Iran’s Role and Place in Armenia and in Azerbaijan
Countries’ geopolitical and geostrategic locations certainly play a significant role in their state-to-state relationship.
To comprehensively analyze the relations between Iran, on the one hand, and its neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan on the other, it is important first and foremost to briefly assess their geopolitical assets, under which material and non-material capabilities, including country’s geographical placement, natural resources, economic potential, territory, population, national solidarity, psychology and other characters are being taken into account.
Iran is one of the regional powers in the Middle East; and as from geopolitical perspective it is probably the most advantageous country by its reserves of hydrocarbon and mineral resources, as well as geographical position. By land and maritime borders it neighbors with 16 countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. Some Western economists believe that Iran can become a Middle Eastern “Brazil” thanks to its population’s number, intellectual potential and achievements recorded in different scientific spheres. Given this advantageous geopolitical location, Iran will surely benefit from the final agreement to be signed within “Iran-5+1” format on its nuclear program.
However, Iran has also vulnerabilities due to its multinational composition or water-shortness despite the presence of border rivers, which sometimes threaten to its national security. Isa Kalantari, the adviser for water, agriculture and the environment to Iran’s Vice President, announced at the press conference on April 26, that by continuing to exploit 97% of country’s surface water, Iran has practically dried up the rivers. He also warned that if Iran doesn't cut its water exploitation in half, the country could see a mass exodus, and “approximately 50 million people, 70% of Iranians, will have no choice but to leave the country.” (Iran official warns water crisis could lead to mass migration, 27April 2015).
Although the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, the biggest South Caucasian country, is again favorable in terms of energy resources and geographical placement, however, its vulnerabilities are also numerous – lack of territorial unity, existing issues of nation-building and national minorities, and serious deficit of fresh water. Since the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is the second water-rich country after Georgia in the region, Azerbaijan’s ambitions to regain it might equally be explained from this standpoint as well.
Armenia, being the smallest country in South Caucasus, is of strategic significance because of its advantageous geographic placement in the region. With its geopolitical location it excludes the unification of Turkish-populated territories that threatens Iran’s territorial integrity. Perhaps, Iran’s interest to see Armenia powerful and independent is also derived from this factor.
In addition, Armenia is distinguished by its intellectual potential and by population homogeneity, which are lacking in neighboring countries. Apparently, by its freshwater reserves, Armenia is also in more favorable condition, than its neighbors. Arpa, Aghstev and Debed rivers flowing from Armenia to Azerbaijan maybe used as a lever against Baku, as Turkey used, and is still using it against Syria and Iraq through excessive usage of water reserves of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
There are certain preconditions to develop close, friendly relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan as well. However, from the very start they are developing with serious fluctuations given the distrust between the two. Nevertheless, the Iranian side displays more willingness in establishing close relationship and has repeatedly stated that there is a serious ground for friendly ties between Iran and Azerbaijan:
a)both countries have enormous historical, cultural and religious congenialities; b)Azerbaijan is the second Shia country in the Islamic world after Iran; c)about 20-30 million Azerbaijani population lives in Iran, d)giving a privilege to Islamic countries is one of Iran’s foreign policy key priorities.
What is more, president Hassan Rouhani stressed the importance of relationships with neighboring countries in Iran’s foreign relations.
Nevertheless, adherence of Shia by both countries and 20-30 million Azerbaijanis population in Iran are the major reasons for mutual distrust between the two. Baku feels an anxiety, that following Iran’s example, the Shia clergy will overthrow the secular regime in Azerbaijan through revolution. Having territorial ambitions towards Iran originally, Azerbaijan, sometimes explicitly or implicitly, strives for instigating separatism in Azerbaijani-populated province of Iran. Even so, the Iranian side is inclined to reason the improper development of bilateral relations by close ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, in particular, by allowing Tel Aviv to act against Iran from its territory.
Baku has its own solid reasons to restrain territorial claims or at least not to intensify an explicit propaganda against Iran and establish good neighborly relations with it. First, land connection with Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic is possible only through the territory of Iran, which provides comprehensive support to Azerbaijani exclave. Secondly, Tats and Talishes of Iranian origin, living in Azerbaijan, are completely deprived of their rights as national minorities, and secessionist moods among Talishes have been distinctly outspoken.
It’s noteworthy, if “Iran-5+1” negotiations are concluded by signing a final agreement, then the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, as well as some Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, will considerably weaken. Recent aspirations of Baku to improve and expand its relations with Tehran are conditioned by this factor as well.
Taking into account the mutual benefit, the ties between Armenia and Iran supposedly should have recorded a rapid progress year after year. However, in fact, they have been developed irrelevant to available opportunities and potential due to a range of factors:
a) Influence of external factors on the Republic of Armenia, which is inevitable in case of such a small, but at the same time geopolitically important country; b) Armenia’s Christianity in the context of conflict between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan; a factor which both Azerbaijan and some Muslim countries speculate, demanding Tehran not to support Yerevan, and even to exert pressure on the latter in favor of Baku. Moreover, some interested countries and forces sought for Iran’s direct involvement in military clashes, ascribing religious dimension to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; c) pressure on the government of Iran by some Azerbaijani circles; d) the extreme left and right streams of Iran’s Islamic political system, which not only position themselves against close relations between Iran and Armenia, but even criticize Armenia’s geopolitical location, splitting the Islamic world. Whereas, as already mentioned, it comes from the interests of Iran’s national security (Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper, 5 August 1995).
As a result, the economic turnover between two countries comprises just USD 200 million, and construction of Iran-Armenia gas pipeline, which can make Armenia a transit country, was delayed for 12 years. In addition, “North-South” highway and “Iran-Armenia” railway, as well as a hydropower plant on the Araks river as major joint projects, are on the agendas of two countries, though the construction of the second is still under question.
No doubt, after lifting sanctions against Iran, favorable conditions will emerge to expand relations between Armenia and Iran, and, under this circumstances Armenia can even be regarded as an alternative and safer transit route to export Iranian gas. In spite of this, one can hardly imagine that serious changes in bilateral relations of the two countries to happen, although earlier the West turned a blind eye on developing economic ties between Armenia and Iran under strict sanctions, taking into account the insignificant volume of Armenia’s market and its blockade. In this regard Stefan Meister, an energy expert of the German Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Iran supplies some gas and electricity to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, but the European Union and the USA don’t complain of it on account of their small volume. (www.dw.de, 5 December 2012).
In other words, if there is political will on both sides, there won’t be any iron curtain against developing ties between two countries, particularly, investing in Armenia and realizing joint projects of strategic importance. Especially, when likewise steps will boost Armenia’s development, which is in line with the national security interests of Iran.
“Improving Armenia’s Security Policy Debates” Program (NED)
The Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs (AIISA)