The Caucasus is famously a region bounded by three former empires: Russia, Turkey and Iran. But while Moscow and to a lesser degree Ankara hold significant sway in the region, Tehran has been relegated to little more than a spectator. Despite its often-dominant position over its neighbors to the west in the Arab world, Iran’s northwestern neighbors remain almost entirely outside of Tehran’s sphere of influence – and it is hard to see this situation changing.
For more than two millennia, various Persian empires controlled the eastern Caucasus, including modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan. This long hegemony came to an end in the early 19th century, as tsarist Russia wrested away the territories in a series of campaigns.
Iran would be a bit player in the region throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it did play some role in the First Karabakh War as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Tehran sided predominantly with Armenia, especially following the mid-1992 rise to power of Abulfaz Elchibey in Azerbaijan and his dreams of irredentism at Iran’s expense. Most importantly, Iran provided a vital lifeline for Armenia to the outside world, becoming its one stable corridor for energy and food supplies as the country’s other borders closed due to blockade (Turkey and Azerbaijan) or civil war (Georgia).
Armenia maintained strong links to Iran economically in the decades that followed, with Iran constituting Yerevan’s third-largest export destination as recently as 2019. This has not translated into much else, however; Iranian investment in Armenia has remained minimal and the two have rarely cooperated in the military or political spheres. Yerevan’s desire to remain on good terms with the US, as part of Armenia’s multi-vector foreign policy, severely limits the relationship with Tehran.
The situation with Azerbaijan is even less favorable for Tehran. While Iran was pleased at the prospect of a new Shia-majority state emerging on its borders, the pan-Turkic and open irredentist flirtations of the Elchibey government (1992-93), short-lived as it was, drove a severe wedge into relations almost immediately. The successive governments of Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham Aliyev in Baku have never tapped into this rhetoric to the same degree, but for Iran, any potential of inciting ethnic separatism with the millions of Iranian Azeris constitutes an existential threat. Azerbaijan’s close relations with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel over the past decade have further entrenched an atmosphere of suspicion between Baku and Tehran.
Internal dynamics further complicate the picture. Iran plays host to large populations of both ethnic Armenians and Azeris – and although the latter greatly outnumber the former, forming as much as a quarter of Iran’s population, local Armenians play a key role in Iran’s civic identity.
The Islamic Republic’s leadership has made the Armenian community a sort of “model minority” for the country, granting the Christian minority unique privileges (such as the ability to produce and consume their own alcohol) in an effort to showcase the multiethnic tolerance and character of the state.
Iran’s Azeri community, meanwhile, remains a source of potential unrest of which Tehran is constantly wary. Numerous pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations in northwest Iran during last autumn’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh were harshly dispersed by security forces. There is no serious threat of secessionist agitation among Iranian Azeris, but the mere possibility restricts the role that Tehran can hope to play over the Karabakh issue.
It is hard to see how Iran would come to play a role in Armenia and Azerbaijan even if it wanted to. Tehran’s modus operandi across the Middle East, from Iraq to Yemen to Syria, has been to exercise control via proxy militias that operate independently of whatever state structures exist.
But this model relies on a dysfunctional state that cannot govern its own territory – a category that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan falls into. Even on the military front, the sorts of sectarian militias Iran utilized in favor of its allies in the Syrian civil war would hardly be useful on the Karabakh battlefield, which is characterized by fully equipped state armies, not ragtag armed groups. The experience of the Syrian mercenaries Turkey deployed to Karabakh last fall, whose main achievement was getting decimated by artillery fire, aptly demonstrates this.
Iran’s diplomatic entreaties both during and after the recent war, meanwhile, have gone ignored, with Tehran’s offer to mediate at the height of hostilities in mid-October not so much as addressed by either Yerevan or Baku. In the postwar period, Iran has continued to look on helplessly, with Russia playing the leading role in the region as the US and France (and to a lesser degree, Turkey) have sought to increase their role in the conflict’s resolution and postwar situation.
An array of almost immutable internal and international dynamics, then, prevents the Islamic Republic from exerting more than nominal influence on Armenia and Azerbaijan, and especially on the Karabakh conflict. Given how entrenched these factors are, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will be able to change its role anytime soon. Iran may have ruled the Caucasus for centuries, but those days are demonstrably gone.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.