FRESH CONTACTS IN THE CAUCASUS
Tehran, seeing the region as a hedge against international isolation, has long angled for a larger role in the so-called post-Soviet space. For years, however, Iran’s international pariah status—and wariness on the part of nations in the region about getting on the wrong side of the United States and Europe—has constrained its regional contacts. But now, unfettered from international sanctions, Iran is finding fresh opportunities.
Economically, the country is insinuating itself ever more deeply into the region’s markets. Most conspicuously, it has made a diplomatic play to join key regional energy projects, such as the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) that stretches from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The strategy, as officials in Tehran see it, is to link their country’s massive natural gas reserves to European markets via the South Caucasus, which would help turn the Islamic Republic into an indispensable energy source for the eurozone.
As part of this effort, in recent weeks, Iran has launched fresh diplomatic talks with all three South Caucasus republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) over energy arrangements that would make it a key player in other potential regional pipelines. Those negotiations are already bearing fruit. Iran and Azerbaijan are now on track to sign a raft of new economic cooperation accords later this month. Azerbaijan’s regional rival, Armenia, is poised to boost its contacts with Iran as well. That country, which is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, is seeking to leverage its membership in the Moscow-dominated bloc to expand its trade ties with Tehran.
These moves reflect an emerging consensus in the South Caucasus that Iran, no longer isolated, could turn out to be an economic lifeline for the region’s stagnant economies.
FROM MOSCOW, WITH LOVE
Meanwhile, Iran’s relationship with its chief regional partner, Russia, is growing closer by the day. The strategic bonds between the two countries date back to the early 1990s, when Moscow, reeling from the Soviet collapse, sought—and acquired—a new strategic partner in Tehran. The two had been close during the latter part of the Cold War, but it was in the post-Cold War era that bilateral cooperation truly flourished in the form of arms (and eventually nuclear) cooperation, economic contacts, and shared anti-Americanism.
In the wake of the nuclear deal, Tehran and Moscow have drawn still closer. Since the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015, Tehran and Moscow have settled a protracted—and contentious—dispute over the delivery of S-300 missile batteries, paving the way for Iran to receive advanced Russian air defenses as early as this spring. They have also launched new talks on imports to Iran of Russian tank technology, as well as the co-production of Russia’s advanced Su-30 fighter jet. Perhaps most significantly, they have finalized plans for Iranian military and defense purchases that are cumulatively worth an estimated $8 billion.