Vali Kaleji

Caucasus in Iran's Foreign Policy: Legacies and Prospects

Date of publication : May 31, 2017 09:44 am
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (Center L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Center R) hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Tehran, Iran on March 05, 2017

President Hassan Rouhani came to power in August 2013 while Iran was facing with serious challenges in the Caucasus region. “Securitization of Iran” and the intensification of “Iranophobia”, the fact that the great powers put pressure on the countries of the region to decrease their relations with Iran, the reduced volume of economic and trade relations between Iran and the countries of the region, the formation of unhealthy and non-transparent economic networks at the regional level, the impact of an atmosphere influenced by sanctions and threat on the process of changing Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and that the traditional competitors of Iran took advantage of such a space are among significant damages incurred on Iran in the Caucasus region when the first government of President Rouhani came into power.

Now with the re-election of Mr. Rouhani as Iran’s President which means consolidated discourse and foreign policy of the government in the next four years, we can have a better understanding of the expectations and prospects for Iranian foreign policy for countries in the Caucasian region under the second government of President Rouhani with an analytical review of the status of Caucasus under his first government.
The most important achievement of the first government of President Rouhani was the considerable development of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and that the two countries could pass the phases of cold and sometimes stressful conditions (2007- 2013) embodied in the form of more than 5 bilateral meetings and also 3 multilateral meetings in Istanbul (the thirteenth Summit of members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), New York (the UN General Assembly meetings) and Davos (the 44th meeting of the World Economic Forum). The formation of a trilateral mechanism among Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia for the realization of the North-South Corridor, especially for connecting the rail network of the three countries, is also another indication of the development of relations between Tehran and Baku.

In the second government of President Rouhani, it is expected that the remaining routes of the Astara-Rasht-Qazvin rail network reach the operational phase, and in parallel with the presence of Iran in the economic field of Azerbaijan, in particular the development of the second phase of Shah Deniz gas field, the ground for the participation of Iran in the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) be provided by pursuing bilateral negotiations to resolve some disagreements about the price of gas exported to Europe. If this is realized, there will be an important development in enhancing the role and status of Iran and Azerbaijan in supplying the European energy, particularly under the conditions of continued disagreements between Europe and Russia on the crisis in Ukraine.
Relations between Iran and Armenia in the first government of President Rouhani continued the stable trend of the past governing between the two countries, and the abolition of the visa regime between the two countries was achieved, but compared with the bilateral relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, [Iran-Armenia] relations did not experience a balanced development in this period. On behalf of Armenia, its President, Prime Minister, Chairman of the National Assembly and Minister of Foreign Affairs twice traveled to Iran, but the Iranian President visited Armenia in December 2016 - three years after President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, took part in the inauguration of President Rouhani in August 2013. However, Mr. Eshaq Jahangiri’s, First Vice President of Iran, visit to Yerevan in October 2015 and two visits of Mr. Mohammad  Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, to this country somehow reduced the gap created in the unbalanced relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and Armenia, but because 8 bilateral and multilateral meetings took place between Presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan in contrast to 2 meetings between the Presidents of Iran and Armenia, there have been more imbalances at the macro- level field of diplomacy as compared to prior periods.

In the second government of President Rouhani, it is expected that diplomatic relations between Tehran and Yerevan experience a more desirable and balanced level, and Iran pay more attention to the efforts of the Armenian government to implement the “North-South Road Corridor Investment Program”, in particular the reconstruction of Armenian-Georgian land route and the construction of Iran-Armenia railway which in parallel to the railway line between Iran and Azerbaijan can form two important communication corridors for Iran in the South Caucasus region.
The relations between Iran and Georgia were not at a high level in the first government of President Rouhani, and despite the visits of various delegations and the re-establishment of the abolition of visa regime between the two countries, they did not experience a high level relationship - this can be seen in the fact that Presidents of the two countries have not met over the last four years in Tehran and Tbilisi. However, the trend of diplomatic relations between Iran and Georgia has entered a new phase since the beginning of 2017. The visit of Mikheil Janelidze, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, to Tehran to attend the memorial ceremony for the late Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani in January 2017, the visit of Mr. Zarif to Tbilisi on 18 April 2017, his first visit to Georgia as Iran’s Foreign Minister, and subsequently, the visit of Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Prime Minister of Georgia, to Tehran on April 22, 2017 (just one week after Mr. Zarif visited Georgia) represented a new and different development occurring in relations between Iran and Georgia. In the second government of President Rouhani, it is expected that the ground be provided for a meeting taking place between the Presidents of the two countries. The importance of this meeting is that in the field of diplomatic relations between the two countries, after the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, visited Tbilisi in April 1995, and the former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, visited Tehran in August 2004, no other meeting has taken place between the Presidents of Iran and Georgia in the capitals of the two countries.

The fact that Iran is now in the proper conditions of economic diplomacy after the nuclear deal (the JCPOA), that the abolition of visas for citizens of the two countries provided a very good ground for the development of tourism industry between the two countries, especially with regard to the presence of thousands of Georgians in Fereydunshahr, Isfahan, and elsewhere in Iran, considering factors like the capacities and capabilities of Iranian companies in the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants and in the construction of refineries and port facilities in the port of Batumi, Georgia, the development of Iran-Georgia transit cooperation within the framework of the North-South Corridor which connects Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf to the port of Batumi in the Black Sea, synchronizing the electricity network for Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Iran since 2018, and the export of Iranian natural gas to Georgia through Armenia are all considered as the proper fields and capacities for cooperation between Iran and Georgia in the economic and commercial fields. The realization of these objectives requires a new planning and policy-making being followed by leaders and officials of both countries to let Iran and Georgia create new space and conditions for mutual cooperation.

Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iran's Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.

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ID: 3186
Author : Vali Kaleji