Iran as the Unseen Hand in Former Soviet Republic Power Plays

In viewing the geopolitics of the former Soviet Union, there is usually a fairly simple dynamic: Russia on one side, and the West (variously the European Union, the United States, or both) on the other. This is a useful if simplified way of seeing the struggle Russia’s western vassals have fought for twenty years, and is especially useful when viewing Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and others caught between Russia and the EU geographically and politically.

Yet the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire before it, had a reach outside of the historic heartlands of the Slavs. Those Republics on Europe’s far periphery, and along the Caspian, are uniquely vulnerable to the aspirations of another hegemon: Iran.

Azerbaijan is forced by proximity, the large Azerbaijani population of Iran, and ambivalent support from the United States, to deal with Iran in nominally friendly terms. Armenia values Iran for its likely adversarial stance toward Azerbaijan in the event the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resumes. The various -stans, especially Turkmenistan, view Iran as a valuable trading partner, regional ally, and to a lesser extent, a source of Islamic authority for their populations.

Tehran has ruthlessly exploited its near environs almost perfectly, challenging halting Western inroads in the area through soft power and trade while also never angering Moscow, a jealous if still-wounded imperial giant. The result is now a more or less steady stream of news, more or less ignored in the West, of Iranian moves to shore up markets, trading partners, and influence in the region as a hedge against Western moves. (CXSSR’s Erika Chen reports today on the latest of these in Turkmenistan.)

Iran learned the lesson of Afghanistan well: Kabul’s inability and unwillingness to forge alliances with Russia and surrounding states other than Pakistan gave NATO forces clear lines of entry into the failed state over a decade ago. Leery despite its strong influence of remaining Western sway in Iraq, Tehran has worked to harden its periphery against Western attack as it develops its nuclear program.

Of all of its targets, only Azerbaijan has resisted, and then without significant Western backing. The rest have begun to reap the rewards of Tehran’s friendship, assuring that any attack on Tehran will have to cross at best neutral and more likely hostile airspace.

This is a story of years, and so it has largely been ignored in the West. But in the East, where the long game of politics is played over decades, the pieces continue to move into position for a conflict one, five, or ten years away.

Image Copyright Adam Jones, Ph. D