4th year International Relations student,
Petropolis Catholic University (Brazil) /
Head of the Latin American Studies
Working Group at the Volgograd Center for
International Humanitarian Cooperation (VCIHC)
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict:
Potential Implications for the Russian-Iranian Relationship
This piece argues that the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as shared geopolitical interests between Moscow and Tehran, will allow the maintenance of close relations between both countries in the mid-term. To reach such a conclusion, it relies on Kenneth Waltz’s Realist Theory of International Relations (IR) to analyze the Russian and Iranian geopolitical movements in the Caucasus. The article is divided into three sections: (i) Neo-Realism and IR: Explaining World Politics; (ii) National Interests: Russia and Iran in the Caucasus; (iii) From Rapprochement to Stability?.
Neo-Realism and IR: Explaining World Politics
In 1979, Kenneth Waltz published the book Theory of International Politics and inaugurated the Neo-Realist Theory of International Relations, also known as Structural Realism or Standard Realism. Three elements are crucial to understand the theoretical instrument proposed by Waltz: (i) the international anarchy; (ii) the power politics; (iii) the power balance mechanism. First, Neo-Realism diagnosis the international system as anarchic. That is, differently from the domestic realm of the nation-states, in the international system there is no superior entity responsible, and empowered with the rightful monopoly on the use of force, to manage the relations between the political actors. Such a nature inevitably leads to the second and third elements. Since the international arena would be characterized by the absence of a Leviathan, the actors could only count on themselves to survive. According to Waltz, in a scenario of constant potential threats, the best survival strategy would be the incessant accumulation of power. In other words, national interests should be defined in terms of power. Therefore, in an environment where the actors behave similarly - that is, aiming to maximize the gain of relative power -, the international system would be organized by the logic of the balance of power. For example, if B has fewer relative power than A, B will act, through coalitions with C or D, to equal - or overcome - its relative position to A. For Neo-Realism, the actors behave in the international arena based on calculations which informs the need to balance or unbalance the balance of power in their favor.
National Interests: Russia and Iran in the Caucasus
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to maintain its influence in the Caucasus. In this perspective, Moscow has not been comfortable with the growing approximation between Azerbaijan and Western nations, a phenomenon which started in the 1990s. As soon as 1992, for instance, Baku established relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), although it is not an official member. Between 2002 and 2014, the country supported NATO’s forces in Afghanistan, while Moscow feared that Baku could become an American outpost in the region. In January 2011, tensions between Russia and Azerbaijan were triggered due to the signing of a deal between Baku and the EU to construct the Trans-Anatolia Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which transports Azerbaijani gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. Azerbaijan has neither joined the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – it withdrew in 1999 – and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
On the other hand, Russia and Armenia have been close – military, economic, political – partners and allies since the 1990s, especially due to the Armenian imperative to counterbalance Turkey and Azerbaijan. (Yerevan also maintains close ties with Greece and Cyprus in an attempt to ensure regional stability in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean due to Turkish activities). Armenia, for example, hosts Russia’s 102nd military base. On its turn, Russia has the largest Armenian diaspora in the world (about 1.2 million Armenians live in the country), which symbolizes the relationship between both countries. Besides bilateral cooperation, Armenia is also one of the most active participants in initiatives promoted by Russia, as the CSTO and the EAEU, although Armenian forces participated in NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The Russian relationship with Georgia may be the most deteriorated in the Caucasus. Since 1991, the Moscow- Tbilisi relationship has been characterized by constant tensions (e.g. armed conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Rose Revolution, Russo-Georgian War). In the late 2000s, Georgia announced the desire to join NATO and leave the Russian sphere of influence. In 2008, for example, this desire was confirmed by a referendum in which 77% of the population voted in favor of joining the Western alliance.
Before jumping into Iranian national interests, it is worth mentioning that, as Andrey Sushentsov and Nikita Neklyudov put, the Russian strategy in Nagorno-Karabakh is threefold: “first, Russia balances Azerbaijan by preserving a military alliance with Armenia, second, it supplies both countries with arms with a view to deterring them from waging an all-out war, and, not least, Russia maintains military cooperation with both parties in order to balance the Western influence and possible NATO encroachment to unlock the frozen conflict”.
Although Tehran and Baku share a relatively common historical background (e.g. the existence of Farsi-speaking minorities in Azerbaijan due to the pre-Islamic period), the Iranian relationship with Azerbaijan is characterized by constant mistrust. For example, both countries are rivals in the oil exploration in the Caspian Sea and have different views on how to do it. In July 2001, Baku and Tehran almost engaged in an open military confrontation due to tensions in the Caspian. Recently, Azerbaijan has maintained close relations with the West, represented by NATO and the EU, and Iran’s rivals, as Turkey and Israel. Tehran also accuses Baku of supporting separatist groups in Iran, while Baku points to the existence of Iran-manipulated Islamic groups in its territory.
On the other hand, Iran and Armenia share common geopolitical interests. For instance, the Armenian geopolitical position - Turkish and Azerbaijani hostility towards the country and an unstable Georgia - makes Iran one of the best regional partners. Thus, Armenia perceives Iran as the actor capable of counterbalancing Turkey in the Caucasus. On its turn, Tehran considers Yerevan a buffer state for the Turkish presence on its northwest border. By establishing close ties with Armenia, Iran also seeks support from the Armenian diaspora in Europe, Russia, and the US.
Although Iran has the potential to supply Georgia with gas and, thus, burst with Tbilisi’s dependence on Russia, it restrains from doing so to not sour its relationship with Moscow. Iran also suspects the Georgian interactions with the NATO, established in early 1992. As “one of the alliance’s closest partners”, as NATO defines it, Georgia offers a projection base for NATO operations in Afghanistan. In September 2020, Georgia launched a military exercise with NATO forces, which counted with military personnel from Georgia, the US, Great-Britain, France, and Poland. Iran, in this perspective, fears an encirclement by its enemies (e.g. Turkey, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Central Asia).
From Rapprochement to Stability?
By briefly explaining their relationships with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, the last section was responsible for exposing the Russian and the Iranian national interests in the Caucasus. As Stephen Flanagan indicates, it is possible to note the existence of two power axis which constantly balance each other in the region: the North-South Axis, between Russia, Armenia and Iran, and the West-East Axis, between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. When analyzing the current confrontations in Nagorno-Karabakh, such dynamics turn out to be true. Since July, Turkey has announced unconditional support to Azerbaijan and sent mercenary troops to the country. In September, Tehran was accused of allowing the transfer of weapons and military hardware to Armenia via Iranian territory. In 7 October, Russia declared that will fulfill its allied obligations to Armenia. Later on, Moscow stated that would provide the necessary assistance to Yerevan if the conflict with Azerbaijan reaches Armenian territory.
Thus, the article argues that, similarly to what occurred in the Syrian Civil War, the Russian and Iranian shared geopolitical interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will allow the maintenance of – relatively – close relations between both countries in the middle-term. Since the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency in May 2012, amid the Ukrainian crisis and anti-Putin demonstrations, the relationship between Russia and Iran have reached an important strategic level. The peak of this relationship is represented in the involvement of Moscow and Tehran in the Syrian Civil War, where both countries share similar goals. Iran, for example, has perceived its regional interests threatened by the American presence in the conflict. The Syrian territory is also crucial to transport material supplies to the Iranian ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. On its turn, Russia aims to maintain its regional presence amid the disorder caused by the Arab Spring while countering the collapse of another allied regime. Tehran and Moscow have also feared the spread of Sunni fundamentalism and support mutual goals regarding energy routes in the region. In 2016, Moscow obtained permission to use Iranian air-bases, as the Hamadan air-base, to launch airstrikes against rebel forces in Syria.
Now, in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia, and Iran aims to counterbalance the growing geopolitical presence of external actors, as the US, the EU and Turkey, in the region. While Moscow attempts to undermine the gain of relative power by Azerbaijan and Georgia in the region, Tehran tends to support Armenia against Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Israel. (On 1st October, for example, Armenia recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv due to Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan. On 11 October, the president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, accused Azerbaijan, Turkey and Israel as the responsible for the aggressions against the people in Karabakh). That is, if Baku, Tbilisi, and Tel Aviv are key partners for the Turkish projection in the Caucasus, Iran and Russia respond by maintaining strategic ties with Yerevan. Such dynamics, the article argues, may result in the preservation of close relations between Moscow and Tehran in the middle-term, a phenomenon that would represent a transition from the rapprochement, started in the first half of the 2010s, to a relative stability. This hypothesis, however, is not completely conclusive. More research is needed.
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