August 17, 2022 | The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst
Much of the analysis on Iranian foreign policy focuses on both Iran’s positonality in relation to the Middle East, and its claim to the mantle of Shia Islamic leadership. However, a more detailed examination shows that Iran’s foreign policy is also focused toward its neighbors to the north in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Tehran’s policies toward these states reveals the realpolitik core of Iranian foreign policy, especially in relation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Iran’s foreign policy toward the Caucasus and Central Asia is intertwined with its domestic security, as several of Iran’s major ethnic groups share ties with co-ethnics in these states. Iran and its neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus use a high degree of policy compartmentalization in order to simultaneously derive benefit and prevent open conflict.
Many Western policy makers relate to Iran as a Middle East country. However, Iran straddles the Caucasus and Central Asia, sharing over half of its borders with states in the region. Therefore, developments in the region can directly affect Iran’s security and core interests. Successful policies toward Iran will take into consideration the significance of its interaction with the Caucasus and Central Asia, and not just the Middle East. Events in the Caucasus and Central Asia directly affect Iran’s security not only as a bordering country, but they also can project onto Iran’s domestic political arena and affect the stability of the ruling regime. This is because ethnic groups in Iran share ties with co-ethnic regions – chiefly Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Consequently, the chief factors in Iran’s policy toward the region are defensive: preventing events in the region from negatively affecting its national security and domestic political arena. While the Iranian regime formally declares that its foreign policy is based on Islamic solidarity, Tehran almost always puts pragmatic concerns above religious fraternity, especially in its close neighborhood. Iran’s policy toward the region is guided by realpolitik: In conflicts waging in the region, Tehran sides mostly with non-Muslim countries, Armenia and Russia, versus the Muslim sides. In fact, Iran’s closest ally in the region, Armenia, has occupied close to twenty percent of the territory of majority-Shia populated Azerbaijan, which is Iran’s main nemesis in the region, despite sharing common Shia faith. Iran focuses its policies in the Caucasus and Central Asia on the state-to-state level with the governments of the region. At the same time, it maintains clandestine ties to representatives of local Islamic and ethnic groups that could serve a lever of influence over the states in the region. For instance, Iran sponsors the Huseynyun brigades, which aim to overthrow the government in the Republic of Azerbaijan and maintain regular television and other media broadcasts from Qom. Tehran models the Huseynyun brigades on other militias it sponsors in the Middle East, such as the Hizballah in Lebanon.1 Iran prefers, however, to promote its direct ties with the ruling governments in the region and primarily activates these other levers of influence only when it needs a tool to coerce policy change in certain states, or to threaten to destabilize governments that do not conform to Iran’s demands. Iran maintains exceptionally large embassies and numbers of diplomats in the states of the region, something that helps facilitate this clandestine infrastructure. This paper will examine the main factors that guide Iran’s policy toward the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Main Foreign Policy Factors
Iran’s policy toward the region is guided by five main factors: First, Iran’s national security. Second, prevention of anti-regime activity of Iran’s Azerbaijani and Turkmen minorities. Third, Iran’s relations with third parties, chiefly Turkey and Russia. Fourth, Iran’s leadership role and integration in regional transit, transportation, and energy trade routes. Fifth and finally, economic benefits.
Defense First: Iran’s National Security and the Prevention of Domestic Anti-Regime Activity of Co-Ethnics
From day one following the collapse of the USSR, Tehran viewed the independence of the new states in the Caucasus and Central Asia as potentially threatening to its national security. The new post-Soviet states, most of them Muslim-majority, were not viewed as objects of export of Islam or revolution, but rather as potential sources of ethno-nationalism that could project onto Iran’s domestic arena. The Tehran Times editorial following the Soviet collapse clearly articulated Iran’s concern that the new neighboring states could be sources of domestic instability that could affect Iran:
from the point of view in Tehran is the lack of political stability in the newly independent republics. The unstable conditions in those republics could be serious causes of insecurity along the lengthy borders (over 2,000 kilometers) Iran shares with those countries. Already foreign hands can be felt at work in those republics, [e]specially in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan republics, with the ultimate objective of brewing discord among the Iranian Azeris and Turkmen by instigating ethnic and nationalistic sentiments.
Iran’s foreign policy toward its neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia is also linked to domestic issues. More than half of Iran’s citizens are of non-Persian origin. Most of Iran’s major ethnic minorities share ties with co-ethnics in bordering states: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three of Iran’s border regions – with Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan – are security hotspots with the shared ethnic factor playing a major role. Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan at times at spilled over to Iranian territory as well.
Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan is also guided by security concerns. Tehran promotes multiple interests in Afghanistan, including the protection and power of the Shia Hazara minority and other allies. In addition, Tehran strives for influence in the Herat region, which it views as part of historic greater Iran. However, its primary goal is preventing developments that could affect its national security, such as increased refugee flows into Iran.
Brenda Shaffer is a faculty member of the US Naval Postgraduate School. She also is a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @ProfBShaffer. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
- For more on ethnic politics in Iran and the connection to ties of the ethnic groups with the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, see Brenda Shaffer, Iran is more than Persia, Foundation for Defense of Democracies monograph, April 2021. (https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2021/04/28/iranis-more-than-persia) and Brenda Shaffer, Iran is more than Persia: Ethnic Politics in Iran Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. For more on the topic of Iran’s pragmatism, see: Brenda Shaffer, “The Islamic Republic of Iran: Is it really?” in Shaffer, Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.