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.
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 Though unpublished, Tehran treats them as an integral part of its foreign-policy discourse.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.