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Iran: U.S. Overtures Have Regional Significance

Iran's neighbors are closely watching last week's U.S. overture to Tehran because it included a call for the two countries to work together to encourage regional stability. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how better U.S.-Iranian ties might affect Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Prague, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright only mentioned Iran's neighbors in passing on Friday, when she invited Iran to discuss outstanding disputes with Washington.

But her one-line mention of Armenia and Azerbaijan was enough to indicate that Washington acknowledges Iran as a major regional player and hopes that warmer U.S.-Iranian relations also could help bring greater stability to the Caucasus.

Albright said that the U.S. and Iran have potential common interests which include, she said, "encouraging stable relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and regional economic development."

Albright did not develop any scenarios of how better U.S.-Iranian ties could improve regional stability. But a quick look at the troubled peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region -- a separatist Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan -- suggests several possibilities.

Many observers believe that Yerevan and Baku were on the verge of making peace in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh last Autumn. The reason for their optimism was multiple meetings between the two countries' presidents through the year, suggesting a deal was at hand -- even though its details remained unclear.

But the progress toward peace received a severe blow in October when two of Armenia's top leaders were assassinated in an attack on Yerevan's parliament. The killings of the parliamentary speaker and defense minister stripped Armenian President Robert Kocharian of his most necessary allies for pushing forward a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh. And that, in turn, left him alone in facing continuing strong opposition from Armenia's military to any solutions short of independence for the enclave. The ethnic Armenian region fought a war for independence from Baku in 1992 to 1994, seizing large parts of Azerbaijan in 1992 and 1993.

Elizabeth Fuller, a regional analyst at RFE/RL, says that Washington may hope better U.S.-Iranian ties would bring Iran into the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process as another voice urging a settlement. To date, Iran is the only major regional power left outside of the peace process -- which is spearheaded by a working group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The working group -- known as the Minsk group -- includes Russia, the U.S. and Turkey, among other powers.

Fuller says some parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh have called for Iran's inclusion in the peace process before:

"The reason that Iran has not played a role in the past is that the peace process has been mainly forwarded by the OSCE, of which Iran is not a member. But [Nagorno-] Karabakh's president, Arkady Ghukassian, has suggested on several occasions that it would be logical to draw Iran into the mediation process as an equal partner."

Analysts say that the inclusion of Iran in the peace process could help Kocharian muster support for a deal because Iran has good relations with Armenia. Tehran supplies energy to Armenia which -- during the worst of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- was subject to an economic blockade by neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. The inclusion of Iran could encourage the parties to the conflict to accept that a compromise solution might work in a regional environment where all major powers are committed to stability. One such compromise might be Nagorno-Karabakh becoming an autonomous part of Azerbaijan with a guaranteed land corridor to Armenia.

The U.S. also would like to a see more stable regional environment lead to an end to frictions between Iran and Azerbaijan. Both sides have long accused the other of meddling in its affairs. Elizabeth Fuller says:

"There are at present two main reasons for the tensions between the two countries. Iran is suspicious that some opposition groups in Azerbaijan could have a vested interest in playing on separatist aspirations by Iran's own ethnic Azerbaijani population, the size of which is estimated at anything between 12 and 25 million. Baku, for its part, is exceedingly upset with the Iranian leadership for allowing the presence in Iran of a former Azerbaijani special police officer who was involved in an attempted coup against [Azerbaijani] President [Heidar] Aliyev back in 1995. Baku has asked repeatedly for this man to be extradited but the Iranian authorities have not yet agreed to that."

Fuller says these tensions have so far prevented any significant steps toward reconciliation, one of which was to have been a trip by Aliyev to Iran last year. That trip, scheduled for last Fall, has not yet taken place and no new date has been set for it.

Closer U.S.-Iran ties could also affect the relations of other countries in the region with Iran, notably Turkey.

William Hale, a regional expert at the School of Oriental Studies in London, says that Turkey maintains working -- if not close -- relations with Tehran and would like to improve them. Over the last years, Ankara has arranged for natural gas supplies from Iran and the two countries signed an agreement on a pipeline. But the pipeline on the Turkish side has not been built. Hale says there are two reasons: Turkey has been unable to raise the money abroad due to U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's energy sector, and its own domestic sources have been diverted to post-earthquake reconstruction.

That means Turkey might well welcome any move toward dialogue between Iran and the U.S. that could lead to the ultimate removal of the Washington's sanctions and make funding its gas pipeline easier.

Yet Hale says there is also a potential cost to Turkey in improved Washington-Tehran ties. He notes that Turkey has worked hard to convince Caspian region governments that the safest route for Caspian Basin energy to world markets lies through a pipeline passing through the Caucasus and Turkey to the Mediterranean. This is also Washington's position, despite the fact some oil analysts believe a pipeline through Iran to the Gulf could afford a shorter and cheaper route.

Until now, the strongest argument for the Turkish route has been U.S. sanctions against investing in Iran's oil industry. If those sanctions were lifted or substantially emasculated, it would be up to the oil companies to decide the pipeline's route and their interests might or might not favor Turkey.

It is still too early to know whether Washington's most recent call for Iran and the U.S. to work together on their relationship will be answered. So far, Tehran's reaction to Albright's overture have been mixed.

A senior official of Iran's top security body has dismissed the U.S. diplomatic initiative. But the Iranian foreign ministry has welcomed Washington's lifting of sanctions on non-oil exports from Iran and said Tehran would respond by importing U.S. grain and medicine. Tehran so far has made no mention of Albright's call to work toward greater regional stability.