By Elham Gharji, University of Coimbra.
Russia’s strategy for maintaining leadership in the wider Caspian region, encompassing the Caucasus and Central Asia, has been focused on close cooperation with Iran. Both strongly oppose Western influence in the region. As a peripheral power to Russia in the wider Caspian/Eurasian geopolitical space, Iran has historically played an important role in shaping the power dynamics in the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia wanted to cooperate with Iran in the international arena.
The wider Caspian region has historically been under the influence of either the Russian, Ottoman or Persian empires, whose relations have been very complicated. The Turko-Russian conflicts made up one of the longest series of wars, and included 13 major clashes in history. The Russian and Persian empires fought five wars with each other. Modern Turkey and Iran continue to be major regional powers around the Caspian that Russia needs to manage. Both countries have vast material and political interests in the region.
However, the current geopolitics of the region is mostly defined in terms of the Russian-Iranian alliance against the West. Both countries oppose Western influence in the international affairs of the region. After a period of tensions between Russia and Turkey over the crisis in Syria during 2016, Russo-Turkish relations are also increasingly defined in terms of opposition to the West. Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with the West after the failed coup attempt in July 2016 has eased relations with Russia. But, it is the Russo-Persian relation that is essential to Russia’s strategic interest in the region.
In the Caspian, Russia’s cooperation with Iran is of an utmost importance for two other reasons. First, cooperation with Iran allows Russia to control Iran (also Turkey’s) regional ambitions. Second, it ensures Russia’s geopolitical security in relation to Western powers. Russia has also closely cooperated with Turkey, another historically important player in the region. Their cooperation ensured the relative stability of the regional order following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cooperation among the three, however, is unlikely to develop into a stable regional alliance as they face many challenges in the longer run. In the longer run, Russia will remain vulnerable to a strategic shift particularly in the relation between Iran and the West.
Dynamics of Russo-Persian cooperation in the Caspian
Post-Soviet Russia considers the wider Caspian region – encompassing the Caucasus and Central Asia – as its zone of influence, and hence, it has been increasingly focusing on the Caspian region in recent years. Energy and regional leadership are the two main drivers of Russian foreign policy in the Caspian. In the energy sector, Russia has been fighting alternative pipeline projects that could reduce the region’s dependency on Russian controlled transport routes, including alternative routes through Iran. In the political sphere, Russia has become increasingly aggressive in attempting a hegemonic role that is legitimated through concepts such as the “near abroad”. As such, Russia has been sensitive to political attempts to disturb the power relations in the region as seen in case of conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine, in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
Russia’s regional leadership ambitions are aimed at regional powers such as Turkey and Iran as much as at Western influence. Although after the fall of the Soviet Union the relationship between Russia, Iran and Turkey has been fairly cooperative, both Turkey and Iran have vast material and non-material interests in the wider Caspian region, some of which clash with Russia’s interests. Russo-Persian cooperation in the Caspian, therefore, must be understood in this context.
One of the major dynamics in the relation between Russia and Iran is Turkey. Russia is concerned with Turkey who has vast interests -both political i.e. establishing a Turkic brotherhood internationally, and material in terms of playing a role in the energy transit. In the early years following the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s policy towards the region was based on a vision to create a Pan-Turkic world that stretched “from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China”. Although Turkey’s vision for the region was not embraced by the leaders of Turkic countries of Central Asia, Turkey remained strongly interested in promoting its relations with Turkic speaking countries of the region beyond bi-lateral relations. This included attempts for building regional mechanisms based on common Turkic identity. For instance, based on previous multilateral forums among Turkey and the Turkic speaking countries, since 2009, Turkey has established a regional international organisation called Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, or the Turkic Council, which includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan alongside Turkey as the founding member. Uzbekistan also attended this year’s summit of the group in Kyrgyzstan and expressed its readiness to join the organisation, proposing the city of Khiva to become the Capital of the Turkic Council.
Given the historical context of Turko-Russian conflicts in the region, Russia remains concerned about Turkey’s role in the region despite their current cooperative relationship. Although Turkey has not been able to shape a major Turkic mobilisation in the region to oppose Russian influence since the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s role in the wider Caspian region is bound to remain a permanent strategic concern for Russia. Despite its current deteriorating relationship with western powers, Turkey remains a major military power within NATO and this affects the dynamic of Russo-Turkish relations. Additionally, their conflicting interests elsewhere -such as in Syria- makes relations between Russia and Turkey problematic.
In order to counter Turkey, Russia relies on its close cooperation with Iran. Iran shares Russia’s concern in relation to Turkey’s desire to expand its role in the region. Fearing a Pan-Turkic movement following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was indirectly involved in supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is a fundamental aspect of Iran’s policy in the region aimed at countering security threats to its internal stability. Iran has a significant Turkic population.
Another component of Russo-Persian cooperation concerns both countries’ relation with the West. Struggling against international sanctions and marginalisation, Iran has been utilising the emerging opportunity of aligning with Russia to overcome marginalisation and seek international recognition. This has offered an opportunity for Russia to overcome Iran’s potential regional challenges and increase synergies in their foreign policy towards the West. To address external influences in the Caspian in recent years, both Russia and Iran have been discussing a regional approach and solutions to regional issues in the Caspian, particularly keeping Western powers out of the region. The Caspian Sea demarcation, which was a major legal point of conflict between Russia and Iran following the collapse of the Soviet Union, seems to have eased their relations further. A legal agreement was reached among the leaders of the Caspian Sea littoral states during the Caspian summit this year (2018) in Kazakhstan. Russia and Iran’s security position regarding keeping Western powers out of the Caspian made it into the Caspian Sea agreement.
While a change in the dynamics of Russia-Iran relations is not foreseeable in the short term, their relation is vulnerable to long term strategic shift in the relations between the West and Iran. Such change is likely to pose a strong challenge to Russia. Despite sharing interests, Iran and Russia have divergent political and material interests, including alternative energy transport routes through Iran that could undermine Russia’s interests. As an ambitious regional power that has been actively challenging the Western powers, Iran would like to play a much bigger role in the Caspian. Politically, over the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, the “interest in restoring Iran’s ‘natural’ role as a major regional power has increased, not only in governing circles but across a wide spectrum of elite and popular opinion”. Though Iran’s push to Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union was unsuccessful in terms of building a pro-Iranian regional alliance, its regional position and ambitions is a permanent challenge for Russia.
 William Hale (2000). Turkish Foreign Policy 1774–2000, London: Frank Cass, p. 188
 Uzbekistan attended the first two meetings of the heads of states in 2000 and 2001, but declined to take part in its meetings in the following years. The organisation was officially formed in 2009 without membership of Uzbekistan.
 “Mirziyoev says Uzbekistan Eager to Join Turkic Council”, RFE/LR, September 3, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/president-mirziyoev-says-uzbekistan-eager-to-join-turkic-council/29468091.html.
 Edmund Herzig (2004) Regionalism, Iran and Central Asia, International Affairs 80: 3, 503-517 (p. 506)