Iran: balancing in a sea of volatility
By Tigran Martirosyan
NEW YORK: Given Tehranís reputation for propagating radical Islam, attempting to export revolution, and supporting radical political groups, the newly independent states in the southern Caucasus were wary of Tehranís intentions when it began to build bridges to the region after 1991. However, over the past decade, Iran has acted as a moderate and balanced player in a region made dramatically more volatile by the emergence of three new states. National interestsópolitical stability, geopolitical influence, economic gain, and securityóhave eclipsed any ideological or religious motives. As the West stands poised to increase its influence in the region, the continuation of Irananís stabilizing role depends on how its complex set of economic, national security, and foreign policy interests is affected by the presence and policies of the West.
What are the interests that have determined Iranís largely cautious and pragmatic policy in the southern Caucasus?
Domestic stability is oneóa concern that increased after the emergence of an independent Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Irannís Azeris are generally considered to be a well-integrated component of the countryís multi-ethnic society, seeing themselves at least as much as Iranians as Azeris. However, Tehranís suppression of the Azerisí nationalist aspirations suggests that they constitute a far more pressing problem for Iranian officials than outsiders believe. Certainly, the fact that Azeri unification movements existósemi-legally or illegallyóin both Azerbaijan and Azeri-populated parts of Iran has been a thorn in relations between Baku and Tehran. Iran has thus made every effort to force the Azeri government to affirm its neutrality toward the movement. .
This concern has underpinned Iranís second major interest, regional stability. When the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted into full-scale war, Iranís fear of an ethnic Azeri uprising at home in solidarity with their brethren prompted Tehran to extend support to the Armenians. However, when Armenian military advances threatened to spread the fighting into Iranian territory, Tehran criticized Yerevan. These two reactions reflect a general stance: Iran is in favor of neither a strong Azerbaijan, nor a strong Armenia. Rather, it is interested in keeping both countries in equilibrium by exerting occasional pressure on the stronger side and by finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Although Iranís efforts at mediation have not brought a settlement, they did help to lead to brief cease-fires during the war and contributed to international efforts to stabilize the region, a role publicly acknowledged even by senior US diplomats.
Indeed, Iran has become the only regional actor with both the motivation and the opportunity to play a reasonably impartial mediating role in the conflict. Armenia distrusts Turkey for historic reasons and because of the economic blockade that Turkey imposed on Armenia in support of Azerbaijan, while Baku is wary of Russia given its support for Armenia and interest in Caspian oil. Iran, in contrast, has maintained stable relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This has had a financial payback for Tehran. While Turkey has economic ties only with Azerbaijan, Iran has found new markets in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This advancement of its economic interestsóTehrannís third key foreign policy interest in the southern Caucasusóis important for a country with economic problems and one overly dependent on hydrocarbon exports. For its newly independent neighbors in the southern Caucasus, detached from world trade and economy, Iran is a feasible transit route to the ports of the Persian Gulf and from there on to world markets. Potentially, access to Irannís pipeline and transportation network is particularly important to oil-rich Azerbaijan and other Caspian states.
A route out of isolation: Iran has pursued its economic interests in the region by providing technical assistance, promoting economic projects (especially in oil and gas exploration), and supporting regional economic integration. It has also pursued those interests as a route out of geopolitical isolation, its fourth foreign policy aim. In this respect, its key partners have been Armenia and Russia. Blockaded by both Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia has welcomed the opportunity to bypass their embargo via Iran. With Russia, Iran has found common ground in a shared interest in maximizing their shares of the oil-rich Caspian. If the Caspianís mineral wealth were divided based on littoral statesí share of the coastline, both Iran and Russia would find themselves with relatively small and uninteresting stakes, and most of the Caspianís oil and gas fields would belong to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Consequently, both Iran and Russia supported the formation of an international regime, based on which Caspian states would have an equal share of the seaís energy resources. In recent years, Iran has expanded trade relations, military contacts, and technical cooperation with Russia in the nuclear technology field. Tehran also sees a strong role for Russia as the guarantor of stability in the region.
In effect, the argument over the division of the Caspianís energy resources has provided a way for Iran to boost its geopolitical influence. At the same time, though, it has increased the geopolitical influence of countries from outside the Caspian region. A desire to contain their influence is the fifth plank of Iranís regional policy. The United Statesí emphasis on expanding influence in the region through partnerships with Turkey and Azerbaijan has created a polarization primarily in pipeline politics and in division of the Caspian Sea, setting the north-south axis (from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf via Iran) against the east-west corridor (from the Caspian to Turkey). Iran is also trying to entice the regionís oil producers by discussing oil-swapping deals with the Caspian states. These deals would enable the regionís oil producers to send crude oil for refining in Iranís refineries. Iran would be paid in the form of transit fees for sending oil onward to the Persian Gulf ports.
Ironically, where Western interests have won, Iran has sought to gain some influence. When, for example, Azerbaijan in 1994 concluded an agreement on exploration and transportation of its oil and gas resourcesóthe so-called ďdeal of the centuryĒówith a consortium led by Western oil companies, Iran subsequently bought a 10 percent stake in the deal. It is now a partner in one of the offshore consortia. .
The attempts to contain the influence that the West exerts in the region lead into one area where ideology could potentially play a key role: relations with its old adversary, the United States. Certainly, fearful of domination by the United States (either directly or through its major regional ally, Turkey), Iran has made every attempt to dissuade regional states from establishing close ties with Washington. However, under Iranís would-be reforming president, Muhammad Khatami, this containment policy has been allied with a detente in relations with Washington (or, in Khatamiís words, an attempt to open ďa crack in the wall of mistrust between the two nationsĒ). Pragmatism, rather than ideology, has dominated. The US administration appears to have reciprocated, at least in part.
What now? The largest question marks therefore hang over relations with the West, and the United States, in particular. Will Khatamiís government be able to withstand the sporadic crackdowns on reforms by conservative forces and continue the movement toward accommodation with the West? Moreover, will the United States be willing to foster rapprochement with Tehran? The long-term US policy has been to isolate Iran as a rogue state, take pre-emptive steps against the risk of proliferation, counteract the weakening of Turkey, and contain the Iranian-Russian partnership, while at the same time exploring the option of exporting Caspian oil through Iran. The critical issue is whether Washington will opt for a detente, the status quo, or ratchet up the pressure on another country in its perceived ďaxis of evil.Ē
The rationale of Tehranís foreign policy in the southern Caucasus over the past decade suggests that Iran would strive to remain a balanced actor. The desire for greater political prominence and the existence of oil reserves should continue to make Iran an active player, while internal and regional stability and the search for new markets and opportunities should keep it even-handed. Iran will perhaps not be a major actoróit is not in a position to pour in massive investment into the region, the poor performance of its economy can hardly make it a model for regional states, and its political isolation limits its chances of becoming a major pipeline route and of attracting foreign investment. Nonetheless, as things stand, Tehran is an important stabilizing factor in a volatile region. óEurasiaNet