Opinion: Under President Raisi, Iran remains very interested in the South Caucasus, and in remaining a player in the region

The presence in Tehran of the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, for the inauguration of incoming-president Ebrahim Raisi underscored the significance of relations with Iran for Armenia in the post-2020 Karabakh war context, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu, where he also discusses Iran's deep interest in the South Caucasus region.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran has been one of the key players in the South Caucasus. It has viewed the region mainly through the prism of its relations with the US. From this perspective, the main goal of Tehran was the prevention of the US efforts to use the region for any anti-Iranian activities. In this context, Iran perceived the growth of Russian influence in the region as a positive development, given the zero-sum mentality of US-Russia relations in the post-Soviet world. A more assertive Russia means a weaker US in the South Caucasus, and this formula was entirely in line with Iranian national interests.

Thus, Iran tacitly accepted substantial Russian influence in Armenia while considering the expanding US influence in Georgia and deepening Azerbaijan-Israel ties as a source of concern. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal had the potential to shift these dynamics. The US lifted some of its sanctions on Iran and hinted at its willingness to move forward with coming to terms with Tehran on other issues, such as Iran's regional policy and its ballistic missile program. However, President Trump's decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal brought back the previous US-Iran relations pattern. The US launched its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran with tough economic sanctions and targeted strikes against top Iranian targets, which culminated in January 2020 in the assassination of the Qud's force commander, Soleimani.

President Trump's policy has significantly impacted the domestic politics of Iran. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, there has been a tacit struggle between the Supreme Leader and the presidents of Iran for influence inside the country. According to the constitution, the Supreme Leader enjoys unlimited powers in Iran. Since assuming that position in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has pursued a hardline foreign and domestic policy using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the primary driver of his power base. Meanwhile, some political forces sought to use the Presidency as a balance against the Supreme leader to push forward a relatively moderate policy. The struggle between Supreme Leader and moderate forces peaked during the Presidency of Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Khatami (1997-2005), and Rouhani (2013-2021). There was a bitter struggle between the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad during the latter’s second term as president (2009-2013), despite Ahmadinejad never having been part of the moderate political faction.

President Rouhani pushed forward the policy of normalising relations with the US, arguing that it was the only way to overcome the economic crisis and secure the sustainable development of Iran. However, President Trump's 2018 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal delivered a severe blow to the camp of moderates. The “regime change” policy almost openly pursued by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo convinced even many moderates that there could be no actual accommodation with the US. President Trump's policy has significantly increased the influence of hardliners inside Iran and predetermined the easy victory of the conservative politician, Ebrahim Raisi, during the June 2021 presidential elections. Currently, both the Iranian Parliament and Presidency are controlled by the conservatives, and they now form a monolith power in Iran probably for the first time since the inception of the Islamic Republic.

The failure of negotiations in Vienna to bring the US back to the nuclear deal in spring 2021 during the last months of the Rouhani Presidency has shown that Iran-US relations have returned to “old normalcy” of suspicion and mistrust. There is now a consensus across Iran’s political forces that a hostile relationship with the United States will persist indefinitely. The new administration will also deepen Iran’s security and economic ties with both China and Russia. Tehran recently signed a 25-year investment agreement with Beijing, which, according to some sources, was initially delayed in 2016 because Iran hoped to improve ties with the United States.

What will President Raisi's foreign policy imply for Armenia in the post-2020 Karabakh war? Most probably, Iran will support the regional co-operation formats in the South Caucasus, seeking to reduce the influence and involvement of the US. In this context, Iran may support the restoration of transportation routes in the region, including Azerbaijan's position to be connected with Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic via the Syunik province of Armenia. Yerevan should start an active dialogue with Tehran, emphasising that Armenia is not against the idea of restoration of communications, including connecting Armenia with Iran (and in a larger scope, Russia with Iran) via Nakhijevan through the existing railroad.

Meanwhile, Armenia should be clear that any routes passing from Azerbaijan to Nakhijevan via the Syunik province will pose an existential threat to the vital national interests of Armenia and will not be tolerated by Yerevan as in a long term perspective that may result in de facto control of the Syunik province by Azerbaijan. Armenia may offer other routes to connect Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan via Armenian territory. It may ask Iran to deliver this position to Azerbaijan and convince Azerbaijani leadership to stop its demands for the routes to Nakhijevan passing through the Syunik province. Meanwhile, Armenia should understand that the strategic goal of President Erdogan to transform Turkey into an independent regional player and reduce its dependence on the US is in line with Iran's interests. Thus, it would be counterproductive to deliver anti-Turkish messages to Iran or try to alarm Iran of the danger of being encircled by Pan-Turkism.  

Armenia should actively brand itself in China as an entry place for Chinese companies to produce and enter the Iranian markets. Given the EAEU-Iran interim free trade area deal and Armenia-Iran land border, Chinese companies can produce goods and export tariff-free to Iran. It may be helpful for those types of goods which will be impossible to produce in Iran. Simultaneously, Chinese companies may export the same goods tariff-free to the southern regions of Russia and the EU, given the Armenian membership into the Eurasian Economic Union and GSP+ system, which exists between Armenia and the EU.

Meanwhile, Armenia should find ways to assuage any Iranian concerns about the possible growing role of the US in Armenia. In recent months, the US ambassador to Armenia made two visits to the Syunik province (the last visit in August), which borders Iran. Many in Armenia perceive these visits as hidden messages towards Azerbaijan that the US will not tolerate any change of borders in Syunik or the establishment of any Azerbaijani-controlled routes from Azerbaijan to Nakhijevan via Syunik. However, Armenia needs to work with Iranian counterparts to send a clear message that these visits have nothing to do with Iran and that Armenia will not allow any country to use its territory for any anti-Iranian activities. In this context, the visit of the Armenian prime minister, Pashinyan, to Tehran to take part in the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Iranian president and his meeting with Raisi were the steps towards the right direction. Pashinyan was one of the few leaders – along with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – to participate in the ceremony, and this underscored the significance of relations with Iran for Armenia in the post-2020 Karabakh war context.   


source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan meeting incoming Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on 5 August 2021; the Office of the Prime Minister of Armenia
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners


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