Iran, Russia, and the Caucasus region: past and present

The radical Islamist groups that Iran supports all over the world regard Chechnya as part of their global jihad, and portray religious extremists in the North Caucasus as fighting for their faith. This is the fact that makes Tehran-Moscow strategic cooperation problematic.

Politicians and experts worldwide are now focusing their attention on Iran. The second war in Lebanon has demonstrated Iran’s increased capacities as a participant in the Great Game in the Middle East. As Russian Orientalist Georgy Mirsky puts it, “Iran is the only state in the world that can be completely satisfied with the current situation.” Firstly, the war in Lebanon has pushed Iran’s nuclear program into the background. Secondly, it has demonstrated Tehran’s ability to use others against its chief geopolitical opponents.

Meanwhile, Iran’s strategy in the Caucasus isn’t receiving due attention. Iran, like Turkey, is among the oldest participants in the Great Game in the Caucasus. In ancient and medieval times, various territories of what is now called the Caucasus were controlled by Persian monarchs. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Turkey and Iran continually fought for dominance in the Caucasus region. But Iran’s expulsion from the South and North Caucasus resulted from the Russian Empire’s policies. Following a series of Russian-Persian wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russia established control over Southern Dagestan, Eastern Armenia, and Northern Azerbaijan. Even after losing its former influence, however, Iran remained – and still remains – an important participant in Caucasus political processes.

Since the break-up of the USSR, Iran has had common borders with the new state formations of the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as a border sector with the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. But the problem of Iran’s presence in the Caucasus isn’t restricted to geography. To a significant extent, the American-Iranian confrontation has been continuing in the South Caucasus. The post-Soviet elite in Azerbaijan looks to Turkey (an established ally of the Americans and Israel) and the United States. Iranian influence in Azerbaijan is not very great. Moreover, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran in the 1990s and the present decade have been notably conflict-plagued. Azeri leaders have regularly criticized Iran for supporting radical Islamists in Azerbaijan and attempting to replace the secular system of government with an Islamic state. Another sore point in relations between post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Iran is the problem of Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan. All the same, Iran was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence as a state. Iranian politicians spoke of the need for such a move even before the collapse of the USSR.

In the 1990s, the Iranian Foreign Ministry assisted to some extent in establishing Azerbaijan’s diplomatic service, as well as Azerbaijan’s membership of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Both countries took part in establishing the Organization of Caspian States. Iran is now one of Azerbaijan’s leading economic partners. Over the past few years, the escalating American-Iranian confrontation has led Baku to take a more balanced position with regard to Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a visit to Baku in 2006.

Iran’s relations with Armenia are developing more successfully. Iran’s Armenian diaspora (which also has some influence in Yerevan) has a significant positive influence on this relationship. Iranian Armenians are a loyalist ethnic minority, traditionally enjoying the patronage of the Iranian authorities. Despite the Islamic nature of its statehood and continual calls for solidarity among all Muslims on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Iran has shown goodwill to the Armenian (Christian) side. Iran declared that it would not take sides in the conflict, and expressed commitment to political regulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. In 1992-94, Iran played a significant role as a mediator in regulating the Armenian-Azeri armed conflict. With Iran’s help, Armenia essentially gained a corridor to the outside world during a blockade on the part of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Iranian media reported the destruction of Armenian khachkars (“cross-stones,” medieval carved memorial stones) on the territory of Azerbaijan’s 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 legal regimen for the Caspian Sea, accepted by all five states. As for the Chechnya problem and the situation in Dagestan, Tehran’s representatives have made every effort to emphasize that religious extremism in the Russian North Causaus is linked not to Shiite Islam, but to Salafite (Wahhabi) Islam. In the Islamic world, Iran is regarded as a religious and political opponent of Salafite Saudi Arabia. All the same, the radical Islamist groups (such as Hezbollah) that Iran supports all over the world regard Chechnya as part of their global jihad, and portray religious extremists in the North Caucasus as fighting for their faith. This is the fact that makes Tehran-Moscow strategic cooperation problematic.

Politicians and experts in South Caucasus countries are now considering whether the conflagration of the Middle East conflict will spread to the Caucasus region. At present, this prospect seems unlikely. Firstly, Iran itself would probably prefer to fight Israel via Hezbollah’s terrorist network, rather than directly. Secondly, given the chill in Israeli-Turkish relations following the Iraq campaign of 2003, It’s hard to imagine the situation surrounding Israel and Lebanon somehow being extended to Armenia and the entire South Caucasus.