Iran’s security environment and relationship with Caspian Basin countries

Iran’s strategic geographical location allows it to be the part of Middle East, Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and to some extent South Asia. Therefore, Iran’s foreign policy agenda is clearly dominated by the quest for security and the task of neutralizing external threats. Iran sees threats coming both from the neighborhood and from distant powers that can threaten Iran through its neighborhood. A whole new geopolitical trajectory has been foisted in the two main theaters of Iranian foreign policy: the Persian Gulf and Caucasus and Central Asia in the Caspian Sea basin, warranting a new appraisal of Iran’s foreign policy and priorities.

Historically Iran has lacked the luxury of a friendly environment. During a course of a past centuries Iran had to compete and fight with Russia and Turkey. Religious discord also added to the discomfort as Shia Iran lived next to Sunni tribes that merged later into the independent Arab states. The perception of hostile encirclement deepened after the Islamic Revolution, which led the country into a self-imposed isolation, being at odds with its neighbors and the West, particularly the U.S., which had a considerable presence in the Middle East region. As an ambitious nation that claims to bear elements of an ancient and unique culture, Iran always sought to be a regional leader and resented the presence of outside powers in its neighborhood. After the collapse of the USSR, while Russia has temporary lost its pre-eminence in the Caspian basin, new dilemma of growing Western influence has become the major source of discomfort for Tehran.

As a country that once enjoyed a huge influence over the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Iran welcomed the opportunity of re-establishing ties thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1990s did not offer any serious opportunities for Tehran to advance its cause. Mainly because Russia at the down of the 20th century still enjoyed almost exclusive dominance over the South Caucasus and Central Asia as it maintained military bases there. Nevertheless, Russia’s influence over these regions declined in other ways and vast gaps emerged in the local economy and trade, but these gaps were filled by Turkey in South Caucasus and China in Central Asia, which were much better prepared than Iran thanks to their openness to the outside world and its ability to produce cheap consumer goods. Although Iranian products arrived in Caucasus and Central Asian markets in the early 1990s, Iran has proved unable to withstand competition and was eventually forced out. Iran simply could not compete with its big rivals and appeared to be doomed to playing second-rate role in the region. However, new areas of cooperation that value Iranian expertise are under development in Central Asia: primarily oil and hydroelectricity, but also minerals, the industrial processing of agricultural production, and the textile and automotive industries.

Meanwhile, China has enhanced its position in Central Asia in various fields (mainly economy and energy, but also politics) by means of bilateral relations and multilateral initiatives - such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional organization which includes all Central Asian republics (except Turkmenistan) and Russia. This has been the result of a successful strategy adopted by Beijing in early 1990s when China was forced to draw up a brand new approach in order to develop diplomatic, political and economic relations with the new states emerged in a post-Soviet scenario.

While Iran appears to be losing the race for Central Asia, it tries to compensate with its quest for dominance in the Caspian Sea, where disagreements among the littoral states go back to the treaties of 1920 and 1940 between Imperial Iran and the Soviet Union. These treaties divided the Caspian Sea between Iran and the USSR, delineating both water and seabed rights based on the shoreline of each state. Yet, the collapse of the Soviet Union have created number of a new states on the shores of the Caspian in 1991, that still cannot agree in a lines that allow each of the new states some share of the Caspian resources. While Azerbaijan has based its sea boundaries with Iran on the Astara-Hasangulu line, which was accepted as the boundary line separating the former Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran, following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Iranian side decided to change the situation, including that can relate to the exploration of the resources of the Caspian Sea.

While the current working distribution gives Iran control of about 14% of the seabed, Tehran put forward numerous proposals, including the one that advocates the idea that any exploration that takes place anywhere in the Caspian Sea should be jointly owned by all five littoral states. When this proposal was not accepted, Iran suggested that the territory be equally divided so that each state would receive 20% of the sea territory regardless of how each state actually borders on the sea. This proposal has neither legal nor scientific basis, and thus, it goes without saying, it cannot be accepted by the Azerbaijani side, while both Turkmenistan and Iran argue that rights to the sea’s resources should be redistributed into five equal parts.

On this background, during past decade Iran began an aggressive campaign to claim a greater portion of the Caspian Sea and its resources. Tehran’s use of air and naval forces to threaten Western companies exploring a field in Azerbaijan's sector threatened to jeopardize, in addition to energy production and energy security, foreign (mainly Western) investments and the economic development of that region. For example, on July 23, 2001, an Iranian warship and two jets forced a research vessel working on behalf of British Petroleum

(BP)-Amoco in the Araz-Alov-Sharg field out of that sector.[1] That field lies 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Iranian waters. Due to that pressure, BP- Amoco immediately announced that it would cease exploring that field, which it did by withdrawing the research vessels.

The analysis shows that the Caspian Sea basin re-emerged on Iran’s agenda after the collapse of the Soviet Union and relations between Tehran and the littoral states are destined to intensify as Iran looks to play a much bigger role in the area. Iran’s attitude towards the region is based on two elements - its general foreign policy vision and its historical experience with the newly formed political neighborhood.

In addition to that, Iran’s foreign policy, particularly in the South Caucasus, was seriously tested by the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflict confirmed Tehran’s commitment to balance-of-power calculations as it rather openly supported Armenia instead of backing Azerbaijan, the country that shares with Iran not just a border, but also a common heritage. This is a clear example of how realism won out over ideological and religious sentiments despite Iran’s strongly manifested dedication to Islamic principles - Azerbaijan is also a predominantly Shia Muslim country. While it is clear that Iran advocated for a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, its underlying motives may not have been limited to a spillover effect of the conflict. Rather, experts suggest, that the support for Armenia mainly grew out of Iran’s traditional enmity towards Turkey, which was already emerging as Azerbaijan’s closest partner since country regained its independence. Ankara, after all, was seen from Tehran as close ally of the United States, and a return of pan-Turkism would endanger Iran’s position in the region. Yet, on other hand, Iran viewed with suspicion any movement that sought to destabilize its own minority populations through a nationalist movement. Tehran also feared of growing irredentist sentiments among the Azeri minority in Iran itself, as with around nine and a half million Azerbaijanis live in Azerbaijan, even more ethnic Azeris live across the border in Iran. According to a different sources, there is almost as much as half of the population of Iran that ethnic Azeris or have Azeri ancestry,[2] including Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Such Tehran’s choice definitely did not make Azerbaijan happy while Armenia obtained a partner. Contrary to what might be expected in terms of Iran’s revolutionary Islamic rhetoric, Iran also did not supported Turkey’s decision to close its borders with Armenia due to Yerevan’s aggression against Azerbaijan.

When it comes to South Caucasus, geopolitics underlines the issue of exploiting and transporting profitable energy resources, that have gave the Caspian Sea region its global importance. Trying to neutralize the Western influence in the South Caucasus, Russia intensified its ties with Iran, and Armenia (Russia’s closet ally in the region) automatically became number three in this anti-Western coalition while Azerbaijan - Georgia - Turkey emerged as a separate pragmatic regional grouping. However, more recently, Washington and Tehran at some point have come to realize that they share some interests in wanting to prevent Russia from strengthening its already dominant position in Central Asia. Iran, for example, wants to prevent the Caspian Basin from effectively becoming a Russian geopolitical lake. Yet the ongoing U.S.-Iranian feud on other multiple issues has prevented any serious contemplation of bilateral cooperation on that front, despite the overlapping interests.

On other hand, given the economic and military ties and points of contention, for the past years Russia acts delicately in trying to curb Iran’s behavior: Kremlin does not have enough influence to directly correct Tehran’s policies and it does not want to be an arbitrator between Iran and the U.S.. Moscow - Tehran cooperation was actually greater in the 1990s during the Boris Yeltsin era. It was then that Moscow agreed to help complete the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr (begun by the West Germans before the 1979 Revolution and abandoned by them shortly afterward). In addition, Moscow and Tehran worked together to resolve the civil war in Tajikistan (which lasted from 1992 to 1997), and to prevent the Taliban from overrunning all of Afghanistan before the American-led intervention that began shortly after 9/11. Yet, as Iran’s neighbor, economic and military partner, and as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia works with moderate political establishment in Iran to compromise with the West on the nuclear issue instead of confronting Washington. After all, Kremlin perceives Iran as a rising regional power, and its nuclear ambitions play a major role.

On this background, after centuries of cultural, commercial and political exchanges, Central Asia still perceived a region that contemporary Iran has largely ignored. Following Central Asia’s independence, Iranian leaders had no specific ideas about what they might hope to achieve in the region, and they did not consider it to be a priority area. Iran’s primary concerns were domestic: after emerging from a decade of war with Iraq, the Islamic regime’s domestic economic and social situation was tense, and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 aroused concerns of political destabilization.

In the early 1990s, Tehran, among other reforms designed to lead the country towards a more market-oriented economy, encouraged local governmental bodies to establish relations with neighboring states. This ultimately allowed the Islamic Republic’s northern provinces to turn to their former Soviet neighbors. As a result, the new province of Golestan, located in the northeast of the country, south of the Caspian Sea, being the main Iranian province with a Sunni majority, have forged direct relations with Kazakhstan.[3] At a same time the Mazandaran province, bounded on the north by the Caspian Sea has deepened its relationship with Turkmenistan, with whom its shares its northwest border. It was not until 2001, however, that the Foreign Minister of Iran, Kamal Kharrazi, announced that Central Asia would become a priority of Iranian foreign policy.

For their part, the Central Asian states were trying, through partnership with Tehran, somehow diminish the Russian influence, to diversify economically, and to gain access to open seas, mainly through Persian Gulf. Central Asian states were also quite cautious about forging a relationship with the Islamic regime, as they feared that Tehran would seek to export the Islamic revolution as it had done in Lebanon and Palestine, and that Iran would thereby weaken Soviet successor regimes, which maintain a separation of state and religion. However, from 1997, the export of political Islam was clearly challenged by the rise of the reform-oriented president Mohammad Khatami, who accelerated the removal of Shia revolutionary ideology from Iran’s foreign policy in an effort to bring the country out of international isolation and pursued that policy even after he left the office.[4]

These days the Iranian government does not distribute official Shiite propaganda and seeks instead to strengthen its image of cultural and economic power. Under the supervision of embassies, Tehran funded the opening of several cultural centers in countries of Caspian basin, including Azerbaijan, as well as chairs of Iranian studies at universities, including Kyrgyzstan (the Slavic Kyrgyz-Russian University of Bishkek,[5] the University of Humanities, and the State University of Kyrgyzstan). The literature available in these centers is not at all focused on religious issues, but it seems that free courses for familiarization with Iranian Islam are sometimes offered in a totally informal manner. However, other key organs of the Iranian government continue to play the religion card. Allegedly, clandestine groups linked to the Revolutionary Guard have attempted to infiltrate the region and radio and television is tasked with promoting Iranian policy while disseminating a positive image of Iran.

Naturally, the Iranian political establishment is not a monolith, and it is composed of different actors and influence groups, each with a specific agenda. The Revolutionary Guard Corps seems, for instance, much more active in the Central Asian states than in South Caucasus, operating with ideological goals that contrast with the more cautious position of Iranian diplomats. As a result of this, Iranian policy is paradoxical at multiple levels. This is because the Iranian actors are themselves diverse, and because Tehran sees Caspian Sea basin as an area of potential dual conflict: traditional conflict with the West, namely United States, and more recent conflict with Sunni fundamentalist movements in littoral countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan, which Tehran sees as complicit in a general process of ideological alignment that it deems detrimental to its interests. The religious identity is just one component among others in the spectrum of arguments Iran uses to secure its interests in Caspian Basin, however, with the resent developments in the Middle East, Tehran may just reopen this chapter of the playbook.

  • [1] A. Cohen, Executive Summary: Iran's Claims over Caspian Sea Resources Threaten Energy Security, 5 September 2002, from (last retrieved on 1 May 2014).
  • [2] J.W. Parker, Persian Dreams: Moscow and Tehran since the Fall of the Shah, Washington, DC, PotomacBooks, 2009.
  • [3] M. Laruelle, S. Peyrouse, Globalizing Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development, Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, 2013, p 81.
  • [4] “Iran hardliners condemn Khatami, May 6, 2008", BBC, from (last retrieved on 1 May 2014).
  • [5] Iranian Ambassador awarded professor’s title in Kyrgyzstan, University of Tehran, Central Eurasia Programnewsletter, 20 November 2008, from (last retrieved on 26 June2014).
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