Can Turkey Compete with Iran in the Caucasus?

In the era now unfolding, Iran possesses the ability to turn Turkey's relatively passive stance in the Caucasus into an advantage for itself. Of course, it is possible that Iran's uneven image in the region, and its unstable relations with regional countries, could get in the way of a rapid rise in power for Tehran here.

Posted on 08/31/15
By Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu | Via Today's Zaman
(Courtesy Google maps)
(Courtesy Google maps)

The agreement reached as the result of talks between Iran and P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany) has led to debate over whether or not Iran is going to wield a more influential set of foreign policies in the Caucasus from here onwards. It seems quite possible that Iran’s already pragmatic Caucasus policies will quite soon make a rapid rise in the economy and energy sectors. Setting aside questions concerning Russia’s power and standing in the region for a moment, the issue of Iran’s influence in the Caucasus is of critical importance to Turkey.

 

In the new era now unfolding, Iran does possess the ability to turn Turkey’s relatively passive stance in the Caucasus into an advantage for itself. Of course, it is possible that Iran’s uneven image in the region, and its unstable relations with regional countries, could get in the way of a rapid rise in power for Tehran here. To get a better understanding of what could happen, it’s helpful to take a quick look at Iran’s general stances in the region.

 

Ongoing great relations between Iran and Azerbaijan in sectors including the economy, energy and transportation have been very important from a regional cooperation perspective. Of course, this doesn’t mean past problems with Azerbaijan have been forgotten; things like Tehran’s sectarian focus, or its anti-Western rhetoric, wielded in an attempt to influence Baku as much as possible, have caused problems in the past between the two countries. Some realities that are tougher than others for Tehran to handle include the issue of sharing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan’s good relations with the West — and with Israel — and the fact that Baku does not appear ready to make concessions on the secularism front.

 

At the same time, while Tehran has many worries about the millions of ethnic Azeris living in its northwest regions, the support it has given in the past to Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has not helped Baku’s view on Tehran. If one thinks about spying accusations and reconnaissance missions on the Caspian Sea in recent years, one realizes that any new “Iran initiative” in this coming period is quite unlikely.

 

In the meantime, since the 1990s, Iran has maintained a high level of cooperation with Armenia. The support lent to Yerevan by Tehran is important for Armenia, which after all has borders that have at various times sealed it off from both Turkey and Azerbaijan. Already, serious debates are unfolding in Yerevan over what sort of stance Iran will take in the face of the strong Baku-Ankara axis. One Armenian expert recently asserted that Iran will show much less interest in Armenia in coming times, and that Yerevan needs to take precautions accordingly.

 

Not long ago though, an agreement was struck between Tehran and Yerevan for the construction of the third high-voltage energy line. In addition to this, there is the ongoing construction of a new hydroelectric plant, railway lines and roads, all of which are very important for Yerevan. In fact, Iranian-Armenian relations — which unite around anti-Russian terms — look set to carry much more weight within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. Rescued from Western-imposed isolation, Tehran may run into serious problems with Moscow when it comes to the topic of investments in Armenia. In fact, Moscow may set up some barriers to Tehran’s moves in this region. In addition, it is also possible that Armenian lobby groups in the West may now work more comfortably when it comes to seeing Iran’s image reflected more positively around the world.

 

In the meantime, Iran is also working on rescuing its relations with Georgia from being influenced by the West and Russia. With many different ethnic groups living on its soil, Iran does respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.

 

The fact that Georgia has enjoyed stronger cooperation than ever with the US and NATO since Sept. 11 and the colorful revolution there has meant Tehran’s support for pro-Russian interest.

 

The untrue reports that surfaced last year concerning US plans to strike Iran from Georgia give us an idea about Tehran’s careful stance when it comes to Tbilisi. And US-prompted attempts by Georgia to sometimes freeze Iranian bank accounts, or to stir up visa issues, have caused some problems between the two countries. In relations between Georgia and Iran, worries about relations with the US (for Iran), and Russia (for Georgia) have always played an important role. In coming times, balances on this front look set to shift. It does appear that for Georgia, Iran stands as an important regional partner. In fact, this is a necessary partnership, if some of the regional tension and dead-ends are to be solved.

 

Interestingly, the economic and energy-based partnerships that Iran has set up with Armenia look ready to be implemented by Tehran in Tbilisi.

 

This is why Iranian businessmen are always looking towards Georgia, and in fact it does appear that the Tehran-Tbilisi axis might start producing more productive partnerships. This, in general, is the character of Iran’s relations with regional countries. In the meantime, Turkey, which really only has good relations with two countries in the southern Caucasus, looks set to continue on down this restricted, limited path. Iran can bring about high-level cooperative projects with Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan, while Turkey may act as a transit corridor for new energy projects.

Throughout this process, Russia’s stances will remain important. One factor many are looking at now is just how much support Turkey will lend to Russian attempts to balance out Iranian power in the region.

 

This article first appeared at Today’s Zaman, one of Turkey’s most respected dailies. Click here to go to the original.

Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu is an independent researcher and writer.

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