For Iran, the rupture in Western-Russian relations over the Ukraine crisis may mean an opportunity to boost its standing in Eurasia.
EURASIAN CONNECTIVITY POWER PLAYS
Iran has become acutely aware of the role of international trade and transport connectivity as a vector for regional power in Eurasia since the 2020 war between its South Caucasus neighbors, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s victory yielded it the planned “Zangezur Corridor” as a war spoil from the Russian-brokered ceasefire treaty. The corridor connects Azerbaijan via southern Armenia to the former’s geographically separated Nakhchivan republic.
If realized, the corridor will offset Tehran’s leverage over Baku by eliminating the latter’s reliance on transiting Iranian territory to reach Nakhchivan. It also connects Azerbaijan directly to its ally Turkey by land for the first time via the Nakhchivan-Turkey border. Iran suspects Azerbaijan of interpreting this enhanced connectivity as an assurance of Turkish—or even Israeli—protection if Baku decides to adopt anti-Iranian policies, one of which Tehran infers may be to block the Iran-Armenia border which runs below and parallel to the Zangezur Corridor.
One Iranian tactic to force Azerbaijan to take its threat perception of the Zangezur Corridor seriously is countering Azerbaijan’s connectivity footfall by promoting another Eurasian route which excludes Baku. This is the Persian Gulf-Black Sea International Transport Corridor (ITC), which runs from Iran’s Gulf ports up through Armenia to Georgia, then across the Black Sea to Bulgaria where it heads overland to Greece for access to broader Europe. The current Western drive to punish Russia for invading Ukraine may prove fruitful for the ITC’s viability and prospects.
To punish Russia for invading Ukraine, the US and EU are hurriedly searching for coherent long-term strategies to reduce Russia’s geoeconomic sway in Eurasia; this has included the recent American engagement of Qatar to help wean Europe from its reliance on Russian gas. The ITC furthers this Western objective by giving the former Soviet South Caucasus a non-Russian route to global markets. Additionally, if Iran and the West overcome the remaining obstacles in their negotiations to restore the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), US sanctions on Iran will be lifted, and this will further increase the ITC’s appeal to the West in the context of countering Russia.
The removal of sanctions not only makes getting the investments needed to build the ITC easier, but it also raises the possibility of Europe using the ITC to import Iranian oil to replace its Russian oil imports. The EU has long desired an Iranian role in its energy supplies for this purpose, but sanctions have thus far come in the way. Simultaneously, such Western interest in developing the ITC would also sharpen the project’s utility to Iran as a means to deter Azerbaijani attempts at reshaping the South Caucasus in a way that marginalizes Iran, and to incentivize Baku instead to include Tehran in its connectivity designs.
LEVERAGE WITH RUSSIA
Iran recognizes Russia as a vital part of the Eurasian equilibrium it wants to be part of, as codified in its new “Look East” doctrine. This requires improving its bargaining position with Moscow, which often uses Iranian interests as collateral for its own strategies. This dynamic was observed recently when Russia attempted to tie Iran’s negotiations for the restoration of the JCPOA, which will lift US sanctions on Iran, to its own relief from Western sanctions. Taking advantage of Russia’s status as a key JCPOA signatory, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in March, demanded assurance from the US that the JCPOA would include guarantees exempting Russian-Iranian trade from sanctions.
This entirely new demand threatened to create an impasse in JCPOA negotiations just as they were reportedly set to conclude successfully. It was clear that Russia was trying to use the JCPOA to blunt the West’s Ukraine-focused sanctions campaign targeting Moscow. As Iran analysts Hamidreza Azizi and Nicole Grajewski wrote in March, “Moscow appears to be trying to circumvent Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. By doing so, Russia may use Iran to bypass Western sanctions and re-export sanctioned goods under the guise of reaping economic benefits from the JCPOA—a benefit stipulated for Iran but not for the other parties to the deal.”
“As such, the ball seems to be now in the Iranian court to save the JCPOA from becoming collateral damage of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” they added. Subsequently, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian visited Moscow on March 15 and stated plainly that JCPOA talks would not be tied to Ukraine, while Lavrov claimed that Russia had received the guarantees from the US as a face-saving exit from Russia’s obstructionist JCPOA stance. According to Iranian political economist Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Iran’s leverage in getting Russia to back off came from the Ukraine crisis and the increased risk of international isolation that it creates for Moscow. Lavrov’s JCPOA gambit relied on Tehran’s acquiescence, rooted perhaps in the importance its Look East policy affords Russia. Abdollahian’s firm rejection, however, left Russia with no other sensible option but to avoid being seen as a JCPOA spoiler, as this would have burned too many diplomatic bridges. Under pressure about Ukraine, Moscow needs these bridges more than ever.
Furthermore, the Ukraine crisis also helps Iran improve its standing in Russia’s view by making Tehran important to Moscow’s efforts to counter Western strategies to impose punishments over the war. Namely, Russia extends olive branches to states which, while traditionally aligned with US great-power interests, do not treat Russia’s Ukraine policy as a transgression warranting collective international blowback as Washington and Brussels do.
As mentioned above, the EU can turn to Iran to diversify Europe’s energy imports away from Russia. The West desires this more so than ever due to the Ukraine situation, and the lifting of sanctions on Iran via the JCPOA’s return would certainly expedite things. In such circumstances, Russia has reason to offer Iran concessions in exchange for limiting how much oil and gas it designates for Europe.
Iran could demand such concessions in Russian positions that clash with its interests and which Tehran has traditionally lacked the leverage to change, such as Moscow’s security cooperation with Israel over Syria. It could also bargain for Russia to facilitate, not obstruct Iranian engagement with Eurasian regions where Russia is the dominant hegemon, such as Central Asia.
EURASIA IN FOCUS
Iran can expect a revival of its economic stakes in the West if and when the JCPOA is restored, and can perhaps even anticipate a chance to buttress its strategic and military-oriented alliances in the Middle East via greater economic links between its allies—plans floated by Tehran long ago.
However, it is in Eurasia where Iran has opportunities to expand its influence to new horizons and place itself at the heart of long-term economic and political transitions. As the US and EU are scrambling for viable options to pressure Russia, the Ukraine crisis may well prove advantageous to Tehran in fine-tuning its evolving strategy in this vast, resource-rich landmass.