South Caucasus Emerges 21st Century’s “Great Game” Venue As Russia Fades & Iran, Turkey Juggle For Influence

The implosion of the erstwhile Soviet Union diminished Russia’s role in the South Caucasus. The region became the playing ground for Iran and Turkey, who are trying to outplay each other in the scramble for influence.

Historical Geography

Historically speaking, the Caucasus — to a larger, and Trans-Caspian to a lesser degree — remained somewhat off the route of great warriors or emperors who raised big empires in the Middle Ages.

However, due to the historical commotions arising out of struggles for raising fabulous empires, kingdoms, and satrapies across the fertile and populous regions of Asia Minor, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the vast steppes of Turkestan, large-scale human migration took place northwards from early medieval times. ­­

The result was that the Caucasus and its southern regions gradually became home to ethnolinguistic and cultural groups. These groups ultimately developed into regional states with specific identities and personalities.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­It was only after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union that Central Asian and Caucasian regions were formulated as federating units of the Soviet Union in their capacity as autonomous states. The character and scope of their autonomy are debatable and outside the purview of this article.

Regional Actors

External actors with an indirect interest in the emerging political phenomenon in the South Caucasus and Trans-Caspian regions are the European Union and the South Caucasian states pursuing their independent course in their national interest.

A fundamental ingredient of their policy is adjusting to the varying policies of three external actors—though not at the cost of their national interests. How far this policy can work is a moot point.

During Soviet times, Armenia depended on Russia, Azerbaijan followed something of an independent foreign policy, and Georgia adopted a pro-Western and anti-Russian stance.

New Actors: Turkey & Iran

The political chessboard of the South Caucasus has seen far-reaching changes after the implosion of the Soviet Union. The erstwhile federating units declared their independence from the USSR.

Prompted by Russia’s withdrawal from the region, two neighboring powers—Iran and Turkey—aspired to fill the vacuum. The Ottomans (Turkey) carved out theatres of influence at various places in the region.

In the post-Soviet era, the two powers tried to balance their regional interest. At the same time, the element of rivalry has never been inactive. During the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, Azerbaijan received outright support from Turkey. Then, on September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a massive attack and wrested the remaining Karabakh region, which forced Armenia to conclude a peace treaty with Azerbaijan.

Russia’s diminished role in the South Caucasus popped up another regional power, Iran, that we saw playing something like a hide-and-seek game. Political analysts think Iran played the game of rivalry as well as collaboration.

Image for Representation

Zangezur Corridor

A clause in the Moscow-brokered ceasefire in 2020 mandated rebuilding the road and rail link connecting Turkey to mainland Azerbaijan via the Nakhichevan enclave and Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province.

The link is opposed by Iran because Tehran thinks the Zangezur corridor (a transport corridor which, if implemented, would give Azerbaijan unimpeded access to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic) could isolate it besides being harmful to its economic interests.

Another irritant in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan is the latter trying to establish friendly relations with Israel. Iran has always kept a watch on whether Israel is getting a foothold in any of the South Caucasus states. Recently, the foreign minister of Armenia was on a visit to Tehran, where he met Iran’s Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who bluntly told him that he had reports of Armenia encouraging and patronizing Israeli officials. The reports are that with the admonishments from Tehran, Armenia reduced its interaction with Israel.

Impact Of Peace Talks

Russia brokered the ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Karabakh issue. Yet, after 2021, Russia has somehow lost the influence it wielded with the two important trans-Caspian states.

Perhaps Russia’s influence waning over the two South Caspian states was due to Washington and Brussels’ participation in the peace talks. Tehran is not upset that Russian influence is waning in the region, but it is deeply concerned about Tukey trying to fill the vacuum. After all, at the end of WWII, a part of Azerbaijan passed into Iran’s control.

Iran has a genuine argument that Azerbaijan cannot ignore and that even Turkey has to consider. There is a strong Azerbaijani diaspora in Iran. It is an influential diaspora and has also been occupying important positions in the administration and Iranian armed forces.

Given the very disquieting internal situation of Iran, especially after the Ahsa Amini tragedy (on September 16, 2022, 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman, died while in custody of Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad, the “morality police” for “improper” clothing), there is a large-scale dislike among the Iranian civil society for the theocratic regime. The theocratic regime of the Ayatollahs in Tehran has to do some tightrope walking while dealing with Azerbaijan.

Overland Connectivity

Teheran has been skeptical about the North-South International Trade Corridor (NSITC) connecting Mumbai with Moscow via Chahbahar. The route is also scheduled to touch some of Turkey’s towns. Proposals for building arteries to this route would give Turkey access to become a partner in the project.

Recently, India and Iran signed a 10-year Chahbahar agreement, which provides connectivity between Mumbai, Chahbahar, Kabul, Turkmenistan, and onwards across Azerbaijan to Moscow. Again, Iran wants to bypass Turkey.

In the final analysis, the South Caucasus political chessboard actors are geared to outplay one another, focusing on three counts: (a) the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea and the littoral region; (b) Baku, the most likely hub of Eurasian transport and trade; and, (c) a region with the potential of harmonizing political and ideological angularities which would lend great support to peace initiatives in the entire Caucasian and Caspian region.

  • Prof. KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University.
  • This article contains the author’s personal views and does not represent EurAsian Times’ policies/views/opinions in any way. 
  • The author can be reached at knp627 (at)