Sergey Markedonov (PhD in History)
(Head of the Interethnic Relations Group at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, Associated Professor of the Russian State University for Humanities)
Iran is currently a focus of attention for politicians and experts worldwide. The nuclear programme of Iran, alongside Kosovo, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and energy security, has risen to the top of the international political agenda. The 2006 Israel–Lebanon war Israeli-HAMAS clashes (December, 2008) demonstrated the increased potential of Iran as an actor in the Middle East “big game”. Iran’s military-political success (the first defeat of Israel since its foundation) brought home to the whole world Teheran’s skills and abilities to strike its main geopolitical opponents by waging a successful “proxy war”. According to Georgiy Mirskiy, a Russian expert on the Middle East Security issues, «Iran is the only state in the world that is able to be completely happy with the situation that has arisen?”
In this connection topics such as Iran's “Caucasus strategy” have remained without the attention they deserve. At the same time Iran, like Turkey, is a long-standing participant in the Caucasian geopolitical competition. In antiquity and during the medieval period various lands that are now in the Caucasus were under the power of the Persian monarchs. In the 16th-18th centuries Turkey and Iran were continually waging war over domination in the Caucasus region. However, Iran's ouster from the South and North Caucasus was due to imperial Russia's policy. As a result of a series of Russo-Persian wars at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries Russia established control over Southern Dagestan, Eastern Armenia, and Northern Azerbaijan. But, even after losing its former influence, Iran remained and continues to be an important participant in Caucasian political processes.
Since the USSR's collapse Iran has shared a 660 km long border with Armenia and Azerbaijan. By way of comparison, Turkish-Armenian border is 325 km, the Turkish-Azerbaijani border is 18 km, the Turkish-Georgian 276 (together, they make almost 620 km).According to Stepan Safaryan, member of the Armenian national parliament and political analyst, “Iranian diplomats and scholars consider that if Turkey is to play such an active role in the Caucasus, Iran has much stronger reasons to do so”.
But the problem of the "Iranian presence" in the Caucasus is not confined to geography. To a significant degree the American-Iranian confrontation is continuing in the South Caucasus. The post-Soviet Azerbaijani elite is oriented toward Turkey (a traditional ally of the Americans and Israel) and the United States. Here Iran's external political influence is not so great. Moreover, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran around the turn of the 20th-21st centuries have been characterized by a high degree of conflict. Azerbaijan's leaders have regularly criticized Iran for its support for radical Islamists in Azerbaijan and for its attempts to replace the secular model of power with an Islamic state. The other "sore point" in Azerbaijan's post-Soviet relations with Iran is the issue of Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan. At the same time Iran has been among the first to recognize Azerbaijan's state independence. Iranian politicians were talking about the need for this step even before the USSR's collapse.
In the nineties Iran's Foreign Ministry lent some assistance to the creation of the new state's diplomatic service, as well as to Azerbaijan's admission to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Both countries participated in creating the Organization of Caspian States. Iran is currently one of Azerbaijan's leading economic partners. Over the past few years the escalation of the American-Iranian conflict has forced Baku to adopt a more moderate stance toward Tehran. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad visited Baku in 2006.
Iran's relations with Armenia are developing more successfully. A significant positive influence is being exerted on them by the Islamic republic's Armenian diaspora (which is influential in Yerevan). The Iranian Armenians are a loyal ethnic minority that traditionally enjoys the Iranian authorities' patronage. Despite the Islamic nature of its statehood and the continual appeals for solidarity among all Muslims over the "Karabakh" issue, Iran has adopted a benevolent stance vis-a-vis the Armenian (Christian) side. The Islamic Republic has proclaimed principles of "equidistance" and dedication to settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. In 1992-94 Iran played a significant role as mediator in settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani armed conflict. Through Iran's help Armenia in effect gained a corridor to the outside world during a blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey. It was the Iranian media that reported the destruction of Armenian khachkaras ("cross stones," medieval Armenian monuments) on the territory of Azerbaijani Nakhichevan (Old Julfa).
Russian-Iranian relations in the Caucasus region are, as a rule, restricted to the "Caspian format." Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan agreed in 1997 to establish a new Caspian legal regime with the consent of all five states. As regards the "Chechen problem" and the situation in Dagestan, representatives of the Iranian authorities are trying by all possible means to stress that religious radicalism in Russia's North Caucasus is linked not with the Shiite branch, but with the Salaphite (Wahhabi) Islam of Saudi Arabia. Within the Islamic world Iran is regarded as a religious and political opponent of Salaphite Saudi Arabia. At the same time radical Islamist groupings that are supported throughout the world by Iran (such as Hizballah) regard Chechnya as a part of "global jihad" and present the religious extremists of the North Caucasus as "fighters for the faith." It is this fact that makes strategic cooperation between Tehran and Moscow problematic.
Today a highly topical question for politicians and experts from the South Caucasian countries is: "Will the flame of the Near East conflict spread to the Caucasus region?" At present that prospect seems unlikely. First, Iran itself will most probably prefer to fight Israel with the aid of the Hizballah and HAMAS terrorist network structure, rather than directly. Second, bearing in mind a certain cooling off between Israel and Turkey after the 2003 Iraqi campaign and especially after Israeli-HAMAS clashes of previous year, it is hard to imagine that the situation around Israel and Lebanon will somehow spread to Armenia and the entire South Caucasus.