BACKGROUND: Following years of strained relations, the current Iranian government under President Hassan Rouhani has improved relations with countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. These regions have for centuries been arenas of competition among the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman empires. Iran employs a mixture of positive and negative incentives to pursue its ambitions in these regions, while other external powers are active in supporting, resisting, or (as with Russia) exploiting Iranian policies.
In these countries, Iran has sought access to trade and investment opportunities, including energy and transportation infrastructure but also clandestine routes to smuggle in nuclear technology and other prohibited items. Iranian tactics are generally non-ideological in the sense that its policies can be explained without reference to any Islamic motivation or effort to export its peculiar state ideology. For example, Iranians have not consistently supported Islamist terrorists in Central Asia and Tehran enjoys better ties with Christian Armenia than Shiite Azerbaijan. While Iran has not had an overtly religious agenda for the region, Iranians have at times used sympathetic Shiites in Azerbaijan to challenge that country’s more secular and pro-Western policies.
Furthermore, Iran has sought to deter local governments from cooperating with its adversaries, especially by colluding with foreign intelligence and military forces or by exploiting ethnic and human links to exacerbate Iran’s minority problems. Iranian diplomacy in the region has aimed to counter Western and Israeli influence without antagonizing Russia, which has traditionally considered these countries as falling within its sphere of influence. More recently, Iran has welcomed the growth of China’s economic power in Eurasia.
Until now, Tehran has lacked many positive means of influencing developments in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Iran’s main instruments of influence are diplomacy, economic ties, its intelligence services, networks tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and partisans who admire Tehran’s stubborn defiance of the West. The sanctions adopted by the United Nations and individual national governments have limited the resources Iran could apply in Eurasia and other regions. But the international community is now relaxing these sanctions as part of the nuclear deal with Iran. Even if Iran violates the agreement, the ability of other countries to restore a comprehensive network of sanctions is dubious despite all the talk about “snap back.”
IMPLICATIONS: The proximity of Central Asia and the South Caucasus makes these countries potentially valuable conduits for building Iran’s foreign economic ties with Russia, China, and Europe. The predominately Sunni societies in Central Asia, with secular governments that strictly separate religion and politics, are wary of the Islamic Republic’s ties to Islamist extremism as well as Iran’s alienation from the international community, which has made Central Asian leaders keep their distance from Tehran, including by rejecting its application for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Diplomatic and economic exchanges are now increasing since the sanctions impeding the development of north-south transportation networks through Iranian territory have weakened.
Governments in the South Caucasus and Central Asia have publicly welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal. Among other considerations, a genuine reconciliation between Iran and the West will reduce the risk of a war involving Iran and open new commercial opportunities. On the other hand, there are concerns that the U.S. and its allies are so eager to sustain their nuclear deal with Iran that they will overlook Iranian transgressions against its northern neighbors. Leaders in the South Caucasus and Central Asia have shown less concern than some Persian Gulf governments that the U.S. will abandon them in favor of a new alliance with Tehran. Yet, they do fret about a declining U.S. interest and impact in their regions, manifest most clearly in the dwindling U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, growing Russian power projection activities indicate the danger of defying Moscow on critical issues, while China’s economy is perceived either as too strong or too weak. In addition, they wonder about the durability of Rouhani’s tenure in office and ability to control all elements of Iranian foreign policy.
What happens in Afghanistan, and Iran’s policy toward that country, will be detrimental to Tehran’s influence and policy in Central Asia. While a strong Afghan government leading a prosperous nation will be able to resist foreign predations from Iran and other sources, an Afghanistan in which sectarian and ethnic warlords fight as foreign proxies against each other and a weak central government will attract Iranian interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
Flagging Western support for the Afghan government is not only facilitating the revival of the Afghan Taliban, but empowering Iranian influence in Central Asia. Iran and Afghanistan share a 582-mile (936-kilometer) border, as well as significant cultural and historical ties. Iranians have maintained close relations with Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking communities, its Shi’a groups (predominantly the Hazaras), and the Tajiks in Afghanistan for decades. Most of these groups live in western Afghanistan, which Iranians have historically viewed as falling within their sphere of influence.
Tehran’s goals in Afghanistan have been to control the Afghan-Iranian border areas and limit the flow of narcotics into Iran, minimize the influence of potentially hostile countries and Sunni extremist groups in Afghanistan, develop trade and commercial ties with and through Afghanistan, and exert influence in Kabul, to include an Afghan government that cooperates with Tehran. Iran remains wary of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and has provided some military training and weapons to insurgents fighting the Western forces there. Tehran has also exploited the large number of Afghan refugees in Iran to keep Kabul compliant and has used educational/humanitarian aid to wage an ideological war with Saudi-backed groups in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Iran has also sought to develop ties with Russia, China, and India, whose influence in Afghanistan might dilute that of the West.
CONCLUSION: One reason Iran also welcomes Russia’s growing military intervention in Syria and arms sales to Iraq is that Russian aid can help kill terrorists aligned with the terrorist grouping calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL) as well as Russia’s direct support for Tehran’s allies in Damascus and Baghdad. Although the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda have recently limited their attacks on Iranian interests, the more extremist Sunni-sectarian ISIL is vigorously violent toward Shiites in general and Iran in particular. At times, even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting in Iraq has tactically cooperated with the NATO air strikes there against the common foe. Although Russian forces have not yet focused their attacks on ISIL in Syria, Iranians might hope that they will do so in Iraq. Russian policy makers are looking for ways to keep Iran from re-aligning toward the West and military cooperation in Syria and Iraq helps create such an anchor. Encouraging Iran to build its presence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus would also help cement ties.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
Image Attribution: www.bbc.com, accessed on Oct 16, 2015