Iran's Good and Constructive Relations with Neighbors

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hassan Beheshtipour
Expert on Russia and Central Asia Affairs

Good relations with neighboring countries are important to any country and are considered a strategic policy in international arena. Any country, as a member of the international community, has common land or sea borders with other countries and, of course, no country actually chooses its neighbors. As a result, it is situated in unwanted surroundings in which it cannot eliminate neighboring states. Therefore, it has to engage in suitable and constructive interaction with its neighbors. Of course, it should be noted that having good and constructive relations with neighbors is a strategic element of foreign policies of all countries. Those neighbors can potentially offer opportunities or pose threats to any given country.

Diplomatic relations between countries are divided in two totally different types. The first type of relationship is a one-sided relationship in which priority is given to the interests of a powerful and hegemonic country. On the other side, the interests of the other country which is under domination of the powerful one are not usually met. This kind of relation is usually unstable and as the power of the dominated country increases, the relations do not continue in the past form and may even be severed. The second type of relations is a bilateral one in which equal attention is paid to the interests of both countries. Of course, the benefits of two countries may not be really equal in such a relationship, but relations are generally to the benefit of both sides and are usually more lasting and sustainable than the first type.

Meanwhile, Iran has shared more common grounds with the Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf countries and, therefore, relations with those countries have been important to Iran and a matter of high attention. Here, we will focus on Iran's foreign policy approaches toward its northern neighbors. Iran's relations with its northern neighbors including Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been of the second type. This means that Iran's relations with these countries have been two-way. In this type of relationship, common interests should be defined first before relations can be formed around them so that both countries will be benefited by these relations and mutual benefit will help relations to be sustained. This is a general picture of diplomatic relations between Iran and these countries.

Turkmenistan: Relations with No Concerns

The above definition can also be extended to general diplomatic relationship which exists between Iran and its northern neighbors around the Caspian Sea, which of course, include Russia as well. However, when it comes to details, every one of these countries has its own conditions for establishing relations. For example, relations between Iran and Turkmenistan are mutually beneficial in political, economic and cultural fields in which both countries have common interests. On the one hand, Iran needs to have access to the Central Asia through Turkmenistan while, on the other hand, Turkmenistan needs Iran for access to free waters of the Persian Gulf. The needs of both countries and the interests that are met through establishment of relations keep those relations going.

Iran and the War between Two Neighbors

The same is true about other northern neighbors of Iran. The Azerbaijani Republic has its own special relations and conditions. Geographic propinquity between Iran and Azerbaijan can be viewed from another angle. Both countries have many historical commonalties and shared the same fate up to 200 years ago. This issue has been a key to stabilization of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Baku. However, the breakout of armed conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia has caused problems in Iran's relations with those countries. Both countries (Azerbaijan and Armenia) have been entangled in a bitter dispute over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1988, that is, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Armenia raised territorial claims over Karabakh and several other regions and entered Azerbaijan’s soil. This issue has affected Iran's relations with both countries. As a result, relations between Iran and each one of these northern neighbors have been affected by relations with the other one. Therefore, policies adopted by Iran in relation to any of those countries have affected Iran's relations with the other country. Of course, solving the existing problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia can have great impact on relations among other regional countries and boost economic, cultural and political ties among them. Under present circumstances, it is quite clear that such differences in the region are a blessing to trans-regional countries. The reason is that every one of the two belligerent states will give concessions to extra-regional powerful players that are ready to help it in order to defeat the other side and stabilize its own position. Therefore, Iran is facing a dilemma with respect to these countries and as relations develop with one of them, due attention should be paid to the other in order to prevent any damage to bilateral ties. Conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan have barred regional countries, including their neighbors such as Iran from making the most of the available capacities in South Caucasus region. Although Iran has been trying in recent years to resolve their differences, as this is the best way of expanding ties with both of them, no clear result has been so far achieved.

In addition to problems which face Iran's diplomatic efforts because of differences between these two countries, there is also another matter of importance, which is lack of a clear strategic definition for South Caucasus region, which includes three countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, one Iran’s side. Iran has not specified its role in this region and our diplomacy has not set the course that we must take toward these countries as well as priorities that our country should seek in that region. Setting a clear course for the country’s foreign policy is important at any juncture and for any region. It will help our country to steer on a steady course independent of possible changes of government in Iran as well as in South Caucasus countries. With a long-term outlook, the country can stick to an unchanging strategy and meet its interests.

Internal Problems on the Way of Iran and Azerbaijan

Unfortunately, when it comes to diplomatic relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, we see that two basic factors prevent progress of Iran's relations with this country. The first factor is the United States and Israel whose embassies in Azerbaijan are adamantly against development of relations between Baku and Tehran. The second factor is Iranians living in Azerbaijan who have organized serious moves against further development of bilateral ties between the two countries. The so-called Popular Front of Azerbaijan is also against expansion of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and tries to obstruct development of ties every time that the two countries make an effort in this regard.

On the other hand, a similar atmosphere exists in Iran and there are certain groups that take negative positions when faced by any initiative on the side of Iran or Azerbaijan which aims to develop relations. At such occasions, they do their best to obstruct improvement in relations by spreading false rumors. Of course, the main reason for this behavior is not quite clear and no definite viewpoint can be offered on it, but such positions and behaviors are enough to overshadow bilateral relations.

Role of Russia in Regional Relations

Throughout the history of international relations and as the power of Russia and the United States grew, we have been witness to frequent cases in which Russia has objected to unilateral approach of the United States to international issues. Moscow has been a regular critic of Washington’s attitude which sees itself the leader of the world. However, Russia itself is following a totally unilateral policy on the situation in Caucasus and Central Asia. In view of on-and-off relations between Azerbaijan and Russia, what is currently going on in South Caucasus is that Russia is not willing to work with Iran in this region and does not want to follow a policy of collaboration. The Russian foreign policy defines its relations with South Caucasus countries in any way that it deems appropriate. For example, when Iran decided to sign a gas transfer contract with Armenia, Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, entered into negotiations with all companies with which Iran could have signed a contract, in order not to lose its monopoly over gas deals in South Caucasus. In another instance Iran won a tender bid for Sang Tudeh 1 power plant project which aims to build a hydroelectric power plant in Tajikistan. Using its influence in that country, Russia pressed the Tajik government over the project and deprived Iran of that opportunity though Iran had already won the tender bid for Sang Tudeh power plant and had already implemented two other projects successfully. The bottom line is that Russia exerts powerful pressure and sways strong influence on all relations in this region. Of course, reelection of Mr. Vladimir Putin as president may lead to more cooperation and collaboration between Russia and our country and modify unilateral policies of Moscow. If that happens, Moscow will be able to fulfill its promise for promoting cooperation among regional countries in international issues. This will help to raise the level of relations of such northern countries as Armenia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the Central Asian states with southern countries like littoral states of the Persian Gulf in addition to Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. This needs more explanation which cannot be offered here, but a lot of work should be done at international level in order to make this possible.

In conclusion, it should be noted that no country restricts its diplomacy to establishment of relations with neighboring countries alone. In addition to neighbors, it will also establish relations with other countries which sway influence in international arena. Foreign policy of every country revolves around two main pivots. The first pivot is having good relations with the neighboring countries with the second one being establishment of cordial ties with powerful and influential international players or those which can help the country meet its national interests. Focus on one of these groups will never obviate the need for a country’s foreign policy to pay due attention to the other group.

Key Words: Iran's Northern Neighbors, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, International Players, One-Sided Relationship, Bilateral Relationship, Beheshtipour

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