Iran, Turkey and the South Caucasus
Compared to the eye-catching and headline-grabbing Middle East, the Caucasus is an almost forgotten area that occasionally flares up in difficult, confusing clashes. Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia are somewhere exotic off the radar, while the three states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are rarely in the news for positive reasons. This week’s opening of a new rail linking Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey was a rare moment in the spotlight.
Conflict and competition in the South Caucasus emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet dominance had obscured rivalry in this part of the world for decades, but historically it had long been an arena of great power contestation. Russia, Turkey and Iran have completed for influence in the region over much of the past two centuries. Today, a new but little-reported great game is once again unfolding in this geopolitical no-man’s land.
“The Great Game in West Asia,” edited by Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, is a stimulating collection of essays on the South Caucasus. The book presents a generous smorgasbord of perspectives on developments in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the tangled web of outside interests that continues to dominate these small, fragile states.
The focus of the book is largely on Iran and Turkey’s maneuvering in the region since the 1990s. The two middle-level powers have played a delicate game of chess in the strategic arena that opened up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As then President Süleyman Demirel noted back in the early 1990s, Turkey is “at the center of a newly emerging political and economic structure due to its unique cultural, geographical and historical position.” Turkey’s ambitious regional policy is clearly not only a creation of today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Like Iran, Ankara has long sought to cultivate a sphere of influence in the South Caucasus, seeing it as ripe for furthering its diplomatic influence and economic presence.
For many years, Turkey’s soft power was spearheaded by the movement of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Successive governments - none more so than the AKP – used the Gülenists' economic initiatives and network of schools to get Turkey’s foot in the door of the South Caucasus. Gülenists have typically been more interested in the Central Asia and the Caucasus than the Arab world, particularly after the end of the Soviet Union. They were the face of Turkish soft power for two decades until their power struggle with the AKP erupted after 2012. Today, the Ankara government is pressing neighboring governments to close down institutions that it once aggressively propagated as a standard-bearer of Turkish national interests.
The influence is not entirely in one direction. With its vast natural resources, Azerbaijan has emerged as a significant player punching above its weight. As recently detailed in a Guardian investigation, the country has used its vast wealth to cultivate a corrupt network of influence in Europe and elsewhere. Azerbaijan also has leverage over Turkey, to which it is ethnically and linguistically very close. Baku has consistently blocked any tentative steps to normalization between Turkey and Armenia, tying the issue closely to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. With nationalism in Turkey ascendant - and with 71 percent of Turkish citizens saying Azerbaijan is their country’s closest friend - there is little prospect of a path forward in Turkey-Armenia relations in the foreseeable future.
Turkey and Iran’s geopolitical rivalry has been most in evidence in recent years in Syria, where the two backed opposing sides in the civil war. But a less intense competition has opened up between the two in the South Caucasus. Apart from clandestine sanctions busting, direct relations between the two remain dominated by energy concerns, with oil and gas composing most of Iran’s exports to Turkey. Delivering gas to Turkey since 2001, Iran is Turkey’s second largest supplier and Tehran has expressed an interest in exporting gas to Europe via Turkey. As a result, despite competition between the two and despite plans to diversify its energy sources, Turkey remains dependent on Iran for its energy needs and over-dependent on Russia for gas imports.
Among other things, the South Caucasus is a key locus of this energy equation. But as Kamrava writes, the region remains defined by “frozen conflicts, cross-border tensions and mistrust, ethnic politics and competing national identities, middle power rivalries and clashing aspirations, economic and political underdevelopment, malleable non-governmental and civil society organizations, politically-motivated external cultural influences, and rule by elites with suspect democratic credentials at best and by corrupt oligarchies.”
“The Great Game in West Asia” does a good job of untangling this web. It is inevitably a little repetitive and limited by an inherent broader lack of interest in the South Caucasus region. But for those casually or professionally interested in the subject it is an essential new volume.