BACKGROUND: These relationships are by no means merely secondary or academic questions even if the Middle East is a more critical strategic venue than the South Caucasus and/or Central Asia. For example, reports are emanating of Moscow’s desire to propose Iran as a member in the expanding Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) if it accepts the treaty and to sell it advanced conventional weapons technology for air defenses, obviously against Israel and the U.S., as well as nuclear reactor technology. Iranian acquisition of these technologies and SCO membership status would dramatically change its status and capabilities vis-a-vis both the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and would enhance its nuclear capabilities whether or not it plans at present to break out of an agreement. Until now, existing SCO members have been reluctant to invite Iran as a full member to avoid obligations to potentially defend Iran, especially a nuclear Iran, against Western threats. Moreover, all SCO members are aware of Iran’s formidable assets that can potentially be deployed for purposes of insurgency and Jihad in their countries. While they may welcome opportunities to trade with Iran, especially in energy, they certainly do not wish to take on Iran’s “baggage.”
For Azerbaijan in particular, the possibility of Iran joining the SCO with what is widely believed to be a ten year clear road to acquiring a nuclear weapon as sanctions are lifted, is a very complicated problem. Baku has never sought to provoke Tehran, but has been the victim of Iranian threats against energy exploration in the Caspian, Iran’s refusal to demarcate the Caspian Sea along with the littoral states, and terrorist plots aimed at Azerbaijani citizens, the government, and even Israeli diplomats there. Iranian provocations reached their height in 2012-13, when four terrorist plots were exposed. These exposures, plus the pressure of foreign sanctions and the inauguration of the Rouhani government, which has a very different approach, have all led to a détente or rapprochement between Iran and Azerbaijan since 2013.
Despite the rapprochement, including ministerial and even head of state visits, and improved economic contacts, Azerbaijan’s government remains extremely watchful and wary of Iran. For all its seeming moderation and the fact that it has stepped back from active incitement of insurgency and regime change, Iran continues to mount vicious propaganda against Baku. Iranian media recently broadcast a scurrilous attack on Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov, also including the usual anti-Semitic ravings associated with Iran. Such episodes suggest that Iran’s moderation might be superficial.
IMPLICATIONS: The question of Iran gradually freeing itself of the encumbrance of sanctions, enjoying growing Russian (and Chinese) support, and becoming both economically and militarily stronger, presents a major quandary for Azerbaijan. Will Iran support demarcation of the Caspian Sea, allowing for systematic exploitation of Caspian energy resources by all of its littoral members or will it continue to obstruct and even threaten Azerbaijani and other projects there? Will Iran resume a vigorous program of clandestine gun-running and incitement to Jihadis against Baku’s domestic policies, which Iranian leaders believe are anti-Islamic? Will Iran support Armenia against Azerbaijan even more strongly than has hitherto been the case as regards the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh? Nobody can know the answer to these questions and because Iran’s past track record is so negative, there is undoubtedly considerable apprehension in Baku and other capitals concerning Iran’s future trajectory.
Azerbaijan is not the only interested party here. In its campaign to reduce tensions around Iran’s periphery, the Rouhani government has stepped up ties with Turkmenistan and needs Turkmen gas to straighten out its own tangled energy affairs. But if that need diminishes, will it still need Turkmenistan and will Ashgabat be able to forge a workable relationship with a reinvigorated Iran? Will Tehran block Turkmenistan’s efforts to exploit the Caspian Sea and forge the decisive link with Azerbaijan in the Southern gas corridor to Europe? Again, these are unanswered and potentially troubling questions.
The West’s relative silence about the potential impact of an agreement with Iran on these agendas suggests a continuing failure to assign issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia their proper weight or take sufficient interest in regional trends. The issue of the southern gas corridor is certainly a vital one for Europe if it hopes to escape excessive dependence upon Russian gas exports in the future. The issue of the Southern gas corridor and the related issue of Caspian demarcation are shaping up as major economic-political backgrounds between Russia and West. The role of Iran in this drama will be of considerable importance.
On the one hand, an Iran at terms with the West might become available not only for investment in energy infrastructure but also for inclusion in the so called Southern Gas Corridor, using pipelines either through the Caspian or directly through Turkey. Alternatively, to the extent that Iran feels dependent on Russia, it may choose not to allow exploitation of the Caspian in the form of an underwater pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and then on to Europe. And if Iran retains its commitment to the dissemination of a Shiite Jihadi struggle throughout the Middle East and countries like Azerbaijan; will it then consider prioritizing its foreign economic policy to benefit the West? There has been little or no discussion publicly of these momentous issues. Instead, there is a fog of polemics in Washington over partisan political warfare between Congress and President Obama and around the issue of Israel. Despite the importance of Iran’s posture towards Israel and its neighbors in the Gulf, those are clearly not the only issues on the table.
The West appears to be dithering in its typical fashion and losing sight of other important issues pertaining to the future role of Iran in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Meanwhile, we can be sure that these issues are not forgotten by officials in these states, Iran, its neighbors, and Russia. To raise their importance as they might appear after an agreement with Iran is not to argue one way or another for the terms of the pending agreement as we now know them. Rather, it is to emphasize the task of thinking hard about what the West wants in these areas whose future development is intricately bound up with the West’s own economic-political future and with developments in key countries like Turkey and Russia.
The energy issues alone are of vital importance to the West but they are by no means the only ones of importance. How do we restrain or stop Iran from continuing to incite terrorism and Jihad among its neighbors? Can we find a way to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict before Iran might decide to intervene again, potentially in a decisive way, on behalf of either Armenia or, less conceivably, Azerbaijan? Can we prevent a Russian or Sino-Russian entente with Iran against the West, a formation that would have profound repercussions throughout the entire Post-Soviet space? And how do we ensure that Iran does not again become a major military threat to all of its neighbors?
CONCLUSIONS: By every account, Iran seems to aspire to play the role of the leading power, i.e. the hegemon in its neighborhood. The question is whether that role is compatible with Western interests not only in the Middle East but also in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. It is a mark of the failure of Western statecraft with regard to both Russia and Iran, as well as to those two regions, that so little thought is being devoted to the analysis and consideration of these issues on the eve of what will be a momentous new stage in Iran’s ties with its neighbors. The issue is not whether we are for or against the treaty, but whether or not we will grasp that the developments that will begin to ensue after an agreement with Iran will not only be of immense importance for the Middle East but for the entire Central Asia and South Caucasus regions and beyond – as the energy issue shows – for the West as a whole.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Image Attribution: Deviantart