Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 142

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Hojatolislam Hassan Rowhani, paid official visits on July 16-22 to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The tour appeared designed to raise Iran’s profile as a regional power and to claim a larger role for Tehran in the resolution of security and economic issues in the South Caucasus. In the wake of Iran’s presidential election, Rowhani’s tour looks like the prologue to a planned effort by the government of reelected President Mohammad Khatami to increase Tehran’s influence in the region, working in concert with Moscow on some issues and to the detriment of the West on most.

In Yerevan, Tbilisi and Baku, Rowhani asserted Tehran’s doctrine that all problems in the South Caucasus must be solved on a “regional” basis, to the exclusion of nonregional powers. According to that doctrine, Russia as well as Iran are organic to the South Caucasus, Turkey is eligible for a role in Russia’s and Iran’s shadow, and Western countries are deemed “nonregional” and therefore not entitled to participate in major decisions on the region’s future.

Along with that view, Rowhani urged the South Caucasus countries to join the would-be “North-South axis,” the poles of which are Russia and Iran, with Armenia as the sole available connecting link. Western-oriented Georgia and Azerbaijan, along with Turkey and Israel, are seen to form an “West-East axis,” which Tehran regards as inimical. For its part, Yerevan regards the Russian military presence in Georgia as a partial substitute for the missing territorial contiguity between Armenia and Russia. In Moscow, a geo-economic scheme named “North-South corridor”–Russia’s answer to the European Union’s East-West transit projects–would include Azerbaijan as a connecting link between Russia and Iran. For such reasons, Tehran’s promotion of a North-South axis finds receptive audiences in Yerevan and Moscow.

In both Yerevan and Baku, Rowhani offered Tehran’s mediation in the negotiations to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. That offer goes well beyond the stated intention of the three mediating countries–the United States, France and Russia–to brief Iran periodically about the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiating rounds. The leaders of Armenia and Karabakh showed interest in Rowhani’s mediation proposal. For his part, Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev threw the ball into Tehran’s court in asking Iran to use its good relations with Armenia in order to exercise a moderating influence on Armenia’s policy.

Iran’s position seems less than consistent or predictable. Rowhani’s agenda in Yerevan included the joint hydropower project on the Arax/Araz River, on Armenian-occupied territory in Azerbaijan proper, beyond Karabakh. In Baku, however, the Iranian envoy both distanced himself from that plan and disavowed any “border changes brought about by force”–a principle he had failed to assert in Yerevan.

With his counterparts Serge Sarkisian in Yerevan and Ramiz Mehdiev in Baku, Rowhani signed bilateral “Memoranda of Understanding” on security cooperation. According to official accounts in both of those capitals, these documents focus on anticrime activities, border safety and related matters usually dealt with by the police and border guards. For its part, official Tehran sought to cast these memoranda as regional security agreements with political dimensions. This form of public presentation seems to reflect Iran’s aspirations more than it does the actual scope of the documents themselves.