Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Iran Crisis Threatens Neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus
Iran Crisis Threatens Neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Iran Crisis Threatens Neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus

The United States and the Islamic Republic of Tehran may be closer to conflict than at any point since the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Hawks in the U.S. have for years advocated for the US to take on Tehran, and the January 8 attack on two Iraqi military bases marks Tehran’s first ever claim of responsibility for attacks on US positions in the country. One of Washington’s most significant charges against Iran has been its destabilizing influence in the region and among neighbors – through actions ranging from supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon to recruiting Afghans and Pakistanis to fight in the conflict in Syria – exemplified by late Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) General Qassim Soleimani’s frequent jaunts abroad.

Iran’s three ex-Soviet neighbors – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – are almost never mentioned when considering the potential fallout from a US-Iranian conflict. Yet the trio would be destabilized by any escalation, as would the wider Central Asia and Caucasus region.

The three receive less attention in US foreign policy on Iran in part because Iranian influence in them is less pervasive. The clearest example is Azerbaijan, which like Iran is majority Shia and has historic and ethnic ties across the border, though the government has long approached Tehran warily. The two countries have shored up relations over the last five years. Azerbaijani insinuations that Tehran is destabilizing the country have become less common – though Baku still trots them out as an excuse from time to time –  in part because Iranian money has increasingly flown through Baku into the West, most infamously in a deal by which an IRGC front company invested in a Trump-branded hotel in the city.

Were conflict to break out, Baku would be on the defensive. Its efforts to keep Islamism in check have broadly been successful, with the state channeling anger towards the long-running conflict with neighboring Armenia. Nonetheless, any Western-Iranian war would take on religious overtones. Conflict would also risk new refugee flows into Azerbaijan, which the country is ill-equipped to handle. In short, conflict in Iran may pose a serious risk to regime stability in Baku.

In comparison to the “frenemy” dynamic between Baku and Tehran, Armenia has cordial relations with the Islamic Republic. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has skillfully navigated the country’s complicated position between Tehran, Moscow, and the West. The key economic relationship between Iran and Armenia is that Yerevan imports of Iranian gas in exchange for electricity. But this is subsumed in wider regional geopolitics, because the Kremlin’s control of Armenia’s gas networks not only gives Moscow leverage over the government in Yerevan but also enables it to shape its relationship with Tehran.

As a result, both Moscow and Yerevan fear that conflict could close the Armenian-Iranian border. This would make Armenia more dependent on Georgia, because its frontiers with Turkey and Azerbaijan are already closed. As the closest U.S. ally in the region, Georgia’s own position in any such conflict would be fraught in the event of intensified U.S. Iranian conflict. This could take on further geopolitical dimensions if Washington called on Georgia for any support. The use of Georgian territory for U.S. military efforts would be firmly opposed by Moscow. Finally, Iran also has a sizable Armenian population, though far-smaller than the Azeri population in Iran. Both Armenians and Azeris have sought support from Tehran for their position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Iran has refrained from taking sides thus far, but this could change if either country was seen as supporting US action.

Iran has only one neighbor not involved in an ongoing military conflict, Turkmenistan. As developments unfold, Turkmenistan will play the ostrich and keep its head buried in the sand. Turkmenistan’s state media has not once mentioned the crisis, for example. Ashgabat hopes its stated neutrality and international isolation would minimize any fallout of US-Iranian military conflict. The fact that its population is majority Sunni, not Shia, would help mitigate fallout among its population as well.

However, even a small refugee flow from Iran could destabilize Turkmenistan, which has a longer border with Iran than any country other than Iraq. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s country is already suffering from food shortages after decades of economic mismanagement. The crisis is so severe that it has quietly caused a mass outflow of people from the country. By some estimates Turkmenistan has lost as much as one-third of its population over the last decade. Although Turkmenistan has sold some gas to Iran in the past, it has not done so since 2016. The impact of intensified conflict on Turkmenistan’s economy, almost entirely dependent on gas exports to China, would be minimal.

Yet despite Turkmenistan’s nominal neutrality, the country is dependent on China and Russia, respectively, for its economy and security. These two powers – which would be alarmed at any US military action against Tehran – would surely lean on Ashgabat as a backdoor to Iran. Russia would likely demand that its forces, which are  already quietly operating along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border, be able to do so along the Turkmenistan-Iran border as well. If Moscow or Beijing were to seek to surreptitiously supply Tehran as well, Turkmenistan could serve as the route for doing so.

Baku, Yerevan, and Ashgabat will be watching events carefully. While there have long been warnings that a US-Iranian conflict could drag in the Gulf States, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and even Afghanistan, it would significantly disrupt its Eurasian neighbors as well.