Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus – 2023: Iran

A Huge Part of the Iranian Strategy Is Moving Towards Deterrence Against Any Change of the Status Quo in the South Caucasus

Abdolrasool-Farzam Divsallar, Professor at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

- How exactly do the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war processes and Russia's war against Ukraine affect Iran's foreign policy interests? Are there more threats or opportunities for Iran today? How are these threats and opportunities manifested?

The war in Ukraine, as most of us have noticed, is somehow exhausting Russian power and resources. That is obviously impacting the capabilities of Russia in using its foreign policy tools in the rest of the areas of interest (we saw that trend in Syria). South Caucasus, despite its very strategic importance for Russia, is not an exception. That leads me to cautiously say that the war in Ukraine has somehow started a process that might end up in a strategic vacuum in the Caucasus, where Russia is the main security guarantor, but it is a guarantor that cannot guarantee security, it is not able to use whatever resources it has. And in these circumstances, other external powers might intervene. When they find out that a vacuum is forming, they get into an environment to push their own interest or agenda. And that is the strategic impact of the Ukrainian war on Russia's capability in projecting power in important areas, like the South Caucasus. And that is not good news for Iranians, because, for at least the last two-three decades, Iran has accepted Russia's security dominance in the South Caucasus, and also in Central Asia somehow. Basically, Iranians very much relied on the fact that Russia can guarantee stability in the region and can prevent external powers from getting into that strategic zone. So declining Russian capability to guarantee the status quo there is in a sense a long-term threat for Iran. And in the short term, as a consequence of this process, external powers more actively are getting into the region. You name them from Israelis to Europeans, and everyone else, or even Americans. Maybe not so openly, but there is an advancement in the presence of these external powers. In the post-Ukrainian war environment, Iran is facing some challenges in the South Caucasus, which basically we are seeing in the recent tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

I think there are more threats than opportunities in the short term. Opportunities were mostly defined in economics, and possibly in the North-South corridor, which passes through Azerbaijan and links Iran to Russia. And that was one of the most important opportunities, but even that opportunity is very much now influenced by this insecurity trend that we are seeing: the prospect of a major war, if Iran is going to intervene in the war, or is not going to intervene. So these are questions that are putting more doubts on that. For Iran, at least for the last two-three decades, it was not a first priority to directly intervene in the South Caucasus in the security term. And for Iranians it don't seem an opportunity, but a cost. In this process of a strategic void, it is very much different from what we saw, for example, in Iraq. Comparatively, we had a similar strategic vacuum in Iraq after 2003, and the US invasion in Iraq, where Iran intervened and used as an opportunity to project its power. But we don't necessarily see that dynamic in the South Caucasus, because the South Caucasus has less strategic value for Iran in confrontation with the United States. While Iraq was important as the axis of resistance to get closer to Israel, and to be able to control Syria and the Mediterranean. You don't have that dynamic in the South Caucasus. By putting more resources into the South Caucasus, Iran necessarily cannot gain major leverage regarding its great power competition while it has a sort of an alliance or good relations with Russia.

- What is Iran’s agenda regarding the post-war Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation? Is there any prospect for establishing a cooperation regime in the South Caucasus region?

Iran's agenda can be framed in two main factors. The first is that Iran is a power in the South Caucasus which is for the status-quo. Iranian strategic thinking evolves around the notion that they want the status quo, they want no major change in geopolitical dynamics, in the state structures, in the borders or in any security domain. And that is the key agenda Iran is pushing for. This status quo used to be guaranteed by Russian power in the South Caucasus. Now that is under question. The attempts to prevent the formation of new threats for the South Caucasus is the factor shaping the second agenda. These two points, the status quo power and prevention of the formation of new threats, are important.

The second factor very much relates to the dynamics of Israeli presence in the South Caucasus. But it is not a new issue for Iranians. Israelis were in Azerbaijan for years. But the lack of Russian decisiveness to control the region gives Israelis a freer possibility to intervene. And that is where the main threats for Iran are emerging. Actually, what Israelis are doing is somehow copying the Iranian model of encircling Israel by going to Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Israelis are applying the same model to Iran: going to Azerbaijan to have a spot there and going to the UAE (the Abraham Accords gave them that possibility). What Iranians are trying to do is to prevent that formation. And I think these two big domains are shaping how Iran is reacting or how Iran is seeing the security system in the region. As for the fact whether we are seeing any formation of security cooperation... that might be the goal, but we're not very close to that goal. That is, at least for the short term, something unforeseeable. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the region is in a transition period. We had the change in Russian power dynamics. Now there is this strategic vacuum, everyone is fighting for leverage. So you have the EU getting in with its own mandate and agenda. Israelis are coming with their own agenda, Iranians with theirs, also Russians and Turks. Every country has its own agenda, which is not necessarily comparable. What you characterize as a period of transition is a competition between these actors for pushing their own agendas.

So in this environment, what we can probably assume is a continuation of tension and rivalry, a lower threshold, and sometimes eruption until the transition period reaches to a point. And I need to once again add here that Iran's strategy in this transition period has been shaped by two factors: the combination of deterrence and diplomacy. Iran for the first time has moved its military resources towards the north, it is showing its teeth, and it is getting more decisive in militarily intervening in Azerbaijan. There is a strategic understanding in Tehran that Iran should intervene if Azerbaijan moves to change the borders in a meaningful way. This is a new understanding that is taking place. Basically, a huge part of Iranian strategy is moving toward deterrence against any change of the status quo. And the second dynamic is diplomacy, as we saw in Iranian-Azerbaijani constant talks at the foreign ministry level, despite all the tensions, these talks never stopped. This means that Iran is working on two fronts at the same time, deterrence and diplomacy, to keep the status quo and to have its own leverage in this transition period. Because more Iranian military capabilities are dispatched to the region, from the Iranian point of view, Iran will have more leverage and the transition will be more manageable.

- Can we say that today new algorithms of relations are being shaped in the South Caucasus? How exactly are these algorithms manifested? Which countries (Russia, USA, France, other Western countries, Turkey, Iran) are the most active in promoting them?

The transition period is not finished yet, we are in the process. None of the actors has been able to push its agenda or dominate with its agenda. This is very much a similar dynamic that we have seen in other regions around the world. Like what we saw in the Persian Gulf sub-region: constant rivalry over agendas, over topics, over security concerns of each side. I hope that there would be at least ad hoc mechanisms, either bilateral or multilateral, that can prevent the tensions to rise. The EU, for example, has some good practices. that have been successful in Eastern Europe. to stabilize somehow the tensions in such environment. So that could be an asset if it is brought to the region. Iranians, Russians and Turks, for example, have this experience of the Astana Accords that was helpful for them to shape their views over a territory that was under their attention. The South Caucasus needs some sort of a platform like that, in which the main powers like Russia, Iran, Turkey, and regional actors, like Azerbaijan, and Armenia, will sit together and try to, at least, address things in ad hoc way. That might be a goal. But for a short period of time, probably we will see more bilateral, small formats of discussions. And that is important to notice that neither Iran nor Russia wants escalations in the region at this moment, because both are oppressed by their own issues and problems. Turkey is also somehow in a similar situation given its internal politics (the election time, the aftermath of the earthquake). So at the strategic level, all of these main actors are so much not in favor of rising tension in an escalatory form. That is a good starting point for forming a platform of discussion among the actors. Probably if the current dynamic moves on, we might be hopeful that these ad hoc mechanisms might end up in a more stable platform of discussion in the region.

- What formats of cooperation with external actors of the South Caucasus region are acceptable for Iran? In other words, the agendas of which countries are most aligned with that of Iran?

For the Iranians, there is one important principle which is shared with the Russians. They are against any external actor intervening in the region. They are against the EU or Israel or the US as external actors actively intervening and having a formal long-term presence in the region. From the Iranian perspective, the EU's mediation mechanisms might be welcomed by Tehran if some conditions are met. Probably it very much depends on the EU-Iran relations itself. I think Iran, in a short-term intervention style, will welcome the EU's intervention in some sort of mediatory aspect. But the principle is that both Moscow and Tehran are against any of these actors coming to the region, creating long-term leverages and staying there. This makes the situation a bit more complicated. Because in this environment, we don't have actors like China, or we don't have a reliable mediator. Every one of the powers is a part of the problem itself, they are part of this game, right? So you don't have a reliable mediator or a mediator that would be accepted by all parties as a neutral one and that would also have the interest and strategic motives to engage in this process and to help to develop the formats. Whilst you had such actors in the Middle East, for example, going back to the Iran-Saudi agreement, you had Iraq and Oman, which had their clear interests in normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It was China that was being seen as an opportunity to intervene in the Middle East. But in the South Caucasus, there are no such mediators. The EU has its strategic interests, but as I said, Iran and Russia are against the EU's intervention in a meaningful way. China is not really into this region because of various factors, maybe because of the less strategic importance of the South caucasus for the Chinese diplomacy at the moment. So we have a black box. And as a result, we will face a period of smaller ad hoc bilateral diplomacy, mixed with deterrence by all actors: Turks, Israelis, Iranians and Russians. They all will resort to these military deterrence forces in order to increase their leverage. That is probably a process that we will be seen in the next coming months until some new equilibrium will emerge in the region.

- In your opinion, what and who (what countries, organizations) can achieve that Azerbaijan stops the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh residents, which has been taking place for over 4 months? According to you, what are the main expectations of Azerbaijan from the blockade, and what has Azerbaijan achieved today?

Unfortunately, in a matter of blockade, we are seriously facing the factors of realpolitik, it's not norms or ethics that matter here. And it is the truth about the situation. I understand the human cost of that, and that it is national problem for Armenians, it is very serious. But it could only be helpfully framed if it was framed in a broader geopolitical dynamic. Armenians probably would only be able to use that blockade if they can frame it properly in the geopolitical situation and see where it converts with the interest of other regional actors. For Iran the blockade matters because it is a factor of instability, it can be a wound, that can cause pain in the long-term matter. So, there is an area for pushing from the Armenian side in this matter. But I think we cannot approach that very realpolitik issue from a humanitarian dimension, which unfortunately, in realpolitik is very much the second factor.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.


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