Islam and Iran’s Northern Front: Refocusing US Attention on Key Regional Interests


2013-10-26 by Richard Weitz

Any genuine reconciliation between Iran and the United States would be welcome, but the recent focus on the nuclear issue obscures other sources of tension between the two governments, including the South Caucasus.

Iran and the United States have been competing for influence in the region with its vital energy resources and complex geopolitical landscape, in which Russia and Turkey also play important roles.

Hudson Institute and the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security held a conference earlier this month to highlight this issue.

(For the conference agenda please go to the following:

Despite their disagreements, the speakers shared a concern that the United States would continue devoting less attention and resources than needed to support U.S. regional interests.

For example, Joshua Walker, Director of Global Programs at the APCO Worldwide, stressed that the United States needed to engage throughout the South Caucasus and beyond just the national governments to empower the local population for the region’s benefit.

A topographic look at the Caucasus ecoregion.
A topographic look at the Caucasus ecoregion.

In fact, U.S. aid levels to the Caucasus states, and the other former Soviet republics, have been declining for years, allowing other external actors to use such entities as religious groups, educational institutions, and various individuals to promote policies that sometimes challenge U.S. interests.

For example, when I was in Azerbaijan earlier this year, Azerbaijanis complained about being left to confront Russian and Iranian pressures amidst a backdrop of  limited Western support.

The speakers all agreed that the United States cannot look at the South Caucasus in isolation, but must consider its regional context, especially the roles of Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Some saw problems from Shiite Islamists or radical Salafists, but they attributed these threats mostly to the foreign support local Islamists received, deliberately from Iran, inadvertently from Russia and Turkey.

Iran is no stranger to the Caucasus, which at various times was under the control of the Persian Empire and the subsequent Iranian state.

At the conference, Congressman Dan Burton, former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, warned that, while Tehran and Washington have adopted a more conciliatory tone since President Hassan Rouhani’s election, Iran continues to threaten U.S. interests in the South Caucasus.

Conversely, Alex Vatanka, a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, argued that Iranian leaders behave with caution in the region, which they see as falling within Moscow’s sphere of influence. In his view, while some Iranians might see the Caucasus as the northwest part of the former Persian Empire, Iranian influence is constrained by these states’ foreign policy orientation toward the West, Turkey, or Russia.

Of course, the three countries of the South Caucasus pursue diverse foreign and domestic policies, with different security arrangements, political systems, and religious inclinations. Iran therefore has different polices and relations with each country. Armenia and Georgia are considered in Tehran as useful economic partners.

Since international sanctions have ruptured Iran’s historical commercial relations with the West, Iranians need new markets for  investment and trade. Georgians welcome Iranian tourism, with Iranians and Israelis mixing freely at the gambling tables. For their part, Armenians need to circumvent the Turkey-Azerbaijan blockade.

Armenia offers the added value of providing Iran with leverage over the independent republic of Azerbaijan, with which Tehran has an adversarial relationship.

While receptive of Persian culture and sharing an adherence to the Shiite faith, Azerbaijanis dislike the Islamic Republic’s religious intolerance and confrontationist foreign policies. For some Iranians, Azerbaijan’s secular model constitutes an existential threat to their clerical regime, which is especially attractive to Iran’s large ethnic Azeri minority, whose numbers exceed the entire population of Azerbaijan.

Thus, Azerbaijan is a challenge to Iran strategically (ties to West), demographically (its large Azeri population in Iran), historically (loss of territory) and ideologically (secular state). Iran responds with a mixture of defensive and offensive measures, fighting separatism and secularism at home while striving to recover its lost northern territories and export is militant brand of Islam. Iranian tactics include terrorism led by the Revolutionary Guards Corps, militarism of the Caspian Basin, and partnering with Russia to limit Western military and energy presence.

According to some speakers, Russians also have a post-colonial hangover over their lost territories, manifested most recently in Putin’s successful pressure campaign against Armenia to abandon its years of work on an association agreement with the European Union to  instead join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union.

At the conference, Ilan Berman and other speakers described Russia as exporting instability through both its neo-imperialism as well as  its strategic and demographic failures, such as its counterproductive policies in Chechnya. Through its ineffective tactics, the Russian government has transformed a struggle for self-determination into a large-scale campaign against Moscow, waged under the banner of jihad. One could add that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan initiated this process.

Michael Rubin noted that Turkey and the United States recently announced a Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience on the sidelines of the 68th UN General Assembly.

According to media sources, many of the other countries belonging to the Global Counterterrorism Forum, established in 2011, are expected to contribute to the Fund, which will launch one year from now and support primarily local projects that counter violent extremism. Yet, given the violent anti-government riots in Turkey, the regime’s anti-secular policies at home, and Ankara’s backing of radical Sunni forces in the Middle East, Svante Cornell cautioned the conference attendees against relying too heavily on Turkey as a U.S. proxy against radical Islam.

In my view, the conference generated additional policy insights and recommendations.

First, the threat from Islamist extremism is present in the South Caucasus but mainly in the form of Iranian-sponsored terrorism against Western targets.

However, Cornell sees secularism under challenge in Georgia due to the Orthodox Church’s growing influence and repression of Muslims, which could lead to their radicalization. Some Gulf states are also sponsoring, sometimes with Turkish partners, Salafism among Sunnis.

Conversely, considering that more than 100,000 people have died during the Arab Spring due to sectarian tensions in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and other Muslim-majority countries, Azerbaijan’s moderate religious policies should be welcome and supported more in Washington, especially as a possible means of shaping Iran’s future development into a more regime.

Furthermore, the United States should increase its efforts to resolve the so-called frozen conflicts in South Caucasus, both to reduce Iranian influence in the region and to eliminate black holes that Iran exploits to circumvent international sanctions.

WMD traffickers and other transnational criminal groups also take advantage of these ungoverned regions to evade international control. We have been fortunate that, thus far, these conflicts have not had a religious connotation. but the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has that potential. Even now, that conflict prevents these two U.S. partners from focusing more on mutual economic benefit within a regional context and makes them more dependent on the support of other foreign actors that sometimes pursue interest hostile toward the United States.

Finally, pro-Western forces in the South Caucasus fear the United States will not protect them against either excessive Russian pressure or, in the case of a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, against Tehran’s retaliation for all the years that they have been supporting the sanctions against Iran.

Although Armenia’s foreign policies are sometimes less pro-Western than those of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Armenia also wants to see a strong U.S. role in the region to enhance Yerevan’s bargaining leverage with Moscow and Tehran.

Editor’s Note: For Richard Weitz’s recent report on Azerbaijan’s regional role see the following:

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