The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus
August 4, 2011
US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clear that it is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.
In playing the game, the United States must deal with a history of prolonged competition that affects the entire Gulf, Iraq and the Levant, allies like Turkey, Central and South Asia, and the Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea areas. It must be ready to deal with constant political and diplomatic challenges, Iran’s use of state terrorism and proxies like the Hezbollah, its expanding capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, and its possession of chemical weapons, development of long-range missiles, and search for nuclear weapons. At the same time, the US must recognize that there are no good or decisive military options, and that it may well have to pursue a military and diplomatic containment strategy until – and if – Iran’s internal political dynamics fundamentally change its goals in the region and policies for dealing with the United States.
The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus. It is now available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110804_iran_chapter_8_turkey_casp.pdf. Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to acordesman(@)gmail.com.
The report shows that US-Iranian and Iranian efforts to bolster their strategic ties to Turkey and the Caucasus are becoming a steadily more significant aspect of their confrontation. The region holds both immense attractions in both geopolitical and economic terms for the United States and Iran, but also complex challenges.
Turkey’s primary political, economic, and security ties are with the West, although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also sought to strengthen relations with its Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbors. There is growing competition for influence in Ankara between the United States and Iran as it “looks East” in reaction to de facto rejection by EU, wrestles with tensions with US since invasion of Iraq, and deals with the Islamist versus secular struggle in Turkish politics.
These trends have had a mixed impact on Turkey’s relations with the US and Iran. They create growing challenges for the US in maintaining military and strategic relations with Turkey. Due to having previously fought a protracted war against PKK insurgents and to continuing fears of Kurdish separatism, Turkey opposed the US intervention in Iraq, thinking that it would cause instability along its southern flank. As a result, during pre-deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Turkey denied US troops the permission to transit or stage operations from its territory.
At the same time, conflicting regional ambitions make Turkey a natural regional competitor with Iran – one that largely shares the United States’ strategic goal in making sure that the Middle East remains outside Iranian control. From Iran’s perspective, their relationship is clouded by Turkey’s military ties to the US, as well as by strong political, religious and historical differences. Turkey, after all, remains a secular Sunni state that has little affinity for many aspects of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Yet, Iran is still likely to attempt to exploit the new tensions in the US-Turkish relationship to increase its influence in Ankara, to evade American sanctions, and to use Turkey as a key corridor for its energy exports.
Turkey has pursued a “zero-problems” policy under the AKP government, reorienting Turkish relations with all neighboring countries, including Iran, primarily through economic engagement. Since then, although Turkey remains a committed member of the Western security bloc, it has attempted to act as a mediator for hot button foreign policy issues in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Iran among them. While this has caused some apprehension in US policy circles, Turkey nonetheless it remains a reliable, if complex, ally. As such, the US must realize that it needs to rely on dialogue, rather than assume Turkey should share its approach and policies.
While Turkey is of critical interest to both competitors, the Caucasus are in many ways a strategic sideshow for the US, but of direct strategic interest to Iran. Armenia and Azerbaijan’s importance in US and Iranian competition lies largely in whether they can help the US limit Iran’s influence in the Black Sea area, as well as in their impact on energy export routes.
The US faces many of the same issues in dealing with Azerbaijan in terms of Iran that it does in dealing with Turkey. Its location on Iran’s periphery and access to Caspian and Middle Eastern energy reserves are assets that both Iran and the US value. Azerbaijan maintains close ties with the US, serving as an extremely significant part of the US logistical effort to sustain operations in Afghanistan. However, Iran remains a significant power in the region, and Baku can afford to neither provoke nor ignore it.
In Armenia, meanwhile, Iran plays a significant economic role and has bolstered its influence by playing on a mutual wariness of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenian relations with Iran are focused on trade and are of critical importance, since Armenian borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed due to historic tensions with Turkey and the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
Desperately needing a regional ally, Armenia has welcomed Iranian support. While The United States has been a strategic partner of Armenia without taking sides against Azerbaijan, it is clear that here Iran is the closer ally. Once again, the challenge for the US will be focus on incentives and good relations while quietly applying pressure and avoiding any open confrontation.
At present, US and Iranian competition does not have a clear, substantive impact on the other Black Sea states. Georgia is not central to US-Iranian strategic competition, given its close alignment with the United States. While Georgia and Iran share a vibrant trade relationship, the Georgian foreign policy preoccupation of limiting Russian meddling in its internal affairs takes precedence and it is Washington which provides the strongest countervailing weight against Russian influence. Policymakers in Tbilisi are likely to continue to see ties with the United States as the best hedge against Russian aggression, making it unlikely that they will support Iran in any major security disputes with Washington.
In sum, strategic competition is not the primary consideration for US and Iranian policy in this region. Both countries have specific evolving interests that are likely to shift in the hierarchy of each country’s grand strategic objectives in the post-Iraq and post-Afghan era. The manner of US withdrawal from the region, and the nature of broader US-Iranian competition will likely affect the manner and scale of each country’s engagement with Turkey and the South Caucasus, although the region is likely to remain of interest due its economic importance and energy wealth.
Previous reports in this series include:
- Competition Involving China and Russia, which is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110811_Iran_Chapter_X.pdf
- Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States: Part One
- Conventional, Asymmetric, and Missile Capabilities, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/Iranian%20Strategic%20Competition%20pt.1%207.28.11.pdf
- Iran's Perceptions of International Sanctions and their Implications for Strategic Competition with the U.S. in the Gulf, Sept. 2010 – April 2011, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110714_US_Iranian_Strategic_Competition_Sanctions.pdf
- Iran’s Perceptions of its Internal Developments, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/Internal%20Politics_Contents_Final.pdf
- Iranian Views of How Iran’s Asymmetric Warfare Developments Affect Competition with the US and the Gulf, Sept. 2010 – Feb. 2011, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110329_Asymmetric-Contents.pdf
- GCC Security, Risk Assessment, and U.S. Extended Deterrence, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110202_GCC_Secur_US_Extended_Deter.pdf
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/101207_US_Competition_with_Iran_Saudi_Arabia.pdf
- Iran, Iraq, and the Changing Face of Defense Cooperation in the Gulf, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/101028_GulfDefCoop.final.pdf
- Strategic Competition With Iran: The Military Dimension, which is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/100813_combined_burke_report.pdf