Where does the South Caucasus stand in the regional rivalry?
For much of the past four years, Turkey’s foreign policy has been tremendously preoccupied with the spillover of the Arab Spring in its immediate neighborhood. Once touted as a ‘role model’ to its Middle Eastern peers for its flourishing economy, democracy and foreign policy, Turkey is now -- due in large part to the ramifications of the Arab Spring -- deeply entangled with a series of complex problems at home and abroad The worrying regression from positive economic, political and foreign policy arenas signals the fact that Turkey will likely face a drawdown in its ambitious undertakings in those areas. Even before, there is one particular foreign policy field that has fallen behind the hierarchy of the Turkish foreign policy agenda in early 2010s: The South Caucasus, consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This issue’s Think Tank Tracker reviews several past reports on the positions of Turkey and other major stakeholders on the subject and tries to answer the question of how chief actors fare in their actions regarding the South Caucasus. The review aims to explain enduring patterns of rivalry and cooperation.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report basically looks at the angle of the South Caucasus and Turkey as part of the playing field for US-Iranian competition. 1 At the very beginning the authors assert that Turkey is “particularly critical” of Washington-Tehran strategic competition relative to the South Caucasus. Even though Turkey has firmly situated itself within the Western security and economic structure for more than six decades, Ankara’s trade with Tehran climbed from $1.25 billion in 2002 to $16.05 billion in 2011. In 2011, Turkey also imported 50 percent of its oil and 21 percent of its natural gas from Iran. Turkey’s dependence on Iranian fossil fuel complicates Ankara’s relations with the West, the US in particular. The gold-for-oil barter system, used as a way for Tehran to circumvent UN sanctions, may inflict pain on Ankara. 2 As has been made clear in Think Tank Tracker in previous issues, one of the most significant sticking points for Iran and Turkey is the ongoing civil war in Syria and the two countries’ diametrically opposed positions. “For Iran, Syria is its critical access point to the Levant and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its only constant ally -- globally or regionally -- since the 1979 revolution.” 3
The Iranian, Russian and Ottoman empires competed for the South Caucasus throughout history. Today, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US play major roles. The US has three critical geopolitical interests in the region: “Security and stability, democratization, and economic access, to both the region’s underutilized natural resources and the nascent infrastructure corridor for transporting Central Asian products west while avoiding Iran and Russia.” 4 For Iran, regional countries like Georgia and Armenia are too small, and are sheltered relatively well against Iranian propaganda.
More is at stake for Tehran in the cases of the Caspian Basin’s oil wealth and Iran’s ethnic and sectarian conflicts with Azerbaijan. Even though Azerbaijan is a strictly secular nation, components of its Muslim demography paint a complicated picture. A total of 95 percent of the population is Muslim. Eighty-five percent of the Muslims are Shia and 15 percent Sunni. 5 This gives Azerbaijan the world’s second-largest Shia population percentage after Iran. The secular regime in Baku fears Iranian Shia political/religious ideology infiltrating its territory and considers it a clear and present danger to its survival. To offset Tehran’s religious leverage, “Baku emphasizes Azeri nationalism over Islamic solidarity and has sought to remove religion from the public sphere.” For the US, good relations with Azerbaijan are key for regional stability and energy security. Azerbaijan perceives “America primarily as an extra-regional source of diplomatic support and weapons supplier, and as a source of investment in infrastructure and economic growth.” 6
Of the South Caucasian states, Armenia has the strongest relationship with Iran. Iran recognizes Armenia as one of the gateways to world’s financial system. Hence, the US is concerned that Yerevan’s weak state system and elite dominance may submit to Tehran’s attempt to evade international sanctions through Armenia’s troubled banking system.
When it comes to Georgia, it is playing a less of a role in this competition. Georgia is preoccupied with its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For Washington, the big concern is Russia’s power projection and Tbilisi, for all the right reasons, is trying to attach itself to the West to dodge Russia’s excesses. Georgia also found itself -- like Armenia -- between Iran and the US on the issue of Iran using Georgian banks to release its hands tied by sanctions in terms of accessing financial market. The CSIS report underlines the fact that the South Caucasus is not the central location of the rivalry between Iran and the US compared to other regions, for example the Middle East.
The second CSIS report assesses the triangulation of the region’s major powers -- Russia, Iran and Turkey. 7 Having a decidedly American perspective, the report argues that understanding the dynamics between the three would help in “avoiding a wider war in the Middle East, renewed conflict in the Caucasus, and instability in Central Asia.” 8 Having a thorough understanding would enable the US to effectively engage with the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the report claims. Russia is Turkey’s top trade partner in the region, with trade totaling $30 billion in 2012, of which 80 percent is Turkey’s energy imports in the form of oil and natural gas. When combined with energy imports from Iran, Turkey is deeply dependent on foreign oil and gas in the region. Despite its noted Western orientation, this heavy dependence on Iran and Russia seriously impairs its options in foreign policy. Turkey’s efforts to diversify its access to alternative energy sources from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iraq meet opposition from both Tehran and Moscow.
Russian-Iranian relations represent the convergence of mutual interests in terms of counterbalancing US dominance in the region. Both Tehran and Moscow have differing positions regarding the demarcation of the Caspian Sea but both oppose the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline that would undercut their dominance in energy policies. Meanwhile, they perceive each other as long-term competitors in the European market. 9 In fact, both capitals are serious rivals in exporting oil and natural gas in Eurasia but neither wants to see more US penetration into their spheres of influence. In the final analysis, it is important to note that bilateral trade is slim, and “Russia accounts for about 1.8 percent of Iranian foreign trade volume, and Iran represents only 0.5 percent of Russia’s.” 10
On the issue of the South Caucasus, both Iran and Turkey see the region as a domain with a Soviet legacy, and neither wants to provoke Russia’s suspicion. While Turkey tried to promote more interdependence in the region, its efforts to normalize relations with Armenia in 2009 proved defunct. Therefore, Turkey engaged closely with Azerbaijan as both aimed at counterbalancing Iranian reach in the region. On the other hand, Iran is strategically aligned with Armenia but is cautious on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, a sensitive national issue for Azerbaijan. What is striking is that this CSIS report claims that some Russian officials worry that Turkey might turn back its attention to the South Caucasus if its deep engagement in the Middle East fails. 11 In addition, Russia is concerned over the possible spillover of Islamic State terrorists from the
TURKEY’S DEPENDENCE ON IRANIAN FOSSIL FUEL COMPLICATES ANKARA’S RELATIONS WITH THE WEST, THE US IN PARTICULAR
region to the Caucasus and is scrutinizing the policies of interested parties regarding the Syrian civil war. Last, the CSIS report underscores the fact that Iran sees the South Caucasus as a “side show,” meaning that it is ancillary to its vital strategic interests in the Middle East.
The third report, from the London School of Economics (LSE), succinctly examines Turkey’s South Caucasus strategy and emphasizes Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus as part of its larger strategy to deal with Russia. 12 For Kevork Oskanian, Turkey has “become more deferential towards Russia’s regional geo-strategic interests -- a deference that increased in parallel with an enhanced independence from the West with the advent of the [Justice and Development Party] AKP government in 2003.” 13 This means Turkey wants to “maintain the existing status quo, as well as to avoid offending Russian sensibilities.” 14 Turkey has tried to increase its economic engagement with Georgia but unequivocally refrains from antagonizing Russia on political issues. Oskanian briefly chronicled Turkey’s pro-active engagement -so-called “football diplomacy” -- with Armenia in 2009 but pointed out the fact that it failed due to Turkey’s domestic reactions and Azerbaijani opposition to the thaw. Turkey connected the issue of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement to the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh, a vital Azerbaijani national interest. Due to Turkey’s ethno-linguistic proximity to Azerbaijan and both sides’ massive economic commitments, the rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara has died. Increasing the economic interdependence between Baku and Ankara via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and other investments like PETKIM has renewed Turkey’s focus on Azerbaijan to cautiously counterbalance Iran and Russia.
Overall, Turkey’s leverage in the South Caucasus is rather limited but there is still room for economic engagement. Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran are limited in scope and transactional in nature. Going beyond this mere fact in terms of finding an “alternative” paradigm for Turkey’s future to supplant Ankara’s Western vocation may prove futile given the historic rivalry between Turks, Russians and Iranians and their sociopolitical differences.
A newly built house surrounded by ruins in the town of Shusha, partly destroyed during fighting between Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces in the 1990s.