Iran. Armenia's relations with Russia have been marked with Moscow's influence over Yerevan. Russia has used this situation as a tool to prevent further expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) toward the east.
In expanding ties with Iran, Armenia is welcoming Iran ties because it has no other choice and bilateral relations, thus far, have benefited Yerevan more than Tehran. An example was during Karabakh conflict. Without economic support from Russia and Iran, Armenia would have most probably lost that war. A reason for instability in South Caucasus is the nature of government in Armenia which is influenced by a special interpretation of the nation-state idea. According to that idea, all Turkish countries are considered enemy of Armenia. That idea was fostered after the fall of the Soviet Union and has intensified regional tensions by putting much emphasis on ethnic and territorial claims.
Armenia's insistence on the occupation of Karabakh despite adoption of four resolutions by the United Nations Security Council against it, in addition to Yerevan's territorial claims to eastern parts of Turkey and allegations about genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (which has been used as an excuse by Western countries which consider it as important as Holocaust) have become indispensable components of the foreign policy of the Armenian government. Moreover, such ideas have also been sanctified by non-state institutions as well as by the Armenian diaspora outside the country. Therefore, when big regional states decide to further strengthen the current government in Yerevan, they should pay close attention to protecting regional peace and stability as a precondition for the expansion of ties.
Iran's overzealous efforts to develop relations with Armenia will not only have negative effects on Tehran's relations with Baku and Ankara, but also undermine Iran's role in more consequential political equations of the region. It will also weaken Iran's standing among Muslim states (considering that most of them have been condemning Armenia for the occupation of a part of a Muslim nation of Azerbaijan) and will cause division among Shias. The Islamic Republic of Iran, in line with its ideological mission in foreign policy and based on the opportunities provided to it by regional developments in the past two decades, is considered the hub for the management of the Shia world and a major source of dynamism in the Islamic world. Even if we don't care much for that role, other countries define their regional policies toward us on its basis.
Some Arab countries, for example, have been openly talking about the threat stemming from the establishment of a Shia Crescent in the Middle East region. Even moderate states like Turkey have, at times, considered Iran's opportunities to influence the Shia population as a ground for rivalry and have even taken sides with Sunni states. Transregional powers also aim to strip Iran of its control over Shia communities in the region. Despite all these facts, Iran's policy in South Caucasus does not help protect the integrity of the Shia world. If the current trend continues, the Shia world may be divided into such distinct areas as Iranian, Turkish, and Arab Shiism. In return, Iran will win relations with Armenia, which cannot be considered a trump card. Armenia, on the other hand, cannot be a trusted partner for lasting relations. The country has already rejected Iran's proposed mediation in Karabakh dispute, though Azerbaijan hailed it. Therefore, if restitution of ties between Armenia and Turkey actually takes place, Armenia will most probably forget about good neighborly relations with Iran and do its best to be accepted in political arrangements of the Western world.
On the other hand, Iran's unusual diplomatic efforts to increase its influence in Armenia will not only upset Azerbaijan and Turkey, but will also have the same effect on the United States and even Russia. A result of that situation is reflected in US efforts to pave the way for further influence of Israel in Azerbaijan and the Central Asia. Diplomatic contacts between Iran and Armenia have been characterized with implied support for Armenia's positions (as was exemplified last year by one of the special envoys of President Ahmadinejad who clearly defended clams about genocide of Armenians) and lack of clear support for territorial rights of Azerbaijan. This can further increase negative impact of Iran's efforts at improving relations with Armenia.
Although Iran's strategy toward South Caucasus since the fall of the former Soviet Union has been generally ineffective and Iran has never taken good advantage of opportunities offered to it with regard to political issues (like Karabakh crisis) and political ones (construction of energy transmission lines), at least, Tehran tried to avoid of being known as supporting Armenians. During the past few years, however, even this consideration has been ignored on many occasions and instead of trying to create balancing opportunities, Iran's foreign policy has sufficed to superficial measures such as increased contacts with a single country. It is not the feat of a diplomatic apparatus to arrange a presidential visit to a country with no major visitors, but the main feat is to remove misunderstandings and tensions with more important countries where the enemies of Iran have effectively filled Tehran's void.
Last but not least, under the present regional circumstances, continued relations with Armenia should be suitably managed in order to both increase Iran's influence in South Caucasus, and prevent Armenia from getting too much inclined toward the West. Certain factors such as the final decision of the Russian government in its dealings with the West, Turkey's determination to reopen borders with Armenia, and resolution of the dispute in Karabakh are out of Iran's control. Therefore, it is imperative for Iran's diplomatic apparatus to think about the country's declining position in other regional equations. Otherwise, it is not an achievement for Iran to spend so much diplomatic energy on improving relations with a country, whose economic and political capacities are very limited and has been forced to have Iran as its seventh trade partner with an annual bilateral trade volume not exceeding 200 million dollars. The Islamic Republic of Iran can regulate relations with such countries in proportion to its regional and international weight. As a result, Tehran is expected to be more careful about its ideological interests (promotion of Islam and Shiism) and, at least, protest to the continued occupation of Karabakh by Armenia and that country's insulting treatment of Islam's sacred values. If Iran managed to take good advantage of its strategic regional opportunities, it could be very influential in determining political behavior of such countries as Armenia and Azerbaijan.
... Payvand News - 03/25/16 ... --