07.06.2009
Peace and Cooperation in Central Eurasia: An Iranian Outlook
№2 2009 April/June

Central Eurasia, especially the part located between Iran and
Russia, is facing many problems at the moment. The region’s future
is challenged by economic problems, poverty, ethnic and religious
conflicts, intervention by great powers and a lack of any general
arrangements for solving these problems. Most of them could be
resolved using regional mechanisms and thus have a positive impact
on resolving other problems as well. Addressing such an important
agenda requires cooperation from all the countries in the region,
however Iran and Russia could be most effective in this regard, by
providing conditions for regional peace through dialogue and
cooperation.

Achieving stability in Central Eurasia has a promising history
with 15 years of coexistence and cooperation among Iran, Russia and
other countries in the region. This article will attempt to analyze
the possibilities and opportunities for attaining peace and
cooperation in the region from a “social-constructivist” approach.
In fact, it offers an Iranian scholar’s outlook on how this issue
is understood in Iran – by the government, academic quarters and
society.

MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING AND COOPERATION

Political science provides many theories for the analysis and
explanation of international realities, phenomena and problems.
Many theories have offered solutions to conflicts and crises from
the prescriptive and normative approaches. For example, from a
realist’s point of view the only way towards peace and cooperation
is a “balance of power.” Liberals point out common ideas and goals
and relevant institutions as necessary conditions. From their point
of view democracy within states is the key to resolving conflicts.
Theoreticians of the “foreign policy school” consider domestic
factors at the individual, group, organizational, social and
national levels; they also regard regional and global constituents
as effective factors. From the post-modernist approach,
specifically discourse analysis, there may be different discourses
coming from different layers of power. In each period of history
one of them is dominant and forms a foreign policy. Therefore,
peace and cooperation are transitory, but the hegemony of peace
discourse can have a positive effect on other countries.

In the latest theory of international relations, constructivists
emphasize the significance inter-subjective comprehension of other
states as the main factor in international politics. [Through
inter-subjective perception people form shared meanings used in
their interactions with each other and as an everyday resource to
interpret the social and cultural life. Inter-subjectivity
emphasizes that shared cognition and consensus is essential in the
shaping of our ideas and relations. –  Ed]. From the
constructivist point of view, states have a historical social
identity and interact in a way that helps them reach understanding
of each other.

A state may develop an inter-subjective understanding of another
state as a source of threat, hostility and insecurity, or,
alternatively, regard it as a friend. The inter-subjective
understanding may regard the other power’s growth as a mounting
threat, or it may regard it as an ordinary thing. Mutual
understanding forms a comprehension of mutual security either
according to a competitive (Hobbesian) or cooperative (Kantian)
model. Therefore, although the historical and social identity of
states may prepare the ground for competition or cooperation,
current interaction affects mutual understanding and redefines the
states’ identity and interests. The relations between states in
each period develop according to one of the two models –
cooperation or competition.

TWO DECADES OF COMMON EXPERIENCE AND UNDERSTANDING IN CENTRAL
EURASIA

Iran and Russia have ancient deep-rooted identities and their
interaction in different periods of history has helped them develop
different understandings of each other. From the second half of the
16th century until the end of the 17th century, that is, for 150
years, their interaction was marked by cooperation. But from the
18th century until the end of the 20th century, the two countries
experienced both warm and cold wars, and their understanding of
each other would fall under the notions of threat and
hostility.

The year 1989 should be regarded as the start of a new era in
relations between the two countries. Both Iran after the Islamic
revolution and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union were
transformed and gained new identities. The two countries started a
new interaction with new identities in the 1990s. Today, Tehran and
Moscow cooperate peacefully in different spheres, observing the UN
Charter principles and the interests of other states. The
cooperation involves bilateral issues and regional matters in
Central Asia, the Caspian region and the Caucasus.

This interaction has acquired a new dimension which can be
described using such terms as “friendship,” “common interests” and
“essential cooperation.” Mutual understanding has provided a basis
for mutual help and has shaped positive bilateral relations. The
growing level of this interaction is confirmed by both political
analysts and state officials of the two countries.

Unfortunately, this mutual understanding and cooperation has not
embraced the entire region and has not culminated in any kind of
cooperative structure of Iran, Russia and other countries of the
region. The two countries have so far been unable to establish
mechanisms for institutionalizing these achievements, yet it is
still possible to find a solution to this issue.

After 1992, Iran and Russia gradually reached an understanding
of mutual interests in Central Asia, the Caspian region and the
Caucasus that formed a basis for their cooperation in these
regions. Such factors as the growing influence of Western powers
and their allies (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), the
permeation of existing regional crises into the territories of the
two countries and the atmosphere created by the 1989 agreement have
culminated in expanding cooperation.

Cooperation projects have helped to alleviate pessimism in
relations between Iran and Russia. There is a new generation of
managers and officials with cooperation experience that can be used
as a pattern by their colleagues and the next generation.
Cooperation makes representatives of the two countries learn each
other’s language more seriously and creates increased interest in
the two nations.

In contrast to the Yeltsin era, Russia today pursues an
independent foreign policy at a global level. Iran’s and Russia’s
independent activities on the international stage and a series of
global interactions are a factor that helps counterbalance U.S.
unilateralism. The independent policies of Russia, Iran and other
countries, particularly the new emerging economies, contribute to
the diversification of the international system, promotion of
national sovereignty and respect for the principles of
international law, such as the non-use of force and
non-intervention.

A strong Russia enjoying the power of self-defense can act more
effectively in restricting NATO’s influence. This is a significant
issue for Iran. Together with new emerging powers like China, India
and Brazil, which are seeking independent action, an independent
and powerful Russia and an independent and powerful Iran could
create a basis for synergy in the international system.

At the regional level the two countries can enjoy more positive
cooperation. Iran and Russia have the capacity to create effective
institutions in Central Asia and in the Caucasus in order to solve
problems related to development, security and cooperation in these
regions. Such institutions could take steps towards economic,
cultural and political integration. As an Islamic country with a
progressive political system, Iran can effectively replace patterns
propagating hostility towards Russia.

The two countries showed concern over the Nagorno-Karabakh
crisis and Iran acted as mediator in it. Tehran and Moscow held a
series of meetings beginning in 1994 on the civil war in
Tajikistan, which eventually resulted in reconciliation and an end
to the crisis in 1996. Their cooperation in supporting the Afghan
Northern Alliance in 1996-2001 also helped form strong resistance
to the Taliban offensive.

Tehran and Moscow realize that extremist ethnic and religious
movements operating in the regions located between Russia and Iran
might endanger their interests. That is why they regard each other
as colleagues and have tried to resolve problems through joint
efforts.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had a negative
view of Iranian activities in Central Asia. But this view changed
due to Iran’s pragmatic policy and to close cooperation between the
two countries on some issues, including the Tajik crisis.

The civil war in Tajikistan was in fact a battle between
Islamists and democrats on the one hand, and Communists on the
other. The Communists, with support from Russia and Uzbekistan,
seized power and the opposition withdrew to the Afghan borders and
killed several Russian solders in a series of military operations.
For Moscow, maintaining the former Soviet border was essential: if
Tajikistan were lost, it would mean that the southern border would
be open. Therefore, solving the problem by diplomatic means became
a major task for Moscow. In autumn 1994, a ceasefire agreement was
signed in Tehran between the parties engaged in the Tajik civil
war. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and leader of the opposition
Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan Abdullah Nuri were invited
to Tehran the next year, where they signed an agreement on a
peaceful resolution to the conflict. They agreed to maintain the
ceasefire and set up a council to solve the problems. Finally, in
1997, the Tajik government and the opposition forces reached a
final agreement on this regard.

Iran’s mediatory role in reconciling the hostile groups in
Tajikistan increased the country’s overall significance and
position in creating peace and stability in the region. Russians
became aware of Iran’s positive role. Importantly, Iran acted as a
mediator in the Tajik conflict while Russia supported the Tajik
government. Russian forces were officially present in that country.
By convincing the Islamist opposition to reconcile with the
Russia-backed government, Iran played a difficult and important
role. Unfortunately, the problem was resolved for the benefit of
the Dushanbe government and Russia’s regional position.

In another instance cooperation between Iran and Russia involved
the resolution of the Afghan issue. After the Taliban seized power
in 1996, Iran and Russia supported the Northern Alliance. In the
same year, the Iranian foreign minister, in emphasizing the warm
relations between the two countries, called for closer cooperation
in resolving the Afghan issue and Russian foreign minister Yevgeny
Primakov visited Tehran. As a radical group, the Taliban were
regarded as a threat to the security of both Iran and Russia. So
Tehran and Moscow decided to confront the Taliban together.
Moreover, both countries were facing the problem of drug
trafficking from Afghanistan. Tehran and Moscow signed an agreement
to combat drug smuggling.

The next years saw an increase in cooperation between the two
countries in that sphere. The U.S. eventually overthrew the Taliban
with Iranian assistance and with the support of Russian forces.
After defeating the Taliban, it was expected that Moscow would show
sensitivity towards the presence of U.S. and other Western
countries in Afghanistan and Central Asia and turn towards India,
China and Iran in order to form a kind of balance against the
West.

In recent years, notwithstanding that the two states do not
regard each other as rivals or threats, their cooperation at the
regional level has been less pronounced than was expected and has
taken the form of sustainable implicit arrangements. For instance,
in Central Asia Russia did not welcome Iran’s membership in the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran only succeeded in being
accepted as an observer member in July 2005 with the assistance of
smaller countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. From the Russian
point of view, Iran can give a different meaning and direction to
this organization due to its specific foreign policy, especially as
regards the U.S. and the West. On the other hand, Iran’s
non-involvement may limit the organization’s capacity for reaching
a common stance on security.

Furthermore, Russia seeks to maintain its influence in the CIS,
including countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and regards
it as a basic priority. For this purpose Russia has such mechanisms
as the CIS. So generally speaking, Russia wants the CIS out of the
others’ control. However, Russia is gradually losing its influence
in the region. While Georgia and Azerbaijan are getting closer to
the West and Turkey, Central Asia is very likely to become
increasingly close to China. Right now there is already a
considerable presence of Chinese and Koreans in Kazakhstan and
Chinese energy pipelines will reach the Caspian Sea in the next two
years. In these circumstances Russia will not have any better
option than Iran.

The Caucasus has always had a special significance for both Iran
and Russia. Back in the 18th and the 19th centuries, most rivalries
(called “the great game” that involved the Ottoman Empire, Iran,
Russia and Britain) took place in that region. The Caucasus is a
mixture of different ethnic groups, with eight autonomous republics
located in the north, and three independent and four autonomous
republics in the south. Its proximity to the Black Sea is of
critical importance to Russia (especially given its present
relations with Ukraine, NATO expansion and the growing influence of
other Western institutions). For Iran, neighboring the insecure
Caucasus region, which is bogged down in ethnic conflicts and
identity problems, creates certain concern. Iran and Russia are
sensitive to the ethnic crises in the region, including
Nagorno-Karabakh, and regard them as a threat to their national
security and their regional influence, but they have pursued
different policies in that regard.

Moscow, which has a special relation with Armenia and military
bases in that country and enjoys broad influence in Azerbaijan, and
both of these countries are dependent on Russia in different
spheres, uses various tools in order to sustain its influence in
the region. Until 2007, Russia maintained military bases in Georgia
and rented the Qabala radar base in Azerbaijan. Russia also has
broad relations with regional ethnic groups, including Abkhasians,
Ossetians and Ajars, and has been supporting them against central
governments.

Another issue is the presence of foreign powers in the region,
and Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s growing relations with NATO, which
is causing concern in Iran and Russia. Unfortunately, the two
countries have not been successful in reaching cooperation in
confronting these developments.

In late April 2005, Russia proposed establishing a new defense
formation, specifically a rapid reaction force in the Caspian,
which was welcomed by Iran. The force was apparently intended not
just to repulse terrorist threats, but also to oppose the Western
military presence in the Caspian. In fact, Moscow’s proposal was
triggered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to
Baku on April 12-13. Immediately after his visit local media
claimed that Washington intended to build major bases, extensive
radar and air-defense facilities in Azerbaijan from which to attack
Iran or from which a sophisticated radar network and a tripartite
military bloc, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,
could be built. “Azeri-American plans aim to further develop the
Operation Caspian Watch plan, whose purpose is to help the
Azerbaijani navy defend its coastal and offshore oil platforms that
Iran has previously threatened and to enhance Azerbaijan’s
participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace.” While the
Russian-Iranian gambit is clearly intended to counter Washington
and NATO, it also indicates a significant modification of Iran’s
stated policy of opposing the militarization of the Caspian.

The idea to demilitarize the Caspian Sea region was propounded
by Iran during a visit by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
in 2002. Later, in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested
that all the coastal countries of the Caspian Sea, including Iran,
form an organization to preserve peace, order and security in the
Caspian region. While Putin’s idea of a new organization was
focused on maintaining peace, Iran considered the economic growth
and development of the region, as well.

Russia’s proposal regarding military activity in the Caspian Sea
consisted of two points. First, Russia suggested that a formula to
maintain the military forces of the littoral states be included in
a Caspian constitution and proposed establishing a military
formation around the Caspian Sea that would be at an adequate and
reasonable level. Second, Russia proposed that Caspian Sea
resources be used solely for peaceful purposes and the use of force
or military threats be forbidden. Today some of the coastal
countries are moving towards a demilitarization of the Caspian,
while others, which have a large military force, are seeking the
maximum use of the Caspian. As for Iran, it should adopt a clear
policy with regard to the demilitarization of the Caspian Sea, but
it should be considered that from Iran’s point of view, the
demilitarization of the region will deprive it of any defense
capability.

Russia has at least 105 warships in the Caspian Sea, most of
which come from its Black Sea Fleet which was transformed after
several disputes with Ukraine over the Crimea. So Russia is the
naval superpower on the Caspian Sea. Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan
and Turkmenistan lag far behind. Iran put the reinforcement of its
military force on the agenda in 1998 and since then it has
established two bases in Anzali and Chalous. The eastern part of
the Caspian Sea is patrolled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards
and the western part, by the Iranian Navy. The chief commander of
the Iranian Navy issued a warning to potential “enemies” that every
hostile plan would be confronted by the Iranian army and said that
only the five littoral states have the right to determine the
Caspian Sea’s legal regime.

Russia’s proposal to the Caspian littoral states to create a
multinational rapid reaction force was fueled by yet another
consideration: the Caspian region has turned into a crossroads for
terrorists based in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries
in the region. Using the disarranged state institutions of the
Caspian littoral countries, terrorist paramilitary groups penetrate
– through secret and sometimes visible channels – to Kazakhstan,
Russia and the Caucasus.

The Caspian Sea issue is a multifaceted and complicated one and
even though Iran and Russia agree on some points, such as the
non-presence of non-littoral countries, preventing energy pipelines
from going through Turkey and the establishment of a new legal
regime for the Caspian Sea, they disagree on other points. In
Iran’s opinion, the Russian-Kazakh agreement of July 1998 and the
Russian-Azerbaijani agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea run
counter to the understanding reached previously by the two
countries. These agreements keep pressure on Iran to reach
agreements with neighboring countries.

Despite the agreement on preventing East-West energy pipelines,
Iran and Russia have not reached any agreement on exploiting each
other’s geographical advantages. Russia is considering emerging as
a monopoly and becoming what Putin calls an “energy
superpower.”

Iran started negotiations with Russia through official and
non-official channels several years ago. Given the importance of
the sea surface issues for Russians, Iran implicitly stated that if
Iran’s interests are protected in the sea bed, it would support
Russia’s position concerning the sea surface. According to a letter
of understanding between Iranian and Russian officials, Russia
agreed that Iran should have a 20 percent share in the Caspian Sea.
Also, a series of negotiations have been held at which amendments
to the legal regime, including replacement of the “median line” by
a “dividing line,” were discussed.

As far back as 1992, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani
proposed establishing an organization of the Caspian littoral
states at a meeting of Caspian leaders in Tehran. Although the idea
was generally accepted and preparations for establishing a
Secretariat were launched, some countries – moved by greed and U.S.
temptations – chose petty policies for using the Caspian’s
resources.

In October 1996, negotiations among the five littoral states on
the Caspian’s legal regime were held in Ashgabat. The
representatives discussed the adoption of a Caspian legal
convention that would determine the rights and obligations of the
littoral countries. In addition to negotiations on the legal
regime, other high-ranking meetings regarding Caspian problems were
held on such issues as shipping, fishing, meteorology and marine
urgency. Some countries also made proposals concerning security
issues. The first significant result of these meetings was the
signing of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine
Environment of the Caspian Sea on October 26, 2003 in Tehran.

On October 16, 2007, Tehran hosted the second summit of Caspian
Sea nations. Although the forum failed to resolve the contentious
issues and showed the lack of agreement between Iran and Russia on
some points, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad expressed
assurance that “in these negotiations we reached final agreement on
many problems and I hope that from now on, the leaders’ summits
will be held regularly.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “it is better to have
more shared waters and fewer borders among the five countries. Our
efforts should be aimed at cooperation and coordination in managing
marine resources and sea reconstruction with due regard for
environmental protection and our interests.” He also reiterated
that limitations regarding the seabed and below the seabed should
be removed. “The North Caspian has removed these limitations in
line with the agreements, the South Caspian should learn from
that.”

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov confirmed that the
practice of unilateral actions in the Caspian Sea is unacceptable
for Turkmenistan. “Primarily this concerns oil operations at sites
that are not covered by agreements between the parties,” he
said.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for revising the
existing quota system for the sturgeon fishing, which is largely a
legacy of pre-1991 agreements between the Soviet Union and Iran.
[Under the existing system, Iran is entitled to 45 percent and
Russia to 27 percent, with the remaining 28 percent distributed
among Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. – Ed.] “These
agreements should go down to history,” he said. He proposed
dividing the water area into sovereign territorial sectors at least
12 nautical miles wide for each country, drawing fishing zones
12-30 nautical miles beyond the sovereign zones, and creating an
open zone in the center of the sea, with freedom for shipping and
negotiated national quotas for fishing.

In emphasizing the growing importance of the Caspian Sea,
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pointed out that the five
leaders should “consolidate understanding for providing peace and
security in the Caspian.”

The Caspian summit in Tehran culminated in the adoption of a
25-point Declaration in which the parties expressed their
commitment to make the Caspian “a region of peace and stability,
stable economic growth and prosperity, good-neighborliness and
international cooperation of the littoral states based on equal
rights.” The other points included commitments to hold regular
meetings of the heads of the Caspian littoral states; refrain from
the use of military force in mutual relations; and abide by the
principles of respect for human rights and non-interference in
internal affairs.

THE NEED FOR COMMON ARRANGEMENTS

The Iranian political system defines its identity as a cultural,
religious and regional one and regards domestic efficiency and
independent foreign policy to be its major priorities. Iran has
sought to play an active role in the Islamic world, especially as
regards cooperation in resolving regional conflicts. Among Islamic
states, Iran, as a moderate country, has never supported extremism
as a tool for solving problems. Iran backed Russia as an observer
member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. At the
regional level, Iran maintains ties with the countries of South
Asia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central Eurasia
(Central Asia, the Caspian and the Caucasus). Iran’s role in each
of these regions depends on their significance for its national
interests.

Central Eurasia is of special significance for Iran due to
geographical, political and economic reasons. Iran’s relations with
the countries of this region have been mostly favorable, except for
occasional misunderstandings. Iran is one of the important partners
of these countries.

Resolving the economic, political and security problems of
Central Eurasia requires the formation of broad regional structures
with all the actors present in them. Iran and Russia have major
roles in resolving this task. However, these two countries consider
the region in different ways. Moscow regards the region as the
“Near Abroad”. Indeed, since the 18th century it has been Russia’s
so-called backyard due to its direct presence there, political and
cultural influence and strong religious ties. For Iran, historical,
cultural and religious ties with the region are important. Iran
regards this region as a historically cultural part of ancient
Iran, which is now strongly affected by both the Russian and
Western cultures. Iran assumes cultural and political roles which
might comprise the promotion of common interests with Russia and
other countries in the region.

The development of relations between Iran, Russia and other
countries of the region over the last fifteen years has provided a
favorable inter-subjective context with no threats and a common
understanding that all the states are interested in seeing a stable
and prosperous Central Eurasia. During these years the countries of
the region have learned to understand each other in a new
environment. This new environment has set all these countries on a
new social and political stage that has helped them redefine their
identities and national interests.

Thus the development of relations between Central Eurasian
countries shows how states with different identities encounter
other states in a new environment, and how they gradually develop a
common understanding as a result of interaction. Central Eurasian
countries have adopted new identities under the new circumstances.
This approach has shaped an inter-subjective context that has laid
the groundwork for cooperation and made it possible to resolve the
problems through dialogue. This understanding and cooperation
provide prerequisites for institution-building and establishing
common economic, political and security arrangements that will set
behavioral norms, rules and regimes. If such institutions are not
created and such norms are not formed, relations between the
countries might be endangered by uncontrollable events and
incidents. Furthermore, in this case there exists a high risk of
damage to the relations and emergence of an undesirable atmosphere
of misunderstanding and mistrust.

What worries us at the moment is that despite the common
experience of cooperation and the existence of a common
inter-subjective context for upgrading the level of cooperation
from bilateral ties to the regional level, no effective regional
arrangements have been created so far. These arrangements may be
established in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. If such
arrangements are created, the possibility for dialogue and problem
solving will increase manifold.

The experience of Europe, East Asia and North America in
establishing such arrangements and forming behavioral, economic,
political and security norms and rules indicates that the
newly-formed structures represent common interests in a way that
all the countries have to behave within the framework of agreed
regimes. Such regimes prevent the aggravation of problems to a
critical level and help resolve them to the benefit of the engaged
parties, minimizing the possibility of interference by an external
power. In the absence of such regional organizations smaller
countries tend to invite greater powers in order to challenge
regional powers. The latest research on regional institutions and
regional regimes shows that these mechanisms are critical for
providing a favorable environment in which the countries may
develop a common understanding of each other’s policies.

*   *   *

In analyzing international affairs, the social-constructivist
theory pays particular attention to the identity of states, their
interaction and the inter-subjective understanding resulting from
the experience of interaction. A common experience and an
inter-subjective context help the states define their identities. A
common subjective context helps create a cooperation mechanism,
institutionalize it and make its behavioral regimes obligatory for
all interactive parties.

Iran and Russia have acquired new identities in the course of
two decades of cooperation in a new environment. The interaction
between Iran and Russia and among other Central Eurasian countries
takes place in a favorable inter-subjective atmosphere. However,
this cooperation has remained bilateral and limited as no effective
regional arrangements or institutions have been established to
further cooperation, stability and security in the region. As long
as this is the case, cooperation between the two countries runs the
risk of damage.