As the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, it was widely expected that Iran and Turkey would enter into a rivalry for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia- an expectation which to a large extent has become reality, despite official efforts from both sides to deny this.1 In particular, the Turco-Iranian struggle has taken the form of a struggle between "models" - Turkey presenting a secular, Western-oriented democratic model, while Iran proposes an Islamic, anti-Western outlook. In this respect, and perhaps except for Tajikistan, Turkey currently seems to have the upper hand, as most Caucasian and Central Asian leaders have expressed sympathy for the Turkish model but have been very hostile to political Islam, and therefore have refrained from too-close relations with Iran.
In this struggle for influence, the Caucasus has taken a special place. The region is the historical meeting point of three empires: The Russian, the Ottoman Turkish, and the Persian. During much of history, Iran has considered the Transcaucasus to be part of its sphere of influence and has played the role of a hegemon in the area. With the disappearance of Russian control, such historical affinities reemerged in Tehran. At the same time, the Caucasus is vital for Turkey, as the region is strategically crucial for any closer links with the Turkic republics of Central Asia.
Based on ethnolinguistic and religious affinities but also on strategic considerations, it seemed logical that both Turkey and Iran would give priority to Azerbaijan in trying to gain influence in the Caucasus. A priori, this seemed a logical conclusion, and the Azerbaijani leadership initially hoped that it would be able to use the Turco-Iranian rivalry to its own benefit. Turkey is closely tied to Azerbaijan in terms of language, ethnicity and culture. The Azeris also share many elements of Persian culture and, more important, are - like the Iranians - predominantly Shia Muslims, whereas the Turks are mainly Sunnis.2 Azerbaijan and Iran also have very strong historical links. Azerbaijan has for most of its history been a part of the Persian empire, an arrangement which came to an end with the Russo-Persian wars of the first half of the nineteenth century. Turkic dynasties have even ruled Persia at different times; the Safavid empire, which instituted Shia Islam as state religion in Iran, was Azeri in origin.3
Thus the Azeris share common denominators with both Iran and Turkey. Furthermore, to the extent that this was the intention of these two regional powers, Azerbaijan would be the best country to choose in order to project power and influence into the Caucasus. Besides being overwhelmingly Muslim, in contrast to both Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan is the largest of the three Transcaucasian countries, with a population of almost 8 million; moreover, it is rich in natural resources, primarily oil, which neither of the other two possesses. Geopolitically, Iran enjoys an over-700-kilometer-long border with Azerbaijan, which gives it the important advantage of direct access to that country. Turkey has a mere 7-km border with Nakhichevan, which is separated from mainland Azerbaijan by Armenia.
A further circumstance, however, complicates the Iranian relationship with its northern neighbor. The majority of the Azeri nation is resident in northern Iran, not in the Caucasian republic. Whereas the Republic of Azerbaijan contains roughly six million Azeris, between 15 and 20 million are estimated to live in Iran. This fact has been an important reason for the ambivalence of Iran towards Azerbaijan. Turkey has consistently–both officially and by its actions–put Azerbaijan in first place in its relations with post-Soviet states;4 Iran has not committed itself in the same way. Turkey, after a period of uneasy neutrality, openly took Azerbaijan's side in Azerbaijan's armed conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh enclave;5 Iran has had a very ambivalent and, at first sight, illogical policy towards the conf1ict.6 Actually, given the militant Islamic rhetoric and policy of the country, Iran ought to have been the first country to rush to the support of the Azeris, fellow Shia Muslims, in their confrontation with the Christian Armenians.
Unfortunately for the Azeris, nothing of this sort happened. Whereas Iran declared itself ready to mediate in the conflict, it did not in any way support the Azerbaijani side. Quite to the contrary, Iran has constantly sought to cultivate and improve its relations with Armenia. Whereas Turkey joined Azerbaijan's blockade of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, Iran is one of Armenia's main trading partners, and according to recent reports it is also very active in trading with the Karabakh Armenians as well, being the major supplier of foodstuffs and other commodities to the enclave.7
In fact, Iranian policy and conduct towards Transcaucasia are heavily colored by what can be termed an "Azerbaijan factor." To understand the underlying determinants of the policy and how it is shaped, it is necessary to first analyze the origins and evolution of the Azerbaijan question during this century.
THE AZERBAIJAN QUESTION UP TO THE SOVIET BREAKUP
The Russo-Persian wars of the first half of the nineteenth century ended in a decisive Persian defeat, which was finally confirmed by the Turknianchai treaty of 1828.8 This treaty and subsequent protocols to it demarcated a border between the two empires along the Araxes River - a line that cut through the lands inhabited by the Azeri people. Iran was naturally not satisfied with this situation and found an opportunity to reverse it at the Paris peace conference of 1919. This was a time when the central power in Russia was weak, and Moscow was consumed with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In effect, it had lost control over Transcaucasia and actually recognized the independence of the three states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.9 However, the Iranian claims at the Paris conference were left unanswered, and instead the three short-lived "democratic" republics of Transcaucasia lived on for three difficult years, only to be incorporated into Soviet Russia in 1920-21, after the Bolsheviks had secured power in Moscow and could reassert control over its peripheries.10 After these events, Iran seemed to accept the loss of Transcaucasia, formalizing the border with the Soviet Union by a treaty in 1921.11
Naturally, the division of Azerbaijan between two empires was a catastrophe for the Azeri nation. Families were broken up, old patterns of contact, culture· and trade were destroyed, and the very survival of the nation was endangered, given the long period of time that the two Azerbaijans were separated from each other. In particular, seventy years of Soviet rule created important differences in lifestyle and identity between Iranian- and Russianruled Azeris.
As Tadeusz Swietochowski describes it, the Azeri people on both sides constantly sought to keep up relations over the border. This was particularly successful during the Baku oil boom in the late nineteenth century, when thousands of unemployed Azeris from Iran crossed the border to seek temporary employment in the oil industry.12 At certain points, Swietochowski notes that the contacts between North and South Azerbaijan were so close that folk tales and songs from one side spread quickly to the other.
These interactions continued during the period of World War I. As one observer states, due to the lack of central authority in Iran at the time, there was actually no political frontier separating the two Azerbaijans,13 and hence no obstacle to contact. From 1921 onwards, however, this period of instability ended in both Iran and the newly formed Soviet Union, and the border between the two states became increasingly closed to population flows. Consequently, the two parts of the Azerbaijani nation were separated for decades, indeed prevented from interacting with one another until the late 1980s. The birth of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918 did not pass unnoticed in Iranian Azerbaijan. An autonomist movement emerged under the leadership of Sheykh Muhammad Khiabani, who announced the formation of a local government. Khiabani seems to have been in favor of a reunion of both Azerbaijans, under the name of Azad is tan.14 However, this movement was crushed before acquiring sizable proportions.
The Azerbaijan question came back to the agenda during World War 11, when a new political vacuum was created in Iran after the British and Russian invasion of the country in 1941.15This vacuum was quickly exploited by Azeri nationalists, who managed to establish a short-lived Azerbaijani republic in 1945.16 Although many observers have argued that this was mainly the creation of foreign - in particular Russian - intervention, it seems clear that its basis was a strong, comparatively well-organized Azeri nationalism in Iranian Azerbaijan, without which it would never have come into existence. Naturally, the aggressive and interventionist Soviet policy towards Iran was equally important for its formation.
The Azeris, however, had preserved their ethnic identity and displayed a significant level of group cohesion. Fred Halliday, in this context, sees the Azeri nationalism of the time not as a secessionist attempt but rather as a struggle for autonomy within the framework of the Iranian state.17 When Soviet support was withdrawn and the Tabriz-based republic crushed by the central government, measures were taken to preclude the renewal of secessionist claims. Iranian Azerbaijan was administratively divided into two in 1946, with Tabriz and Rezaye as provincial centers.18 This policy, repeated in 1993 when a third Azeri province around Ardebil was created, shows the eagerness on the part of the Iranian authorities, whether Pahlavi or republican, to prevent the emergence of any signs of secessionism among the Azeris.
It seems safe to conclude that a genuine Azeri nationalism, although moderate in nature, existed in the immediate aftermath of World War II. What is more difficult to explain is what has happened to it since then, for the events during the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 show no sign of Azeri nationalism. This was a period when many peoples - in the very multiethnic Iran - voiced their claims for national autonomy. Clearly, the Azeris are by far the largest non-Farsi-speaking ethnic group in Iran; however, smaller nations such as the Kurds or Baluchis were much more vocal than the Azeris.
This fact can be explained by a number of factors. First of all, the Azeris are Shia Muslims, unlike most Kurds, Arabs and other minorities in Iran. Hence the switch from a Persian-oriented to a Shii-oriented state meant an actual rise in the prospects of the Azeris. Furthermore, the new constitution of the Islamic Republic enabled the Azeris to use their own language and express their own culture to a distinctly greater extent than had been the case under Pahlavi rule. The new state was one in which they were, so to say, full members. Secondly, the post-war era meant an increased integration of the Azeris into the political and economic life in Iran. One must also see that most Azeris in Iran, given their history as its rulers in certain periods, consider Iran to belong to them as much as to the Persians - certain Azeri political movements actually demand, not a unified Azeri state, but the incorporation of northern Azerbaijan into Iran.19 Indeed, even among the highest positions of the Islamic republic, a significant number of Azeris are found. It should be noted, nevertheless, that in the religious sphere the Azeri clergy have often been at odds with Khomeini and his followers, some allying themselves with the latter's opponent, Shariat Madari.20
Halliday also puts forward two other arguments. The first is that the failure of the 1945-46 experience might have served as a lesson to the Iranian Azeris, making them realize that their only possibility was to exist within the Iranian state. The second argument is that the main grievances of the Azeris are with the Kurds, not with the Iranian state, and that the Azeris would not opt for autonomy, fearing that the Kurds would then do the same.21 However, these arguments are difficult to fit into the picture of worldwide ethnic mobilization and conflict. Population groups are usually not discouraged by past failures. If such experiences do have an impact, they rather tend to accentuate ethnic mobilization and group cohesion. Furthermore, it does not seem as if ethnic mobilization usually follows such a logical or rational pattern as would be required for this argument to be valid. It is conditioned more by emotions than a rational calculation of benefits.22
This is not to say that unification movements are nonexistent. Quite to the contrary, reports seem to show that the movement is on the rise in both parts of Azerbaijan, perhaps because the popularity of the Islamic regime is falling. A South Azerbaijan National Liberation Committee (SANLC) exists, operating from the Azerbaijani republic. The extent of its following is not known; however, its existence has been another thorn in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations, and Iran has forced Azerbaijan to profess its "neutrality" towards the movement.23 Faced with this harsh reaction, the Azerbaijani government has been compelled to restrict the activities of the South Azerbaijani nationalists on its territory.
In fact, the actual level of Azeri nationalism in present-day Iran is very little known. The information that reaches the West might be only the tip of an iceberg. However, the harsh repression of any Azeri nationalist tendencies, as well as the Iranian state's policy towards the Azerbaijani republic, seems to show that it constitutes a far larger problem for the Iranian leadership than can be observed - or it is perceived as such in Tehran.
THE PERCEIVED AZERBAIJANI THREAT
If Iranian policy towards the newly established Azerbaijani state seems illogical at first, it can be explained by domestic considerations. With economic indicators pointing downward24 and with a constant fear of irredentism in its multiethnic society, the Iranian government was less than pleased by the emergence of an Azerbaijani state to its immediate north. Matters were not made easier by the fact that this Azerbaijani republic was endowed with large resources of oil and natural gas, which would be likely to transform it into what some observers have termed "the Kuwait of the Caucasus.25
The existence of a large Azeri minority in Iran could have been an incentive for the Iranian rulers to support the Azerbaijani republic, in order to preempt criticism from its own Azeri minority. The Iranian leadership, however, does not seem to have reasoned along these lines, instead, they saw fit to counteract the interests of the Baku government in every possible way. This, despite the fact that not only the Azeris in Iran, but overwhelming public opinion, demanded that the government openly take the Azerbaijani side against the Armenian " infidels."26
This circumstance can be explained by the perception of the threat that Azerbaijan posed to the Iranian regime. In fact, the leaders of the Islamic Republic seem to have seen the emergence of an Azerbaijani republic as a long-term threat to the integrity of the Iranian state, rather than as a short-term threat. What they feared was not an immediate upheaval of the Azeri population in solidarity with their brethren, urging Tehran to intervene in Karabakh. The Azeris in Iran are, after all, quite well integrated into the Iranian society, have a comparatively weak Azeri identity, and for the most part feel themselves at least as much Iranians as Azeris. As stated above, there are even Azeri movements in South Azerbaijan that urge the integration of the Azerbaijani republic into Iran. However, it is difficult to assess whether these movements are genuine or a mere fabrication of the Tehran regime.
The high level of integration of the Azeris is also a reason why the Iranian government saw no imminent danger in pursuing an anti-Azerbaijani policy. The actual threat that Azerbaijan was perceived as posing to the regime was that, if Iran's economic condition (and by extension its social cohesion) deteriorated, the national identity of the Azeri minority in northern Iran would grow in proportion to popular dissatisfaction with Tehran's policies. This would be all the more dangerous if the Azerbaijani republic simultaneously prospered thanks to its oil revenues.
An illustration of the degree of Iranian fear of Azeri irredentism occurred in the summer of 1993. At this point, the Azeri military performance in Karabtikh was plainly a disaster, and Armenian forces conquered territories of Azerbaijan proper east and south of Karabakh. In October, the situation became critical for Iran, as the Armenians pushed towards the Iranian border, threatening to send a massive refugee flow into the country. Indeed, a number of Azeri refugees did swim across the Araxes, where they were welcomed by their ethnic kin on the other side. The Iranian regime reacted quickly and moved to set up refugee camps for the fleeing Azeris - but on Azeri territory. Hence the refugees were forcibly moved back to Azerbaijan, where Iran already by November claimed to harbor over 40,000 people.27 Perhaps the main reason for this move seems to have been a fear on the part of the Iranians that allowing Azeri refugees to stay in Iran and fraternize with the Iranian Azeris could pose a danger. If the Iranian Azeri community became aware of the atrocities suffered by their kin in the war, there would be a high risk of increased pressure on the regime to intervene on Azerbaijan's side; even more dangerous would be the risk of heightened Azeri ethnic mobilization in Iran in solidarity with the northern Azeris in their struggle against the Armenians.
The perception of threat, then, was so strong that Iran saw fit to set up expensive refugee camps outside its own territory. The action cannot be explained by simple humanitarian concern, as the easiest solution then would have been to set up camps on the Iranian side, where they presumably would be safer from Armenian attack. One should not, nevertheless, neglect the importance of economic factors in the decision. Iran, after all, already harbors over two million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. The prospect of additional thousands of refugees must have been an incentive to try to keep them outside Iran. However, these economic considerations as a whole seem to be secondary as far as the refugee issue is concerned. The speed with which the refugees were relocated indicates the perception in Tehran of a potentially explosive situation
As Dilip Hiro has noted in his excellent book Between Marx and Muhammad, Iranian President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani became aware of the Azerbaijani threat:
Rafsanjani realized that in the long run, Azeri nationalism would prove as problematic for the Islamic regime in Tehran as it was proving then for the Communist administration in Moscow ....The emergence of a strong, independent Azerbaijani republic - whether Islamic or not - would fan the flames of Azeri nationalism within Iran.28
Thus from the time of Azerbaijan's independence at the breakup of the Soviet Union, Iran had a wary attitude towards the Azeri republic. Nevertheless, until mid-1992, strong currents in Iran were highly supportive of Azerbaijan. Iran attempted serious mediation efforts, not without success, as will be discussed below.
Furthermore, Iranian nationalists have pressured the regime to side with Azerbaijan, reasoning that the Azeris of Azerbaijan are actually Iran's own citizens, as the entire Azerbaijan belongs to Iran.29 Several radical newspapers have also urged the government to condemn Armenia.30 The early developments in Baku, prompted by the war, were only instrumental in turning Iran's wariness into outright enmity.
As the leader of the Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), the historian Abulfaz Elçibey, came to power in June 1992, Azerbaijan turned increasingly towards Turkey. Indeed, Elçibey was decidedly pro-Turkish, secularly oriented, pan-Azeri and vehemently anti-Iranian. This meant that Tehran had exactly the kind of government in Baku that it did not wish to have.
President Elçibey did not show any diplomatic tact either. On several occasions, he blasted Iran as a doomed state and predicted that within five years Azerbaijan would be reunited.31 This policy was hardly the most effective way of allaying Iran's suspicions. Nevertheless, the Elçibey period turned out to be very short in Baku, as the government proved incapable of dealing with the Karabakh war and attracted at least as much enmity from Moscow as from Iran. Moscow's direct involvement on the Armenian side has been proven by eyewitness accounts and testimonies of individual Russian soldiers.32
Allegations of Iranian involvement have also been voiced by Azerbaijan, especially concerning the coup d’état that overthrew Elçibey in the summer of 1993. Azeri conspiracy theorists even see a joint Russo-Iranian action behind that coup.33 Although no significant evidence exists to prove such allegations, it remains clear that during Elçibey's rule, Iran drifted towards close contacts with Armenia. However, Iran's support fell short of any military involvement of the Russian type. Rather, Iran supplied Armenia with necessary goods and energy, hence counteracting the Turco-Azeri embargo on the country - which actually eliminated Azerbaijan's main bargaining chip against Armenia. Iran is today Armenia's largest trading partner.
The Azeris also suspect Iran of involvement in support of radical Islamic political movements in Azerbaijan, as well as of encouraging ethnic unrest among Azerbaijan's Talysh minority, which lives near the Iranian border. Thus the curious legacy of the Elçibey era: an Islamic fundamentalist state, Iran, ended up supporting Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan.
When Elçibey was toppled in June 1993 and replaced by Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's Communist-party leader during the Brezhnev years and a former Politburo member, the time seemed ripe for a rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Iran. Aliyev quickly moved to restore some kind of balance in Azerbaijan's foreign relations, seeking to distance himself from the tight alliance with Turkey that Elçibey had built, in order to diversify international contacts. His first step was to normalize relations with Russia, by acceding to the CIS. Further, Aliyev also brought his policy more into line with Tehran's. Previously, Aliyev had not refrained from anti-Iranian statements.34 However, his sense of political tact and his awareness of Iran's importance for Azerbaijan's security led him to follow a conciliatory path.
In fact, immediately before acceding to power, Aliyev had been the leader of Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani enclave encircled by Armenia, Iran and Turkey, lacking any land connection with Azerbaijan proper. During the war, Aliyev had ruled Nakhichevan autonomously from Baku and had built good personal relations with Iranian leaders, unilaterally concluding several trade and energy deals with Iran without seeking Elçibey's approval. In fact, Iran gave financial aid to Nakhichevan and put pressure on Armenia to refrain from attacking the enclave - something which clearly could have led to an escalation of the conflict, as Turkey considers itself a guarantor of Nakhichevan's security by its 1921 treaties with the Soviet Union.
As the leader of Azerbaijan, Aliyev continued to try to bring Azerbaijan closer to the Islamic world. He traveled repeatedly to Tehran and Riyadh,35 and even tried to enhance his Islamic credentials in spite of his having been in the forefront of Soviet atheist campaigns of the 1970s, when he was chairman of Azerbaijan's Communist party.
Despite these developments, the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have not improved significantly, and the basic guidelines of Iranian policy towards Azerbaijan do not seem to have changed. When Azerbaijan concluded the so-called "deal of the century" in 1994 with a consortium led by Western oil companies, Iran was initially given a 5-percent share of the deal. In April 1995, the United States forced Azerbaijan to exclude Iran from the deal, which naturally made the Iranians furious, accusing Aliyev of being a tool of the "great Satan." Iran immediately retaliated by cutting off power supplies to Nakhichevan, claiming non-payment of debts as a reason.36
Since then, Iran has been counteracting all Azeri aims to produce and export its oil. One way to do this has been to refuse to cooperate in a planned pipeline route between Baku and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. This route was intended to stretch from Baku into Iran, then follow the Araxes River and enter Nakhichevan and from there to Turkey, where it would reach the Mediterranean.37 Such a route was drawn due to the impossibility of involving Armenia in any pipeline project, a route which would have been the most logical one geographically. Iranian officials clearly stated that if a pipeline went through Iran, it would go to the Persian Gulf and not to Turkey; this solution would give Iran more royalties and control over the outlet of Azeri oil - and hence important leverage on Baku.
Furthermore, a route through Georgia, which is being discussed currently, is a large deviation and not necessarily a safe route either, given the instability of that country.38 Hence in this way Iran actively managed to disturb Azeri hopes of exporting its oil without giving Russia a monopoly over transporting it.
As the exclusion of Iran from the international oil consortium had been a debacle in bilateral relations, Aliyev felt obliged to do something to save his relations with the Islamic Republic. In late 1995, Azerbaijan offered Iran a IO-percent share in the extraction from another · oilfield, Shah-Deniz, an offer Iran initially rejected as unserious..39 In May 1996, however, Iran finally accepted the offer, a decision which may be taken as an indication of the Iranian regime's pragmatism.40
Although a certain degree of cooperation exists between the two countries, encouraged by Aliyev, the regime in Tehran still maintains a relatively hostile attitude to its northern neighbor.
THE RUSSO-IRANIAN AXIS OVER THE CASPIAN SEA
Iran has found an ally in Azerbaijan's other foe - Russia. In the post-Soviet era, American attempts to isolate Iran and promote its image as a regional pariah have fallen short of coercing Russia to limit its relations with Iran.41 To the contrary, Russia and Iran have improved and expanded trade relations as well as technical cooperation in the nuclear field - a fact which has proven to be a significant disturbance in Russo-American relations. Russian officials, however, have stated that they will not surrender to any pressures regarding their nuclear cooperation with Iran, something which has been noted with satisfaction in Tehran.42 Russian and Iranian interests converge in the energy field as well; they both would be largely devoid of oil and gas resources if the Caspian were delimited and divided into territorial waters.
The hydrocarbon resources would almost exclusively fall within the territorial waters of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Hence Russia and Iran have both been arguing for the creation of an international regime in the Caspian, where all resources would be jointly exploited by the riparian states. This line of thought is based upon the legal argument that the Caspian is not a sea - it has no natural outlet to other seas - but rather, technically speaking, a giant lake, where the laws of the sea do not apply.43 By contrast, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan argue that the Caspian is an enclosed sea, which gives them the right under maritime law to draw national sectors and exploit resources exclusively within them.44 Turkmenistan has until recently bowed to Russian pressure and in principle accepted joint exploitation; however, recently the Turkmen government, guided by natural self-interest, seems to be inclined towards joining Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Consequently Russia and Iran have been pressuring Azerbaijan, in particular, but not to the same extent as the two Central Asian republics on the eastern shore of the Caspian, to allow for joint exploitation of oil resources. But for all of Aliyev's intentions to improve relations with both Tehran and Moscow, he has consistently refused to give away an inch of Azerbaijan's sovereignty. Hence Azerbaijan remains the only Transcaucasian republic without Russian troops on its soil; likewise there have been no signs from Baku pointing at any acceptance of the principle of joint exploitation.
In June 1995, Iran and Russia agreed to coordinate their oil and gas policies, in a wider context of improving relations.45 Iran is particularly eager to cooperate with Russia as it is under the pressure of U.S. isolation. Both for economic and political reasons, Iran therefore wants to prove that it can stand up against the United States. And given the present character of Russia's domestic politics, anything that proves that Russia is not dependent on the United States is likely to be in the government's interest. Cooperation with Iran, in addition to other factors, also serves this purpose. In the summer of 1995, Iran and Russia agreed to cooperate in offshore drilling and platform construction in the Caspian. 46 In October of the same year, the two states also elaborated a draft proposal on the legal status of the Caspian, according to which each state would only be granted a IO-mile stretch of territorial waters for mineral extraction. In this context it should be no surprise that most of Azerbaijan's and Turkmenistan's oil and gas resources are much further offshore than this. 47 Nevertheless, it should be noted that Iran does not insist on joint exploitation to the same degree as Russia does. Rather, Iran has pressed for an agreement among all riparian states in order to lessen instability and conflict. 48
IRAN AND THE KARABAKH WAR
As Edmund Herzig has noted, the Karabakh war has been the most direct threat to Iran's national security emanating from the north since the 19 40s.49 Indeed, the conflict has been the worst - and from Iran's perspective the closest- among a plethora of conflicts that have plagued the Caucasus since the late 1980s. Besides ethnic strife, both Azerbaijan and Georgia have been characterized by chronic political instability as well. Arms of all kinds and calibers have proliferated throughout the region, controlled not by the governments of the respective countries but by semiofficial or private paramilitary formations.50 Hence the Caucasus as a whole is a source of instability for all regional powers. For Iran, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict has had a special importance for a number of reasons. First of all, the fighting, as noted above, has threatened to spill over into Iran at certain points, notably in the fall of 1993. Further, the two states involved in the conflict are both Iran's neighbors, and hence the conflict directly affects Iran's security. But most of all, the conflict has played a role in the larger regional constellations in which Iran has a prominent place.
This led Iran at an early stage - virtually as soon as the two belligerents became independent - to offer its good offices to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. A first abortive cease-fire was negotiated in Tehran in March 1993 and a "Tehran declaration" was signed in May of the same year. But, as Abdallah Ramezanzadeh states, Iranian mediation was hampered first by the repeated Armenian military conquests of Azerbaijani territory, and second by the advent of the Popular Front government in Baku. The first factor led Iranian radicals to condemn Armenia for using the cease-fires brought about by Iranian diplomacy to provide for rearmament, the second made mediation virtually impossible as President Elçibey refused to accept Iran as a mediator.51 To a certain degree, then, Iran has acted to resolve the conflict in a positive manner. But Tehran simultaneously used the Nagorno Karabakh conflict to pursue foreign-policy goals.
Since the conflict erupted into war in 1992, Iran has attempted to exert its influence on Azerbaijan. For the most part, this has meant working against Azerbaijan through support for Armenia. This has, however, not always been the case. When the conflict threatened to spill over into Iran, Tehran actually raised its tone against the Armenians. It made a joint appeal with Turkey to the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Armenian aggression. Hence it seemed as if Tehran was becoming aware of the danger of a collapse in Azerbaijan, which could have important implications for regional security.52 Iran at several points made clear that it sought to preserve the existing balance of power in the region.
Here again, the Nakhichevan enclave was perceived to be of crucial importance. When Nakhichevan was under threat of an Armenian attack in September 1993, Iranian troops crossed the river Araxes, prompting a strong Russian reaction. Russia made it clear that good relations with Iran are conditional on Iran's acceptance of Russian supremacy in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, Iran's action was enough to intimidate Armenia; the Armenian foreign minister assured Tehran that there would be no more attacks on Nakhichevan.53
Except for situations where it was absolutely necessary to restore a balance by preventing Armenia from creating chaos in the region, Tehran used the conflict to pressure Baku. This was generally done through different forms of support for Armenia. As stated above, Iran served as a purveyor of electricity and goods to Armenia, which suffered from the Turkish supported Azeri blockade of the country. Transport was difficult through war-torn Georgia: Russian supplies had difficulties reaching their destination, and the pipeline bringing natural gas to Armenia was sabotaged on several occasions. However important trade relations might have been to sustaining the Armenian war effort, Iran's support went beyond these merely commercial relations. Reports have indicated that Iran served at least as a transit route for weapons en route to Armenia; similarly Armenian fighters have allegedly been trained in Iran.54 It is not impossible that certain Armenian movements have retained contacts with Iran from the time of the terrorist campaign against Turkey, which had its high tide in the early 1980s.55 Azeris argue that ASALA (The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) still exists and is being trained in Iran, and that this organization has been one of the forces influencing the Armenian government of Nagorno Karabakh.
In any case, Azerbaijan found itself quite isolated, both in the region and globally.56 With two powerful enemies - Russia and Iran - and only one reliable but cautious friend - Turkey - Azerbaijan fared very poorly in the war. By mid-1993, the ill-organized Azeri army was on the verge of disintegration, and the overthrow of President Elçibey took place with significant military involvement. The inability of the Elçibey government to control the armed forces and conduct a sensible foreign policy must to a great extent be attributed to the president's own inability to distance himself from his private, academic framework and to adopt the role of statesman. However, the government's failure and eventual downfall is equally attributable to the foreign actors working against it. Among these, Russia was doubtless the most active and determined one; nevertheless, Iran played its part. It did so not only by its direct actions, which by themselves would not have had a tremendous impact on Azerbaijan, but simply because its hostility left Azerbaijan nowhere to go: the West was uninterested, and Turkey was unable to help this newly emerging state.
If Iran and Russia counteracted Azerbaijan's interests with significant success in the Karabakh war, they have simultaneously helped to create a very unstable regional situation, with a conflict in deadlock. The overwhelming majority of observers believe that a negotiated solution will not and cannot be reached in Nagorno Karabakh as the situation is today. The option is that, within a few year’s time, oil-rich Azerbaijan will resort to military means to reassert control over the territory that it believes to be its own by right.57 Hence, the present situation is a highly volatile one. An awareness is growing in the region that if further bloodshed is to be avoided, international mediation efforts must effect an agreement in the near future.58
In case no permanent agreement is reached, Iran may find that its policy has had potentially dangerous side-effects. First of all, the risk of further conflict in its neighborhood means increased national security concerns. As is the case with all armed conflicts, it is impossible to know the ultimate scope of the conflict.
Many observers have warned that the Nagorno Karabakh war could become a starting point for a larger regional confrontation, which in the worst case would involve Russia, Turkey and Iran.59 Of these three, Iran is the most likely to be dragged into the conflict. First, it is the only regional power to border both Armenia and Azerbaijan; second, its sizable Azeri population remains a factor of instability.
For these reasons it seems to be in Tehran's direct interest to help find a solution to the Karabakh conflict. At times, its policy seems to show an awareness of this reality;60 however, all too often Iran finds itself involved in the intrigues and power politics of the region, due both to domestic and external factors.
THE TEHRAN-MOSCOW-YEREVAN TRIANGLE
The increased cooperation between Russia, Iran and Armenia has led to speculation regarding an emerging set of regional alignments. This has been strengthened by recent Russian complaints of an anti-Russian coalition of former Soviet republics. The foremost among these alignments is indeed the growing regional cooperation between Russia, Iran and Armenia. Quite clearly, the existence of such cooperation shows that the age of Realpolitik is not over, given the different worldviews of the principal actors. Russo-Iranian cooperation has been examined above, and the cooperation in the military, economic and political fields between Russia and Armenia is well-known. Events in recent years, moreover, tend to show that Armenia and Iran are developing ties in many fields and that their cooperation amounts to more than just the struggle against the common foe, Baku. As early as February 1992, the Armenian foreign minister visited Tehran and discussed the Karabakh conflict and purchases of natural gas, among other agreements on economic and technical cooperation.61 After this, open contacts were more rare until Azeri-Iranian relations deteriorated in 1995.
In May 1995, less than a month after Iran had been excluded from the Azerbaijani oil consortium, Armenian Prime Minister Bagratyan, on a visit to Tehran, concluded a number of agreements on economic and political cooperation.62 Most important, Iran agreed to supply Armenia with natural gas and electricity for a period of 20 years. This agreement is especially interesting, as Iran cut electricity supplies to Nakhichevan only three weeks after the deal, indicating that there was more than just an economic side to the growing relations between Armenia and Iran.63 Incidentally, Iran's close cooperation agreements with Russia were concluded only weeks after these developments. Iran simultaneously adopted a harsher tone towards Azerbaijan, warning it not to develop too-close ties with Israel, for example.64
Other high-level meetings discussing further bilateral cooperation were held in Yerevan in December 1996 and in Tehran in February 1997. The Iranian leadership also reiterated its readiness to mediate in Karabakh, something Azerbaijan is outspokenly against.
From an Azeri point of view, it is natural to see these accords and gestures of friendship as a threat to its security and as an attempt to corner Azerbaijan. However, the scope of this emerging triangle does not limit itself to Azerbaijan. One strong reason for the existence of this regional triangle seems to be a common wish to reduce and prevent a further increase of Turkey's influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, which troubles both Iran and Russia. From Yerevan's perspective, Turkey remains perhaps the greatest threat to Armenia's existence, and in any case a more powerful one than Azerbaijan.
In recent days, Moscow has been denouncing the emergence of an anti-Russian regional axis in the CIS. The nucleus of this axis is allegedly Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, all countries that have voiced complaints about Russia's hegemonic ambitions on the territory of the former Soviet Union.65 Uzbekistan is also periodically "included" in this anti-Russian coalition, perhaps being the Central Asian state that has most strongly asserted its independence from Moscow. Recently, however, Moldova seems to have joined this informal alignment which consequently has been known as GUAM, after the initials of the participant countries: Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova.
Russian conspiracy theorists naturally see Turkey's hand behind the number of bilateral agreements reached between these countries. At present, however, it seems unlikely that such an alignment exists in any articulated form in the minds of decision makers. However, the alignment indeed has a logic: All of these states have voiced their intentions to escape from Russia's sphere of influence, and cooperation between them would indeed serve this purpose. Furthermore, they all expect western and U.S. support. Turkey's perceived role as a regional American ally also fits into this picture and encourages these states to seek closer ties with that country. Hence the public Russian denunciations risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
In this case, two countervailing alignments may be emerging in the "Northern Tier" of the Middle East, one centered around Russia and the other around Turkey. The latter, if it comes into being, is likely to receive at least tacit support from the West, whereas an Iranian presence in the other will arouse Western suspicion. In such a regional constellation, Iran's role is crucial. In its international isolation, Tehran is desperately looking for regional allies, which for different practical reasons it has found in Russia and Armenia. Without Iranian participation, this system of alignments would have no purpose except as regards Russia's role in the region. But Iran, in its competition with Turkey and its struggle to resolve some vexing internal and external dilemmas, is one of the driving forces behind these developments.
It is too early to evaluate the actual strength of these regional concords. A pattern seems to be there, but the complexity of regional and domestic politics in the Caucasus and its neighboring states prevents any predictions. What is clear, for the moment, is that Russia, Iran and Armenia have a common interest that they are pursuing: to lessen Turkish influence in the region and to prevent the rise of an oil-rich Azerbaijani state. Whether Turkey is willing to answer this challenge, in view of its domestic problems and its Western alliance, is unknown. Turkish foreign policy since the establishment of the republic has been characterized by caution and a dislike for any kind of foreign adventurism.
As has been outlined above, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was an unwelcome surprise for Tehran, presenting totally new security challenges from its northern frontier. Instead of the predictable Soviet military threat, which had proved quite manageable, Iran was faced with a volatile set of ethnic conflicts in its proximity, which it had little ability to influence. To make matters worse, a considerable part of the Iranian population was potentially encompassed by these conflicts, something which in the worst case could prove to be a threat to the very existence of the Iranian state. Decision makers in Tehran soon concluded that Azerbaijan was the main threat to Iranian security. They therefore immersed themselves in the intrigues and complexities of Caucasian regional politics, in order to prevent the flourishing of the Azerbaijani state. At first sight, this strategy may seem to have been successful. However, a side-effect has been the exacerbation of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, which at present poses a medium-term threat not only to Iran's security but to peace and stability in the entire region.
Iranian policy towards the Caucasus reveals the difficult geopolitical situation in which the Islamic Republic finds itself. In its difficult quest to find allies in its proximity, Iran cannot help but become involved in extremely risky maneuvers.
1 For an overview of the competition between Turkey and Iran for influence in Central Asia and the Causasus, see Philip Robins, "Silent Competition: Iran and Turkey in Azerbaijan and Central Asia," Etniske Konjlikter I Sentral-Asia of Kaukasus, Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, No. 172, (September 1993), pp. 111-123.
2 Although the Turkish population is mainly Sunni Muslin, it should be noted that over 20% of the Turks belong to the Alevi sect, which belongs mainly to Twelver Shii Islam, but is based on a syncretistic belief particular to Anatolia, and hence very different from Iranian Twelver Shiism.
3 For the history of Azerbaijan, and the contacts between the two parts of the Azeri nation, see Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan--A Borderland In Transition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995). See also by the same author, Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of National Identity in a Muslim Community, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
4 For an overview of Turkey's policy in the Caucasus, see Suha Bolukbasi, "Ankara's Baku-Centered Transcaucasia Policy: Has it Failed?" Middle East Journal, (January 1997).
5 For an account of Turkey's policy towards the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, see Svante Cornell, "A Delicate Balance: Turkey and the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict," Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, (January 1998), pp. 55-72.
6 For an early account of the outbreak of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, see Tamara Dragadze, "The Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: Structure and Sentiment," Third World Quarterly, No. 2, 1989; for a later overview of the nature of the conflict and its historical background, see Arie Vaserman and Rami Ginat, "National, Religious or Territorial Conflict? The Case of Nagorno Karabakh," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, No. 4, 1994. For the international attitudes to the conflict and its legal aspects, see Svante Cornell, "Undeclared War--the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict Reconsidered," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, (Summer 1997).
7 "Enclave Builds a Lifeline Out of Azerbaijan," International Herald Tribune, September 20, 1996.
8 On the Russo-Persian wars, see Muriel Atkin, Russia and Iran 1780-1828, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980).
9 Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951).
10 For an overview of the period, see Stephen Blank, "The Transcaucasian Federation and the Origins of the Soviet Union, 1921-22," Central Asian Survey, No. 4, (1990).
11 See Fred Halliday, "Condemned to React, Unable to Influence: Iran and Transcaucasia," Transcaucasian Boundaries, John F. Wright, Suzanne Goldenberg and Richard Schoefield, eds., (London: UCL Press, 1996), p. 75.
12 Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, pp. 20-24.
13 Halliday, pg. 75.
14 See Firozeh Nahavandi, "Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan: The Historic Origins of Iranian Foreign Policy," in Contested Borders in the Caucasus, Bruno Coppetiers, ed. (Brussels: VUB Press, 1996).
15 A good account of the Azerbaijan question in this era is Touraj Atabaki, Azerbaijan: Ethnicity and Autonomy in Twentieth-Century Iran, (British Academic Press, 1993).
16 This episode has been the subject of quite some academic attention. See, for example, Louise Fawcett, Iran and the Cold War: The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1945, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
17 Halliday, pp. 76-79.
18 See Nahavandi.
19 "Irredentist Campaign Among Azeris in Iran" OMRI (Open Media Research Institute, Prague) Daily Digest, ( September 3, 1996). The option of incorporating Northern Azerbaijan into Iran, although sympathetic to the Iranian rulers, is seen by some observers as being as dangerous for Iran as Azerian secessionism; the addition of six million Azeris would actually put the latter more at par demographically with Farsi-speakers in the Iranian population.
20 See Nahavandi, "Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan."
21 Halliday, p. 80.
22 For a discussion of ethnic mobilization, see, for example, Ted R. Gurr and Barbara Harff, Ethnic Conflict in World Politics, (Boulder & Oxford: Westview Press, 1994).
23 "Iran Demands Extradition," OMRI Daily Digest, (September 10, 1996).
24 For an overview of the problems of Iran, see Ahmed Hashim, The Crisis of the Iranian State, (Adelphi Paper, No. 296, 1995).
25 Chris Kutschera; "Azerbaijan: The Kuwait of the Caucasus?" The Middle East, London, (March 1996).
26 Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, "Iran's Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis," Contested Borders in the Caucasus, Bruno Coppetiers, ed. (Brussels: VUB Press, 1996).
27 BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, (November 13, 1993).
28 Dilip Hiro, Between Marx and Muhammad-The Changing Face of Central Asia, (London: Harper-Collins, 1997), p. 293. .
29 Takmil Homayun, "Negahi be Gharabagh Dar Masire Tarikhe Iran." Motaleaat Asiaye Markazi wa Ghafghaz, Vol. 2, No. l, (Summer 1993). Quoted in Ramezanzadeh, "Iran's Role As Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis."
30 Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), South Asia, (March 10, 1992).
31 Dilip Hiro, "The Azerbaijan Question." The Nation, (September 14, 1992).
32 Thomas Goltz, "Letter from Eurasia: The Hidden Russian Hand," Foreign Policy, No. 92, (Fall 1993).
33 Interestingly, certain Turkish observers claim that Turkey was involved in the coup. As Elçibey's fall from power was perceived as a great setback for Turkey in the entire Caucasus, such statements seem highly illogical. The argument, however, is that Turkey had realized Elçibey's inability to handle the government, and hence needed him removed as he was doing more harm than good. Such theories are naturally highly questionable and rather seem to be face-saving gestures over an obvious failure to keep an ally in power.
34 Tadeusz Swietochowski, "The Spirit of Baku," Central Asia Monitor, No. 4, (1993).
35 See Joseph A. Kechichian and Theodore W. Karasik, "The Crisis in Azerbaijan: How Clans Influence the Politics of an Emerging Republic," Middle East Policy, (Summer 1996), pp. 64-65.
36 "Iran Cuts Electricity to Nakhichevan" OMRI Daily Digest, (May 30, 1995).
37 BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, (March 16, 1993).
38 Nazlan Ertan, "Baku-Ceyhan: Pipeline or Pipe Dream," Turkish Probe, (May 17, 1996), pp. 19-20.
39 "Iran Opts Out Of Shakh-Deniz," OMRI Daily Digest, (December 11, 1995).
40 "Iran Finally Agrees to Stake in Shah-Deniz," OMRI Daily Digest, (May 13, 1996).
41 OMRI Analytical Brief, (June 26, 1996).
42 Mehrdad Mohsenin, "Iran's Relations with Central Asia and the Caucasus," Iranian Journal of International Affairs, (Fall 1995).
43 For an overview of the issues of oil politics in the Caspian, see Elaine Holoboff, "Russia and Oil Politics in the Caspian," Jane's Intelligence Review, (February 1996). For a legal overview, see A. Oude Elferink, "Maritime Boundary Delimitations of the Russian Federation," Journal of Maritime and Coastal Law, No. 1, (1997), pp. 25-27.
44 For a legal opinion stressing this principle, see Bruce M. Clagett, "Ownership of Seabed and Subsoil Resources in the Caspian Sea under the Rule of International Law," Caspian Crossroads, (Summer/Fall 1995). See also "Talks in Tehran on Caspian," OMRI Daily Digest, (July 3, 1995).
45 "Iran, Russia, and Oil," OMRI Daily Digest, (June 1, 1995).
46 "Russia, Iran, and Oil," OMRI Dairy Digest, (July 18, 1995).
47 "Russia, Iran to Draw Up New Legal Status for Caspian," OMRI Daily Digest, (October 24, 1995).
48 See Edmund Herzig, Iran and the Former Soviet South (London: Royal Institute for International Affairs, London, 1995), pp. 28-44.
49 See Herzig, Iran and the Former Soviet South, p. 30.
50 For a discussion of the issue, see Charles H. Fairbanks, "The Post-communist Wars," Journal of Democracy, October 1995.
51 See Ramezanzadeh, "Iran's Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis."
52 See discussion in Halliday, "Condemned to React," pp.84-85.
53 See Ramezanzadeh, "Iran's Role as Mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis."
54 See Halliday, pg. 84.
55 For an account of Armenian terrorism, see Michael M. Gunter, "The Armenian Terrorist Campaign Against Turkey," in Orbis, Summer 1983.
56 See Cornell, "Undeclared War."
57 See Svante E. Cornell, "The Unruly Caucasus," in Current History, Vol. 96, No. 612, October 1997.
58 See Svante E. Cornell, "Peace or War? The Prospects of Conflicts in the Caucasus," in Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 1997.
59 See discussion in Vaserman and Ginat, "National, Territorial, or Religious Conflict?"
60 See Halliday, "Condemned to React," Herzig, Iran and the Former Soviet South, pp. 29-30.
61 See Herzig, Iran and the Former Soviet South, p. 21.
62 "Armenia, Iran Sign Cooperation Agreements," OMRI Daily Digest (May 10, 1995).
63 "Iran Cuts Electricity to Nakhichevan," OMRI Daily Digest (May 30, 1995).
64 "Iran to Azerbaijan: No Ties to Israel," OMRI Daily Digest (August 10, 1995).
65 For an account of Russia's intervention in the internal matters of CIS states, see Fiona Hill and Pamela Jewett, Back in the USSR-Russia's Intervention in the Internal Affairs of the Former Soviet Republics and the Implications for United States Policy toward Russia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, January 1994).
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.