Al-monitor — Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, hosted the presidents of Iran and Russia on Aug. 8 for the first trilateral summit of the three countries. The three leaders reached agreements on a range of issues, from efforts to pave the way for the development of the North-South Transit Corridor, to coordinating their fight against terrorism and extremism.
On the bilateral level, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Azerbaijan could also be seen as the beginning of a new era in Baku-Tehran relations. Indeed, among other developments, the Azerbaijani government agreed for the first time to facilitate entry visa issuance for Iranian citizens.
If the achievements during the Baku summit are put in the context of Iran’s broader ties with its northern neighborhood, it appears that relations are entering an unprecedented phase. For instance, earlier this year the Georgian government removed visa requirements for Iranian citizens — restrictions that strikingly were imposed just years prior. Indeed, Iran and Georgia have in past years been engaged in serious negotiations to expand bilateral cooperation, especially in the energy sector. Armenia, another South Caucasus country, has also experienced a thaw in its relations with Iran. On Aug. 13, it was announced that the visa waiver agreement between Tehran and Yerevan has entered the implementation phase. To its northeast, Iran’s relations with the Central Asian republics have also been considerably growing in past years. The latter has been symbolized in the 2014 inauguration of the railroad connecting Iran with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Iran’s diplomatic success in the Caucasus and Central Asia comes at a time when the situation in another neighboring region, namely the Arab Middle East and the Persian Gulf, is growing increasingly challenging for Tehran. Not only have past tensions in this region continued, but in some important cases — including ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia — there has been an unrelenting escalation of hostility. Thus, why has Iran been able to secure unprecedented diplomatic achievements in the South Caucasus and Central Asia but not in the Arab Middle East? There are five main answers to this important question.
First, it should be noted that almost all of Iran’s diplomatic focus during the first two years of Rouhani’s presidency was on the nuclear negotiations with the six world powers, which ended in success. Thus, serious maneuvering on other dossiers was delayed. In fact, in the Rouhani administration’s view, resolving the nuclear issue was seen as key to the greater aim of improving Iran’s relations with the world.
Second, the differing structures of the regional orders in the Middle East as well as Central Asia and the South Caucasus have played an important role in determining the success of Iranian diplomacy. Seen through the lens of the so-called regional security complex theory, it can be argued that the prevailing regional order in the Middle East is mainly pillared on Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — each of which is continuously vying for the upper hand in a game focused on balance of power. In this fundamentally competitive environment, any type of cooperation is inherently difficult. In contrast, the structure of the regional order in the former Soviet Union is rather unipolar and greatly built on Moscow playing the role of a nexus for regional interactions. In this context, nations that enjoy favorable relations with Russia are predisposed to benefit from more room for maneuvering in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. In this equation, Iran’s increasingly positive relations with Russia in recent years have thus been an important factor in the improvement of Tehran’s relations with former Soviet republics.
Third, Iran’s approach toward Central Asia and the South Caucasus has under Rouhani become greatly pragmatic and based on pursuit of economic interests. This is evident in the nature of the agreements and collaboration between the sides, which greatly focuses on boosting trade and economic cooperation. Meanwhile, Iran’s approach toward the Middle East is dominated by considerations related to ideology and security. For instance, the relationship — and rivalry — between Iran and Saudi Arabia is greatly driven by the two countries’ different agendas for the leadership of the Muslim world — a leadership position that they dispute. Iran also sees its actions in West Asia as geared toward preventing the collapse of the regional balance of power, thus making its perception of regional developments greatly security-oriented.
Fourth, the United States plays fundamentally different roles in the Arab Middle East compared to the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Indeed, US interests in the latter two regions are in no way comparable in terms of weight and strategic importance when contrasted with the Middle East. While one of the main goals of US policy in the Middle East is to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran, its primary focus in the former Soviet republics has been on the containment of Russia. As such, since the “Iran factor” does not play an independent role in the latter, Tehran faces less obstacles from Washington in its pursuit of engagement with its northern neighbors.
Fifth, cultural factors play an important role in the shaping of Iran’s relations with its neighbors. The nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus have strong historical and civilizational ties with Iran. In contrast to the Arab Middle East, there is an absence of historical and ethnic feuds, such as the Arab-Iranian rift. Thus, the “social infrastructure” in these countries — meaning the intellectual environment, general attitudes in the media and public opinion — is comparably rather conducive to the development of relations with Iran.
Expanding relations with Central Asia and the South Caucasus could indeed contribute to increasing Iran’s economic clout in the post-sanctions era while also offering Iran an opportunity to play an active and influential diplomatic role. Indeed, in the long term, the development of Iran’s relations with its northern neighbors may in itself become a tool that Tehran can use to further strengthen its broader international position — including in the Middle East. However, such a development remains far on the horizon given the many and varied obstacles to Iranian diplomacy in the Arab Middle East.