Turkish-Iranian rivalry in the Caucasus undermines cooperation
At a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who was visiting Iran for the first time since he assumed his post in June, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last Sunday stressed the need to stand against the presence of “foreign parties” in the Caucasus, calling for cooperation and negotiation to settle the differences among the conflicting parties. The Iranian president’s strong emphasis on the foreign presence in this region should be understood within a broader context that includes both Tehran’s foreign policy toward the Caucasus and the perception of Turkiye’s role there.
The South Caucasus, which includes three small states, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, has often been prone to instability and tension. What makes the situation more complicated is that these countries are surrounded by larger neighbors, namely Turkiye, Iran and Russia, which have high stakes in the region.
As a consequence of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, which ended with a victory for Azerbaijan over Armenia thanks to Turkiye’s support, Iran’s influence in the region started to fade. Meanwhile, Russia is tied up on the Ukraine front, meaning it now has less influence on developments in the Caucasus. For Iran, one of the main consequences of the Ukraine war is that it has led Moscow to turn away from the Caucasus, throwing off the delicate geopolitical balance in favor of Turkiye.
Moreover, despite having fragile relationships with both Russia and Iran, Turkiye is ultimately a NATO member state that is increasing its role and influence in the Caucasus, which is historically considered as Russia’s backyard. And greater influence in Azerbaijan provides a gateway for Ankara to extend its reach beyond the Caucasus, toward the Caspian Sea and further into Central Asia. Thus, Iran aims to limit Turkiye’s influence and somehow try to reshape the balance in the Caucasus according to its own national interests.
One of the main consequences of the Ukraine war is that it has led Moscow to turn away from the Caucasus
It is no secret that there is an ongoing strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkiye for power and influence in the Caucasus — and this rivalry has an ethnic dimension that even threatens the borders in this region.
In the past few years, empowered by victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijan has increased its rhetoric regarding the protection of the Azeris living in Iran. President Ilham Aliyev’s statements identifying the Azeris in Iran as “part of its people” have irked Tehran. Azerbaijan has also launched military drills near the Iranian border, with one of the largest dubbed as “Brother’s Fist,” which also irritated Tehran. For Iran, the border with Azerbaijan is perceived through a security perspective. Iran’s military exercises near the border in 2021 and 2022 should be evaluated in this context, as they were an apparent warning to Baku not to annex key Armenian land.
In addition, Azerbaijan’s deepening relations with Israel in recent years has been one of the main sources of contention between Baku and Tehran. In late March, Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Israel for the first time — a move that followed a rise in military relations between the two countries. Following this, in early April, Azerbaijan expelled four Iranian diplomats, resulting in Tehran’s reciprocal action a month later. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh became the turning point for Tehran, which is well aware that Azerbaijan’s victory against Armenia could not have been achieved without Turkish and Israeli support and Russia’s inability to prevent Armenia’s defeat. Now, Iran sees a weak Armenia that seeks rapprochement with Turkiye, while an empowered Azerbaijan cultivates closer ties with Israel and Ankara aims to shape the developments in the region in its favor.
Despite the diminishing Russian influence in the region, the US does not seem to want to fill that vacuum. This is due to two factors. The first is that Azerbaijan is not an actor that would rely on the US at the expense of its close ties with Moscow. Secondly, for the US, with its pivot to Asia strategy, the tension-prone Caucasus is not a priority. This automatically leaves the region to two Middle Eastern powers: Iran and Turkiye.
In its latest diplomatic foray into Caucasus politics, Iran endorsed peace talks between Baku and Yerevan
Within this context, Iran is trying to rely on its diplomatic skills to manage its tacit rivalry with Turkiye. In its latest diplomatic foray into Caucasus politics, Iran endorsed peace talks between Baku and Yerevan. In so doing, it aimed to achieve the following goals: to ease heightened tensions with Azerbaijan, to avoid pushing Baku further toward Israel, to take the mediator role away from Turkiye, and to protect its interests in the Caucasus. For many years, Tehran kept a relatively low profile in this region in order to avoid provoking a Russian reaction. However, it now lacks the leverage that Turkiye, or even Russia, has on Azerbaijan.
The Iranian-Turkish rivalry in the Caucasus also has an economic dimension. Turkiye’s efforts to link up with Central Asia via the Caspian Sea are perceived as a direct challenge to Iranian economic interests. The Zangezur corridor, which is part of a larger project aimed at connecting Baku to Istanbul via Armenian land, is a good example in this regard.
Iran’s continuous emphasis on the “foreign presence” and its warnings against “border changes” and the “blocking of existing transit routes” in the South Caucasus should be read while taking into account all of these dimensions. Thus, Iranian foreign policy toward the region is intertwined with its domestic security and the regional balance of power.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz