Iran: Peacemaker in the Caucasus?

Rouhani's visit to Azerbaijan highlights the opportunities in a more evenhanded approach to northern neighbors.

On the back of President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Baku on 12 November, Iran's role in the South Caucasus is once again in the limelight. Since the three states of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia achieved independence at the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Islamic Republic of Iran has officially always upheld that it pursues a policy of friendship and of equal treatment of its three smaller northern neighbors. In reality, the period of 1991-2014 has witnessed Tehran’s stance toward the region fluctuate between a policy of interference (in the case of Azerbaijan) to giving precedence to Russian interests in the South Caucasus. Accordingly, Tehran, which has otherwise close historic ties to all the three states in the region, has largely failed to play a constructive role in the diplomatic arbitration processes to find political settlements to the region’s territorial conflicts. Iran’s posture and input in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict illustrates this point rather convincingly.

History of Iranian mediation

When President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013, he vowed that his government will pursue a foreign policy that is conciliatory and with an emphasis on improving ties with Iran’s immediate neighbors. However, while Rouhani’s repeated policy statements about the need to break with Iran’s unfavorable image among many of its regional neighbors has considerable backing in the byzantine makeup of the Islamist regime in Tehran, he has so far failed to convert his rhetoric to tangible policy change as far as the South Caucasus is concerned. This lack of movement in Tehran’s policy has been glaring. Based on Rouhani’s stated premise and logic, Tehran can by realigning its policy toward the South Caucasus enhance its political stature, further its economic interests while securing one its most basic stated national security priorities, namely the prevention of the resumption of armed hostilities along its northern border regions.

In this case, realignment of policy invariably will require Tehran to address the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Among the enduring territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan stands out for its potential to break out again in military hostilities. Furthermore, it has a capacity to threaten Iran’s domestic stability given the strong ethnic linkages that are found between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the large ethnic Azerbaijani population of Iran south of the Aras River.

To be fair to Rouhani, his government’s principal focus since coming to office has been to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute with the international community and to lessen tensions with Tehran’s Arab neighbors. The South Caucasus, never a top priority for any administration in Tehran, was relegated further down the list of priorities. In other words, during Rouhani’s first year in office, Tehran’s dithering policy stance largely continued.

As far as the South Caucasus is concerned, this Iranian dithering has a long and somewhat legitimate history. After the Persian Empire lost its South Caucasian territories to the Russian Empire following successive military defeats in the 19th century, Iran underwent decades of internal political and economic crises which meant Tehran’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs was severely restricted. This handicap applied also to South Caucasus despite the geographic and historic proximity of the region to Iran. Meanwhile, the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922 put the South Caucasus behind the Iron Curtain, cutting Iran entirely off from the region.

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Iranian authorities were on the one hand faced with an enormous strategic vacuum to the north while badly unprepared to respond to this new geopolitical reality. At first the inclination was to consider the entire former Soviet South – from South Caucasus to the five Central Asian States – as fertile ground for Iranian overtures. In particular, the newly independent states to its north were regarded as an opportunity for Tehran to break the international isolation that Iran felt the West wanted to impose on it. Very quickly, however, Iranian optimism about making diplomatic inroads among the new states turned into fear that the United States – Iran’s arch-rival – would fill the vacuum left behind by the Soviets. In other words, Tehran was very early on in the post-Soviet era put on the defensive and preoccupied with defusing what it perceived to be security threats emanating from the newly independent post-Soviet states. 

Tehran’s reaction to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has to be seen in this context of Iranian security anxieties at the time but which still resonates to this day. With its border only about 40km from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Iranians on the one hand feared the conflict could spillover into Iran. Meanwhile, the irredentist rhetoric of the Azerbaijani government of Abulfaz Elchibey (1992-93) – who spoke of Greater Azerbaijan and the unification of Azerbaijani regions of Iran with the Republic of Azerbaijan – only exacerbated Tehran’s fears. But Tehran’s earliest posture toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was also heavily shaped by geopolitical calculations, something that the official narrative from Tehran usually neglects to highlight. Unlike Turkey, Tehran’s regional rival that unequivocally backed Azerbaijan out of kindred sympathy, Iran maintained good relations with Armenia.