MOSCOW, 06 Dec 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.
The Office of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, reporting on his telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, highlighted the situation in Transcaucasia among the topics discussed. In particular, the Iranian side pointed to the possible admission of “changes in the geopolitical status and borders” in this region. According to Raisi, quoted by his office, “any change in the geopolitical status and borders of countries in the region is unacceptable”.
This is not the first time Tehran has indicated this position. During a recent visit to Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Amirabdollahian also touched upon the topic of changing borders in the region at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Earlier, the commander of the ground forces of the Iranian army, Brigadier General Kioumars Heydari, stated that “no force can change the geography of the region, we will not tolerate this”.
What kind of border changes are we talking about and why, suddenly, the problem of borders in Transcaucasia has become so acute? Tehran does not explain its position. Moscow, which probably listens to it on this issue, is silent. Therefore, there is a strong feeling that Iran is afraid of something in connection with the borders. But what exactly?
After the Second Karabakh war, Baku initiated the issue of the demarcation and delimitation of the border with Yerevan. In this regard, Vladimir Putin, speaking at the Valdai Forum, said that it is impossible to definitively resolve the situation on the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan without the participation of the Russian side. According to him, administrative and political maps of the former USSR indicating the borders between the union republics are currently in the General Staff of the Russian army.
“Based on these maps,” Putin said, “we need to sit down calmly on both sides, there are things there that require mutual compromises: in some place to align something, in another place to exchange something. Only in such a way that it is recognised and beneficial to both sides”.
Judging by the evaluation statements made by the first professional Azerbaijani geodesist and cartographer, Professor Magsad Gojamanov, “according to the maps that Putin spoke about, it is possible to accurately and objectively draw the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia”.
At a government meeting, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also said that “the proposals of the Russian Defence Ministry to facilitate the delimitation and demarcation of the border are acceptable to the Armenian side”. However, he introduced intrigue into the situation, stating that “Russia offered assistance in demarcation and delimitation three times, but Azerbaijan hindered the process”. Why?
Armenian experts claim that “Azerbaijan abandoned the Soviet borders, recognising itself as the legal successor of the First Republic (1918-1920) by adopting the corresponding constitutional act”. It is difficult to say whether this is true, since Baku does not officially confirm or deny this fact.
At the same time, some Armenian experts suggest not to take as a basis for the demarcation and delimitation of the border with Azerbaijan the maps of the Russian General Staff proposed by Putin, but to use a document prepared on February 14, 1920 by a commission of the League of Nations, which included France, Britain, Italy and Japan and which defined the borders of Armenia with the inclusion of part of the territory of the Ottoman Empire.
This is due to the fact that there is no clear idea yet on which Soviet maps the delimitation and demarcation of the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia will be carried out. The Azerbaijani side, for example, would like to use the maps of the USSR before 1929, according to which Zangezur was part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic.
But the current intensification of attention to border problems in the region is due not only and not so much to the Nagorno-Karabakh factor. The problems of constructing borders were dealt with by the young states of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia that appeared in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. Each of these formations had their own idea of what their ancestral land was.
To do this, it is enough to look at the maps presented at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which are supposed to recognise the Transcaucasian states and approve their borders. Azerbaijan claimed almost all of Transcaucasia up to Batumi. Georgia’s territorial claims related to the northern part of Transcaucasia and Turkey. It claimed the Tiflis and Kutaisi governorates, the Batumi region, and the Sukhumi and Zakatala districts. Armenia made more claims to what was spelled out in the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920.
As a result, such different positions caused military actions. All the newly appeared Transcaucasian states fought – some more, some less. There were also unsuccessful attempts to agree on the creation of a united Caucasus. The spiritual leader of the Georgian nationalists, Ilia Chavchavadze, tried to develop a “broad plan for the friendly unification of the Caucasian nations” at the end of the 19th century.
This topic was developed in detail in Caucasian emigrant circles in the 1920s and 30s, their general conclusion was formulated by Dimitri Vachnadze: “The path of deliverance, liberation and rebirth lies through the state union of Caucasian nations called the Caucasian Confederation.”
Nikoloz Insaridze wrote: “The inhabitants of the Caucasus should sacrifice their cultural and political frameworks to the common cause, tear them apart and destroy them, hand in hand. They must unite as human organs to achieve the independence of the Caucasus. Nominal expressions of the cultural and political views of Ossetians, Circassians, Ingush, Chechens, Leks, Georgians, Azerbaijanis should be brought to the altar of common prosperity, and in return they should all return the name ‘Caucasian’”.
The absence of Armenians among the listed Caucasian peoples is noteworthy. This is due to the fact that the Armenian emigration was cold to the project of the Caucasian Confederation and in 1934 refused to sign the pact. Looking ahead, it should be noted that for the first time in the post-Soviet period, Zviad Gamsakhurdia took the initiative of the united Caucasus. Later, in a slightly modified form, it was also proposed by Eduard Shevardnadze.
Another Georgian politician Z. Zhvania expressed himself as follows: “Caucasian unity is not only a political concept. In fact, the Caucasus is a diverse and at the same time homogeneous world, a phenomenon that has been formed over centuries and millennia, in which there are clearly defined authentic social and cultural institutions. This gives reason to talk about the phenomenon of a single Caucasian civilisation. Its creators – the Caucasian peoples, despite religious and ethnic differences, are united by common values and mentality.”
In 1920, Soviet power was established throughout Transcaucasia and it was it that solved all the issues further, although the main problems of territorial demarcation in Transcaucasia were not solved. Moreover, almost everything did not suit everyone initially and it only seemed that at the turn of the 20s and 30s, the former border and administrative boundaries that had become established definitively and irrevocably.
Then there were previously unknown administrative-territorial units, formally called “state entities” – Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) and Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSR), as well as Autonomous Regions (AR). The borders and status of these territorial entities were finally established by 1923. The definition of their borders was accompanied by disputes and conflicts that continued latently throughout the existence of the Soviet Union.
During the period of perestroika, the issues of reforming the federal structure of the USSR aimed at democratising these relations began to be raised for the first time. Interethnic tensions and conflicts became one of the important factors that predetermined the collapse of the USSR. Therefore, the origins of the problems of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be sought in the early in the early Soviet history of the period of nation-building.
Then the growth of ethnic nationalism and the crisis phenomena affecting the peoples of Transcaucasia led not only to the search for the so-called national idea, but also to the creation of ethnocentric historical schemes that provoke separation and tension between peoples.
The external factor.
The events around Karabakh took an unexpected turn: there was an increased interest in Transcaucasia from neighbouring Iran and Turkey, where, according to many experts, there is a significant increase in imperial sentiments. There is one reason: the territory of modern Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia has been one of the apples of contention for three empires for many years – Russian, Ottoman and Persian. The latter withdrew from the struggle after the fifth war with the Russians.
As for the Ottoman Empire, it also lost its influence in Western Georgia. It is no coincidence that after the collapse of the USSR, Tehran and Ankara began to show increased interest in this region against the background of the weakening of Russia’s influence there, and when, as one Russian expert put it, “the borders in Transcaucasia began to resemble broken glass, on which it is dangerous to walk”.
The borders mostly run along the former administrative borders of the USSR, with the exception of Karabakh and the former Chechen-Ingushetia. In addition, the borders of the region have become increasingly included in the discourse in which Turkey and Iran, along with Russia, become independent actors. At the same time, the problem of the Iranian and Turkish presence in Transcaucasia is not limited to geography.
To a large extent, the US-Iranian confrontation or Turkish-American cooperation has its continuation in the region. The post-Soviet Azerbaijani elite is orientated towards Turkey and the United States. Iran’s foreign policy influence is not so great here. Moreover, the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran during the turn of the 20th-21st centuries were characterised by a high degree of confliction.
Despite the Islamic nature of its statehood and permanent appeals to the solidarity of all Muslims in the Karabakh issue, Iran has taken a benevolent position for the Armenian side. The Islamic Republic has proclaimed the principles of “equidistance” and commitment to a political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. With the help of Iran, Armenia actually received a corridor to the outside world in the conditions of blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
As for the relations between Iran and Russia, in a sense they have returned to the beginning of the 18th century, when they were again divided by a number of other countries. It was not only about a purely geographical division due to the appearance of the CIS states on the map, but also at certain moments about the political division, when the elite in Russia took a frankly pro-Western position.
Moreover, today many politicians and experts have almost no doubts about the potential transfer of the Middle East conflict to the Caucasus region in the context of the Iranian-Turkish confrontation, because northern Iran and neighbouring Azerbaijan form a single ethno-cultural space.
The common border connecting these two states, the settlement of representatives of one nation on both sides of it, as well as the traditional tensions between Baku and Tehran, create favourable conditions for the use of the “Azerbaijan map” in order to destabilise the situation in Iran, Azerbaijan, and the entire region.
The situation is also aggravated by the fact that Armenia, considered the only strategic partner of Russia and Iran in Transcaucasia, has begun to indicate a Western drift in its foreign policy. Tehran’s fears are reinforced by information about the activation of a number of influential representatives of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, who advocate the reorientation of Yerevan to Washington.
Therefore, Iran’s current concern about the problem of borders in Transcaucasia can be explained and logically justified only if we take as a basis the factor of geopolitical premonition of the upcoming redistribution of borders in the Middle East and Transcaucasia. And from Tehran’s point of view, the second Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia changed the geopolitical map of the region. As a result, some communications that previously connected Iran with Armenia and Karabakh came under the control of Baku.
Azerbaijan began to supervise the Iranian transport going to Karabakh and Armenia. The Baku-Ankara tandem has finally taken shape, which allows Turkey to implement a draft plan to create a system of transport communications along the Turkey-Nakhichevan Autonomy route through the so-called Zangezur corridor. In turn, this creates conditions for Turkish-Azerbaijani control, including military control, over the entire northern border of Iran from the confluence of the Soraya and Araks rivers in the west to Astara in the east.
That is, the military and political confrontation created by the war in Karabakh is beginning to take a new turn: the border drawn between Persia and the Russian Empire in 1828 along the Turkmenchay peace began to “wobble”.
In any case, it is impossible to use the ethnic factor in Iran without the activation of Azerbaijani separatism. For this reason, Tehran reacts extremely negatively to any manifestations of Baku’s solidarity with the Iranian Azerbaijanis. And the counter-move: Iran has expressed its readiness to return 17 cities of the Caucasus, which were separated from Persia during the Turkic Qajar dynasty, who ruled the country in 1779-1925. A corresponding movement has been created, the result of which may be the redistribution of borders in the Caucasus.
“Before the annexation of the Caucasus to Russia, almost all of present-day Azerbaijan, almost all of Armenia and part of modern Dagestan, namely Derbent, were part of Persia,” says Aleksandr Skakov, coordinator of the working group of the Center for the Study of Central Asia and the Caucasus at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “However, this entry was purely nominal and did not imply the permanent presence of Persian troops, officials and so on in the Caucasus. Although it is known that the troops of the Persian Shah reached the mountainous regions of Dagestan.”
According to Skakov, the actualisation of the issue even at the level of statements on the annexation of Caucasian cities is connected with the general deterioration of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. And further, now there are six Turkic states: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan. Thus, an almost continuous “Turkic arc” has emerged in the north and northwest of Iran, which is broken only by a small section of the Iranian-Armenian border.
All of this cannot but worry Iran, especially since after the collapse of the USSR, the mechanism of “ethnic orientation” in the southern direction, created during the creation of the Turkic Soviet republics, began to work independently.
On the other hand, Iran is in such a military-strategic position when, being both a Middle Eastern, Caucasian, Central Asian, and Caspian country, it is dragging on almost all the pain points of the region, whether ethnic or religious, military or economic, refugee and drug trafficking problems, terrorism and separatism problems. Therefore, an invisible, but fierce struggle is unfolding around Iran.
In any case, Iran, pursuing its goals in the region, is somehow able to counteract and neutralise the expansion of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia controlled by the United States. It is also undesirable for Iran to spread the ideas of pan-Turkism.
There are two main foreign policy vectors of Iran’s foreign policy: the Shiite axis linking the Shiite states and peoples of Iran with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the second axis connects Iran with the population of Transcaucasia, a region that in Iran’s geopolitical strategy turns almost into the main one, where it is trying to regain the role of a regional centre in order to pursue an independent, more active policy in all areas, not excluding the solution of conflict problems.
For centuries, Transcaucasia was either in the epicentre of serious geopolitical cataclysms, or stood in the way of large-scale imperial wars. Attempts have always been made to fit the region into the new systems of the world order created by the powers. For this reason, the countries of the region were doomed to search for geopolitical partners as guarantors of sovereignty and security.
Their choice of one orientation or another was objectively facilitated by the fact that Transcaucasia was always at the centre of dominant geopolitical flows. The ethnic and religious pluralism of the region created favourable conditions for the powers to implement the well-known formula of “divide and conquer”. Each power could find an acceptable satellite here by ethnic or religious parameters.
Iran looks at Transcaucasia as its historical domain, a theory that the Iranian statehood colonised in the past and had a great cultural influence on this territory. Of course, this influence is greatest in Azerbaijan, and the least in Georgia, but even in Georgia it is huge.
Despite the fact that Iran as an empire has no longer been present north of the Araks for about two hundred years, some “memories” of this still persist. In addition, Azerbaijani Turks live in Iran, as well as representatives of other peoples of the Caucasus, including Muslim Georgians and Armenians. Armenia is considered by Iran as a complementary neighbour, practically the only country from which Iran does not expect problems.
Armenia has not resorted to criticising Iran at times of aggravation of its relations with international players, and even to a certain extent maintained relations with it during international sanctions against Tehran. Azerbaijan is a more difficult neighbour and partner for Iran than Turkey. Iran’s relations, like Turkey’s, with Georgia are more distant, but perhaps they are no less interesting for them than relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Due to the active development of Georgia’s relations with Western structures, Georgia can be considered as a possible “window to the West”. Even during the period of Georgia’s pronounced pro-Western policy and Iran’s sharp confrontation with the West, Georgia sought to avoid any anti-Iranian steps, fearing possible retaliation from Iran, because it is still in a less pronounced form than Turkey, in fact, implementing imperial projects, expressing its geopolitical interests in Transcaucasia.
At the same time, Iran from the very beginning, and Turkey relatively recently, have not shown interest in involving non-regional players in solving the problems of the region, which, in their opinion, act selfishly in the region.
But the situation in and around Transcaucasia is changing rapidly. The dynamics of geopolitical changes in the Middle East will also put on the agenda the redistribution of spheres of influence in this region. Based on Iran’s resources, after the conclusion of a new agreement on the nuclear program, its influence will increase.
This should also be expected based on the plans of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to strengthen the “Turkic axis” based on pan-Turkism in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which is clearly not part of Tehran’s plans. The influence of Russia, which is gaining a foothold in the Near and Middle East, will also increase in the Caucasus. Its relations with Iran and Turkey are difficult to call allied.
Most likely, they can be referred to as partners, which does not exclude the emergence of a new configuration of political players in connection with the implementation of global transnational projects. The Moscow-Tehran axis justifies itself in all respects. Neither pan-Turkism oriented towards Turkey, nor Saudi Wahhabism, nor pan-Arabism are suitable for promoting Russian interests.
Iran offers such an opportunity, although the two countries do not have a common land border, but they are interested in three regions – the Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Both countries have the same understanding of the situation in the region, their interests and concerns. Their interaction can contribute to peace and stability in a vast geopolitical space.
Meanwhile, the situation in Transcaucasia remains unstable. On the border with Iran and Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan are holding the “2021 Unbreakable Brotherhood” exercises. Iran, in turn, is conducting manoeuvres on the border with Azerbaijan. The sides exchange unfriendly statements and associate them with the results of the war in Karabakh.
The first anniversary of the second Karabakh War created new contradictions when Azerbaijan began to prevent the supply of Iranian fuel to Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, the Iranian armed forces announced the “Conquerors of Khaybar” exercises in the north-west of the country.
The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a big statement. “Those who suffer from illusions will soon get a slap in the face. The countries of the region should not allow foreign armies to interfere,” he said. And the Iranian government newspaper Vatan-e-Emrooz clarified the official position of the state: “Ankara and Baku know that if the borders change, Iranian troops will immediately enter the territory of Armenia and eliminate the Zionist uprising.” The struggle for territories in Transcaucasia continues.