The South Caucasus in the Regionalism of Iran's Foreign Policy

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Humanities, Tarbiat Modres University

2 Fellow, Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)


Introduction: The Second Karabakh War resulted in a significant shift in the regional balance of power, as Russia and Turkey increased their influence to shape the changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran’s policy in the South Caucasus has been based on preventing a full-scale war and maintaining the status quo in the region especially in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, Tehran has never presented an initiative to mitigate geopolitical disputes or promote economic integration in the South Caucasus. At the theoretical level, the idea of regionalism in Iran’s foreign policy has usually been discussed from three perspectives: security-geopolitical, geo-economic and identity-civilizational. At the practical level, the main challenge for Iranian regionalism over the past four decades has been to create a balance between these divergent approaches. In a general view, the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh actually required the renewal of major geostrategic structures in the South Caucasus. While regional stakeholders such as Turkey and Russia aspired for a greater role through their operational-diplomatic initiatives, Tehran's passive response to regional geopolitical change made it clear that Iran had no strategic vision to shape these developments. As a result of the weak engagement, Iran is sidelined in emerging geopolitics of the South Caucasus in strategic terms.
Research Question: The purpose of this article is to explain the reasons for the lack of regionalism in Iran's foreign policy in the South Caucasus. The main question is; what factors are at play in explaining Iran’s regionalism in the South Caucasus? How can we understand the reasons behind Iran's lack of regionalism in the South Caucasus in a systematic way?
Research Hypothesis: This paper presents two interrelated arguments by providing a multi-level explanation. First, the Systemic pressures and lack of strategic vision of regionalism in foreign policy have isolated Iran in its neighboring regions. Second, the relative dominance of the security-geopolitical approach and at the same time, the centrality of the Arab Middle East to Iran’s regional policy, has increasingly marginalized other neighboring regions especially the South Caucasus.
Methodology (and Theoretical Framework if there are): In order to explain the main idea of the research, this article uses the analytical method of inductive-deductive reasoning. An Inductive- deductive mixed reasoning has been used in this article and it is tried to take advantage of the collected data in order to achieve a proper pattern for analyzing the status and implications of Iran’s regionalism in the South Caucuses.  
In the prism of latest developments in theoretical literature of Regionalism, this article frames its main contribution by highlighting this main theoretical argument; Contrary to Western-oriented approaches, today the concept and requirements of regionalism are significantly different with regions and regionalism taking a quasi-autonomous role in shaping regional policies and in addressing different issues and areas with the rise of new actors and alliances in the regions. 
Results and Discussion: In the aftermath of the 2020 Karabakh war, emerging geopolitical realities convinced Iran to start rearranging its foreign policy in the South Caucasus and abandon its traditional policy of neutrality. Although the regionalism projects proposed by others could be a favorable ground for Tehran to strengthen cooperation with all stakeholders in the region, the major trend of Iran's foreign policy towards regionalism in the South Caucasus is not yet visible on the horizon.  In the meantime, while Iran has a rather open view toward the regionalist projects presented by Russia and Turkey, it views Western proposals as potential drivers of divergence rather than convergence aimed, among other things, at isolating Iran in its neighboring regions. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union had provided a significant space for regional powers to play an active role in the South Caucasus, Iran's engagement in this region and its relations with its neighbors have been limited. Except for Armenia, which has real political reasons in maintaining the balance in the conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, Iran has not had close relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia. In a general look, Iran's foreign policy in the South Caucasus has been mostly passive and a security-oriented approach. Over the last decades, Western powers, the US in particular, have made an increasing effort to securitize Iran’s regional behavior in the South Caucasus. By adopting the “everything without Iran policy”, the United States has sought to weaken Iran's role in transit corridors, energy transits and even cultural initiatives. Under the influence of the West's comprehensive Iranophobia policy, in order to weaken Iran’s strategic connections with its neighbors, a security and aggressive image of Iran's foreign policy has been portrayed in the eyes of its Caucasian neighbors especially Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Conclusion: Given the transition in the international system and the importance of regions in the structure of global governance, the development of cooperation with neighbors and active regionalism in the neighboring regions, especially the South Caucasus, is gradually becoming a strategic necessity in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite this, Iran is facing many international and domestic challenges in pursuing an active regionalism. Although the Raeisi administration seeks to develop the neighborhood policy and redefine the role and strategic position of Iran in the surrounding regions, it seems that at least in the foreseeable future, Tehran is incapable of designing and implementing an active regionalist approach in the South Caucasus independently.


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