The Realists in Tehran

By Sergey Markedonov

The Iranian problem stands out on the international agenda. But it is much broader and more diverse than Iran’s desire to acquire a nuclear bomb. Iran is accused of being a source of both regional instability and far-reaching geopolitical ambitions. Although today's Iran demonstrates a desire to play in the international geopolitical game, it remains primarily a regional power with a significant presence in the Middle East, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

The Caucasus in particular demonstrate a contradictory combination of pragmatic realpolitik and strictly ideological approaches. But unlike in other regions, the realist elements, despite the religious nature of the Islamic Republic, are noticeable to a much greater degree.
Iran’s Motivations

The loss of huge territories that once belonged to the Persian Empire (northern Azerbaijan, eastern Armenia and southern Dagestan) still has a tragic ring for Iranians. Many Iranian experts see the prerequisites of current Caucasus instability in the historical defeat of Persia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This background has led to an Iranian policy in the Caucasus that has the following priorities.

First, Tehran is extremely sensitive about the appearance in the neighborhood of any nonregional actors. Iran considers the affairs of the Caucasus to be the legitimate domain of the countries within the region (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia), as well as three broader regional stakeholders (Iran, Turkey and Russia).

This position helps to explain Iranian stubbornness in regions such as Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory on the borders of Iran and Azerbaijan. In this area, Iran has worked out alternatives to the leading “Madrid principles.” Though unpublished, Tehran treats them as an integral part of its foreign-policy discourse. They show that Iran is not interested in seeing a resolution of the conflict that would involve international peacekeeping forces (no matter under which flag they might be deployed). And Tehran is especially aggrieved by growing Israeli penetration of the Caucasus, causing Iranian attempts to transfer the Middle East contradictions between Tehran and Tel Aviv onto the Caucasus stage.

Second, in the South Caucasus, Tehran favors preservation of the status quo. In contrast to its hostile attitude toward the nonregional actors, in particular those of the West, Iran could be seen as an opponent of Moscow in its approaches to the ethno-political conflicts in Georgia. The Islamic Republic is not ready to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a multiethnic country and home to millions of Azeris, Iran is not interested in creating precedents empowering ethnic separatists.

Third, in building bilateral relations with the Caucasus states, Iran prefers to rely more on national egoism than on religious dogma. It should be noted that nominally Shia Muslims compose the majority of the population of Azerbaijan. But religious solidarity has not been dominant in Iranian-Azeri bilateral relations. Azberaijani officials regularly criticize Iran for supporting radical Islamist forces inside Azerbaijan. The Iranian clergy (the key political element of the Islamic Republic) pretends to play the role of supranational spiritual leadership for all Shia Muslims. Thus, the question of Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan has become the other sore point in bilateral relations. Tehran balks when, from time to time, the Azerbaijani president claims to be a leader of all Azeris and when Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, hosts the International Azeris Congresses.

There is also the question of the status of the Caspian Sea, where Baku and Tehran have different views. Nevertheless, for the whole post-Soviet period, Iranian-Azerbaijani relations have not only survived crises and challenges but also seen periods of thaw. This March, after a series of spy scandals, the defense ministers of the two countries had a meeting discussing opportunities for common military training.

But Armenian-Iranian relations of the post-Soviet period have been a greater success story. Here, the religious factor has not played a determining role. Perhaps this direction of Iranian foreign policy can be regarded as the most purely pragmatic. Christian Armenia is an important partner for an Islamic Republic interested in counterbalancing growing Turkish power. While two protocols on the normalization of relations signed by Ankara and Yerevan in Zurich did not lead to real results, Iran is working on energy and transportation projects to minimize Armenian geopolitical isolation.

Even Georgia, despite its pro-NATO foreign policy, and notwithstanding Iran’s extreme anti-Americanism, is interested in maintaining positive relations with Tehran. Since 2010, bilateral relations have become more intense. The two countries have mutually abolished their visa regimes, an Iranian consulate was opened in Batumi and direct Tehran-Tbilisi flights were restored. But most importantly, the Georgian political class understands the necessity of a partnership with Iran.
Beyond the Caucasus

Russian-Iranian relations, of course, are not limited solely to the Caucasian context—though this region is very important for their dynamics. Behind the parade façade, Moscow-Tehran relations have been marked by plenty of hidden contradictions. Looking to the future, Tehran is concerned that if the North Caucasus republics secede from the Russian Federation, this area will be dominated by Turkey, a historic opponent of Iran.

It’s interesting to note that during Russia’s two Chechen campaigns, Tehran strongly emphasized that it did not support the Islamic separatists—even though, by the time of the second Chechen war, Iran was chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. On the other hand, it is necessary to keep in mind the great support Tehran gives various Islamist organizations (Hezbollah, Hamas, Monafegin) that are willing to consider the Caucasian Islamists as allies. Thus, there is a seeming contradiction. Officially, Iran has never been seen interfering in the internal affairs of the Russian North Caucasus; however, it has supported the Islamic radicals who have sympathy for the Caucasian Islamists.

The Caucasian context is not the only sphere of tension between Turkey and Iran. In recent years, Turkey has been trying to radically reposition itself in the Caucasus and the Middle East. All those changes have made Iranian-Turkish relations less fraught. Despite this, Ankara and Tehran have not reached full confidence in one another. Offering its “Caucasus platform” after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Turkey bypassed Iran, leaving it outside the “security area of the Caucasus,” while Tehran included Ankara in its own security arrangement of “3+3.”

Iranian foreign policy in the Caucasus remains bifurcated, with loud revolutionary rhetoric and realist foreign-policy moves not fully in sync. On the one hand, we cannot forget Tehran’s anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric—but in the Caucasus, the Iranians have repeatedly proven that they can play a pragmatic geopolitical game.

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The National Interest