US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Turkey and the South Caucasus

US and Iranian competition in Turkey and the South Caucuses has taken on renewed significance in light of recent protests in Istanbul and Ankara, as well as ongoing hostilities in Syria which threaten to destabilize the broader region.

The Burke Chair at CSIS is issuing a series of new analyses of this competition, and a new report entitled US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Turkey and the South Caucasus is now available on the CSIS web site at:

Turkey and the South Caucasus countries play an active role in US-Iranian competition. Turkey plays a particularly critical role relative to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caspian region but the South Caucasus remains a relatively limited role in the broader competition between the US and Iran.  

Turkey has been generally supportive of the US, but has been careful to avoid provoking Iran, or taking a decisive stand regarding Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, Turkey differs sharply from Iran over Iran’s support of Assad in Syria, does not want to see Iran increase its role in Iraq, and recognizes the potential threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the region.

Turkey and the US are both increasingly concerned over Iran’s nuclear program and progress in enrichment and technology. Both countries feel that an Iranian nuclear weapon would have negative consequences for themselves and the region, but differ on their approaches for solving the issue, the timeline of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Some sources report that Ankara believes that if Iran should obtain a nuclear weapon, it would be almost impossible to prevent nuclear proliferation throughout the region. Turkey is concerned that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s subsequent retaliation will greatly destabilize the region. Ankara is also worried that the continued pressure on Iran will erode the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and will make it increasingly difficult for Turkey to pursue nuclear energy in the future to reduce its reliance on energy imports. Until Turkey diversifies its energy and electricity supplies with nuclear energy and pipelines to Caspian states, it seeks to keep its ties with Iran amicable and use their economic relationship to strengthen the economy of southeast Turkey.

Turkey has opposed coercive measures to pressure an end to the Iranian nuclear program, including sanctions and the threat of military force. It has argued that such threats only increase Iranian intransigence and internally reinforce its rationale for the need of a nuclear deterrent. Many in Turkey also feel that the reason why Iran is so intent on its nuclear program is out of fear of attack and national survival; thus Turkey is pursuing a policy that is non-confrontational and seeks to mitigate this fear through engagement and diplomacy.
The Turkish government has thus far refused to implement the US or EU unilateral sanctions regime but has abided by the UN sanctions on Iran since, as the Turkish government says, they are backed by the legitimacy of the United Nations. Turkey’s reluctance to fully support US and EU sanctions is also due to the belief that sanctions will strengthen Iranian hardliners and disproportionally affect the Turkish economy.
The southern Caucasus states - Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - represent one of the newest fronts in US-Iranian competition. Historically, the South Caucasus has served as a trade corridor and arena for competition between the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian empires; while trade today is often conducted by sea - partly due to dilapidated Caucasian infrastructure - South Caucasus states have not forgotten their role as a battleground for larger powers.

While the southern Caucasus states were not independent until the early 1990s, they have spent the last two decades establishing themselves as states, and are more concerned with internal security and territorial and sovereignty disputes than with broader regional struggles. Their relationships with Iran and the US derive from very different factors - geographical proximity, ethnic overlap, economic ties to Iran, diaspora communities in Iran, free market concerns, energy supply lines, and competition with Russia for the US. The complex intra-regional disputes have served to limit US and Iranian involvement, restricting the collateral damage of US-Iranian competition.

Iran’s entry in Caucasus affairs has so far had little impact on its global competition with the US. Despite the South Caucasus’ proximity to Iran, their small economies, limited receptiveness to Iranian propaganda, and entrenched local divisions and grievances have all served to limit Tehran’s reach.

In most cases, Tehran’s pragmatism and emphasis on stability seems likely to continue. Despite some tensions over a host of issues - secularism, division of the Caspian, support from Israel and the US - Iran has pursued a relatively non-confrontational policy in the region (particularly compared to its aggressive rhetoric and proxy support in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and among Palestinian groups).

The key exception and one that may be more important to Iran than the Caspian Basin’s oil wealth - is its ethnic tensions with Azerbaijan. Baku has charged Iran with supporting “fifth columnists” (generally Shia political parties) in Azerbaijan, but with the exception of arrests of alleged terrorists in February 2012, open-source reporting of Iranian proxy groups has been limited.

The report has the following table of contents: 

Executive Summary II
Turkey II
Turkey’s Relations with the US and NATO II
Turkey and European Energy Security III
Turkey’s Relations with Iran III
Differences in the US and Turkish Approach to the Iranian Nuclear Program V
Implications for US Policy V
The South Caucasus VI
Armenia VII
Azerbaijan VIII
Georgia IX
Implications for US Policy X
Turkey 1
Turkish Relations with the US 2
US-Turkish Military Cooperation 3
NATO-Turkish Military Cooperation 4
Issues in US-Turkish and NATO-Turkish Military Relations 5
Turkey’s Role in Natural Gas and Oil Transportation and European Energy Security 14
Oil 14
Natural Gas 14
Turkey’s Relations With Iran 28
Turkish-Iranian Political Relations and Military Cooperation 28
Turkish-Iranian Economic Relations 29
Recent Issues in Turkish-Iranian Relations and the Civil War in Syria 32
Differences in the US and Turkish Approach to the Iranian Nuclear Program 39
Turkish vs. US Views of Iran’s Nuclear Threat 40
Turkey’s Focus on Regional Economic Integration vs. the US Focus on Sanctions 41
Turkish Efforts to Mediate a Solution to Iran’s Nuclear Program 42
Implications for US Policy 43
South Caucasus 46
Inter-State Dynamics 46
Status Quo 47
US Interests in the South Caucasus 51
Iran’s Activities in the Caucasus 52
Armenia 53
US-Armenian Relations 54
Basis of Relations 56
US Interests 56
Points of Dispute 58
US Concern over Armenian-Iran Relations 58
Iranian-Armenian Relations 64
Energy. 65
Banking 66
Policy Implications 69
Azerbaijan 70
US-Azerbaijani Relations 70
Azerbaijan’s Territorial Objectives and Energy 71
Pipeline Politics 72
Points of Dispute 72
US Concern over Azerbaijan-Iran Relations 74
Azerbaijani-Iranian Relations 79
Ethnic Tensions 79
Trade Ties 80
Azerbaijan-Israel Relations and Religious Disputes 81
Energy Divisions in the Caspian 83
The Military Problem in the Caspian 85
Policy Implications 89
Georgia 90
US-Georgia Relations 90
Basis of Relations 91
Points of Dispute 92
US Concern over Georgia-Iran Relations 92
Georgian-Iranian Relations 95
Policy 98
Implications for US Policy 99

This report will be updated and issued as a CSIS EBook, Please send any comments and suggestions to

Other current reports in this series, and the web sites for obtaining the reports, include:

  • THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions: This report examines Iran’s conventional and asymmetric military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
  • THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions: This report looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces, the options for missile defense and contaiment, and the possible nbature and outcomne of US and Israeli preventive strikes.
  • THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume III: The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula: This report examines the growing US security partnership with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – established as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia: This report covers US and Iranian competition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and every country in central Asia.

Bryan Gold, Robert Shelala, and Michael Gibbs