Hamidreza Azizi

Iran and Russia in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Areas of Cooperation and Causes of Conflict

Date of publication : March 18, 2018 08:24 am
Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L), President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (2nd R), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2nd L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (3rd L) attend a meeting after the ninth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan on March 16, 2018

As two regions at the immediate neighborhood of both Iran and Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus have always been of special interest for Tehran and Moscow alike. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize the areas of converging and diverging interests between the two countries as well as the factors affecting their relations in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Areas of converging interests:
1) Economic multilateralism: Given Russia’s declared willingness to consider a role to play for Iran in the Eurasian Economic Union as well as Iran’s desire to expand and diversify the areas of its economic interactions after the 2015 Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), this area could be regarded as a potential for Iran-Russia cooperation in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
2) Transit: Moscow and Tehran have recently shown a strong willingness to cooperate in the area of transit. In this vein, the North-South Transport Corridor has been once again taken into account by the both sides. The transit issue has been also an important part of the agenda of the regular meetings between the presidents of Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan.
3) Regional security: Due to the geographical proximity of Central Asia and the Caucasus to Iran and Russia and the possibility of the transmission of insecurity and instability to these two countries, both of them are sensitive toward the security situation in the region.
4) Trying to resolve the regional crises: Any revitalization or exacerbation of the existing crises in the region could threaten the overall status of stability in the region and consequently, the Iranian and Russian interests. However, the extent to which Iran could play a role in helping resolve the regional crises has always been dependent on the Russian approach and whether Russia is ready to consider a role for Iran to play in this regard.
5) Trying to contain the influence of the trans-regional powers: Both Iran and Russia see the presence and influence of the trans-regional powers, especially the United States, in Central Asia and the Caucasus as a potential threat to their interests.
Areas of conflicting interests
1) Energy transition to Europe: Although the level of energy interactions between Iran and Central Asian states has been so far limited, given the fact that Russia’s priority is to maintain its monopoly over energy export to Europe and the development of Iran’s energy interactions with the region could, in the long run, replace Russia’s energy transit route to Europe with that of Iran, Moscow is by no means in favor of such interactions.
2) Russia’s desire to maintain its exclusive influence in its “Near Abroad”: Russia’s desire to preserve its monopoly in different sectors in Central Asia and the Caucasus limits the potentials for any real and effective presence of any other actor. 3- Russia’s sensitivity to Iran’s religious influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Although over the past two decades it’s been proved that Iran does not have any specific ideological agenda to promote its own version of political Islam in Central Asia and theCaucasus and at the same time, the Sunni-dominated societies of Central Asia basically are not good targets for such a goal, Russia’s suspicion to the issue is still in place.
Main factors affecting Iran-Russia interactions in Central Asia and the Caucasus
1) The Western factor: The nature of the relationship between Iran and Russia on the one hand and the West on the other hand, is a determining factor in their interactions in common neighboring territories. However, it could be said that with regard to Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Western factor has always had a kind of “dual role”, meaning that at some points it has limited the potential for Iran-Russia interactions and in some others, has expanded the potential.
2) The Middle East factor: Russia’s military campaign in Syria since September 2015 was a turning point in its foreign and military policy after the Cold War, which, due to the shared interests with Iran in some basic aspects of the issue, put Moscow in a process of partnership (sectoral partnership) with Iran. Regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus, it could be said that at least at the current situation, the Syrian issue has led to the creation of a level of trust-building – at least at the political level – between Iran and Russia which reduces Russia’s sensitivity to the expansion of Iran’s relations with the counties in its “Near Abroad”.
3) The level of pragmatism and realism in the two countries: Generally speaking, it could be said that the dominance of pragmatist approaches in the foreign policies of both Iran and Russia during the past several years, has led them to have a more realistic view to the areas of their converging and diverging interests and try to develop their relationship based on their common interests.

© Institute for Regional Studies (IRS)

Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.

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Author : Hamidreza Azizi