Although Iran's expansionist aspirations are primarily aimed at the Middle East, the states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia remain in Tehran’s sights.
The interests of Iran in the post-Soviet territory have deep historical roots. From Tehran's perspective, close neighbours such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have been part of the so-called Greater Iran throughout history.
Iran has sought to capitalise on its religious and ethnic affinities with certain states, such as Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. However, Tehran’s ambitions in the South Caucasus and Central Asia bring it ever closer to countries traditionally exclusively under Russia’s sphere of interest.
Tehran's "bid" for possible future domination over the territory of the former USSR was a letter from Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on January 1 1989.
In it, the Iranian leader urged the head of the Soviet state to abandon communist ideology and atheism and embrace Islam. More precisely, the version of Islam to which Khomeini himself adhered.
Aiming to advance its policy amidst the political transformations and struggles in the post-Soviet space during the 1990s, Iran achieved significant success in Tajikistan. Tehran's support of the Tajik groups of Afghan mujahids during the First Afghan War of 1979–92 was an important step in drawing the Tajiks, who lived in the territory of Tajikistan, into Iran's orbit.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, hostilities broke out in the capital city Dushanbe between insurgents supported by Afghan warlords – mostly Afghan Tajiks – and the successors of the Soviet government.
Iran also played a significant role in these events. Tehran provided shelter to representatives of the so-called United Tajik Opposition, and with its support, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was later created. After the war, this party became a legal political force until it was banned in 2015.
In the same period, Iran was working on the possibility of creating two quasi-states under its guidance in northern Afghanistan: the Tajik-Khazar and Herat Islamic republics. Leadership in Tehran believed that after politicians loyal to Iran, including those from the IRPT, came to power in Tajikistan, they would allow for the formation of the "eastern Iranian arc," a Tehran-led military-political alliance of Tajikistan and Afghan Hazaras and Tajiks.
However, Tehran wasn’t able to fully realise its ambitions during the post-war settlement in Tajikistan. Just as in Afghanistan, where the success of the Taliban and the military intervention of the United States and its allies hindered Iranian aspirations, Moscow, not Tehran, played a decisive role in the Tajik peace process by maintaining a military presence in the form of the 201st Motorised Rifle Division and border guards.
Nevertheless, along with Russia and the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, Iran became a sponsor of the Tajik settlement, and Tehran was able to normalise relations with official Dushanbe.
Tehran renewed its approach to the idea of ethnic and linguistic affinity between Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan in 2006, when it announced a rapprochement plan for Farsi-speaking states, Iran and Tajikistan, and Farsi-Dari-speaking Afghan Tajiks and Hazaras. It was supposed to be the prologue to the creation of the Iranian political and cultural space.
A certain impetus to this cooperation was given during the August 2010 meeting of the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan in Tehran. The Joint Communiqué and the Memorandum on the Establishment of the Commission on Cooperation were signed then. However, the process of the practical establishment of the alliance soon came to a standstill, and after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2021, the project is unlikely to be revived in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, Tehran intends to continue its efforts to seek a rapprochement with Dushanbe based on linguistic and cultural unity. Iran sees Tajikistan not only as a springboard to further its military, political and economic interests in Central Asia but also as an opportunity to demonstrate its cultural and "spiritual" potential.
Tajikistan has always been wary of its neighbour’s ambitions – though it has been interested in Iranian investments. After 2013, however, relations between the two countries deteriorated due to Iran's contacts with representatives of the Tajik opposition, and the subsequent banning of the IRPT in Tajikistan.
Strategically speaking, however, Dushanbe would still like to use the potential of the "Iranian world." Closer cooperation with Iran — or any ally — could be valuable in Dushanbe’s view, given the extremely tense relations between Tajikistan and the interim government of Afghanistan, as well as border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan.
In the latter case, Iran can take advantage of the "Turkic threat" actively discussed in regional media, related to Kyrgyzstan's participation in the Organization of the Turkic States, which is reinforced by reports on Türkiye's arms deliveries to Kyrgyzstan.
Besides Tajikistan, Turkmenistan plays an important role as a military-political and economic partner for Tehran. As long as the current Turkmen leadership is in power in Ashgabat, Iran can feel safe in this direction. Turkmenistan's neutral status is fully consistent with Iran's security interests.
Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan
The same cannot be said about Iran's relations with Azerbaijan. Tehran views the latter not only as a possible springboard for Israeli activity against Iran, but also as a country where Iran's interests have been seriously undermined by the alliance between Ankara and Baku.
Tehran's militaristic demarches near the borders with Azerbaijan in the fall of 2021, as well as the overall crisis in relations between the two countries during that period, were provoked primarily by the ambitions of the new Iranian leadership. They believe that Iran's role in the South Caucasus was undermined during the 44-day war. And now, the Islamic Republic is close to being completely ousted from the region.
Iran tried to come up with various mediation efforts to be among the states involved in solving the problems of the region—signalling that its word and opinion cannot be ignored. However, all of them were rejected, and Russia and Türkiye played a decisive role in the settlement.
Thus, Iran, which considers itself the leader of all Shia Muslims, has practically lost its influence in predominantly Shia Azerbaijan and is trying to compensate for it by doubling down on its support of Armenia. It's worth mentioning that Tehran started to pursue this course after the First Karabakh War (1988–1994) when its "services" were not appreciated and it failed to spread its influence over the South Caucasus.
At the same time, Tehran’s steps challenge not only Baku and Ankara but also Moscow with increasing activities in the Armenian direction. Iran is trying to become a guarantor of Armenia's security and territorial integrity, thus reducing Russia's influence over Armenian leadership. It is indicative that this was duly appreciated in Yerevan, when Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan unexpectedly went to Tehran on October 4 2021, where he received appropriate assurances of support from the Iranian side.
Iran's opposition to the creation of the transport ("Zangezur") corridor from Karabakh to Nakhichevan through the territory of Armenia, also indirectly contradicts Russia's interests since Russian border troops would have to guard this highway, giving Moscow additional leverage in the South Caucasus.
Looking at the big picture, Russia-Iran rivalry will differ from the Russian-Turkish competitive partnership aimed at dividing spheres of influence and guarantees against each other's encroachments: Tehran's interests extend to those states — Armenia and Tajikistan — that are already within the exclusive sphere of Russian interests.
In today’s geopolitical arena, there are contradictions between Russia and Iran in the post-Soviet space. While they are not very obvious, the emergence of additional points of tension and Russian-Iranian rivalry in the South Caucasus and Central Asia remains a possibility in the foreseeable future.
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