President Trump’s new national security team is primed to strike at Iran and its interests. The administration’s attacks on the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have already aroused considerable controversy and apprehension in Europe, Russia, and China, not to mention Iran. But a diplomatic assault on that agreement is by no means the only option open to Washington.
If the administration intends to isolate Iran it can also act to undermine Iran’s ties in the Caucasus, particularly with Armenia and Azerbaijan. These relationships are critical for Iran since those countries sit astride its northern and western borders. Armenia is a partner to Iran in every sense and dependent upon it. Thus to the extent that Washington can simultaneously bring to bear both “carrots and sticks” upon those governments, it can advance its own interests in the Caucasus, and strike at Iran and at its Russian partner as well.
This might be easier than it sounds. For years Azerbaijan and Iran were consumed by mutual suspicion and Azerbaijan is still mistrustful of Iran despite the fact that bilateral ties have improved since 2012. At that time Iranian terror plots against both Baku and Israel were uncovered leading to a crisis in the relationship.
Iran regards Azerbaijan as a platform for stirring unrest among its huge Azeri minority, a renegade Shiite state that is far too chummy with Israel and the United States and in many respects an energy-exporting rival. Yet, under pressure from Washington, it has to shore up its northern border and endeavor to keep Baku from moving too close to Washington.
Armenia, on the other hand, precisely because of its enduring antagonism with Azerbaijan is quite close to Iran, which supported it throughout its independence and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Armenia has also joined with Iran in major infrastructure and economic projects. This was meant to alleviate the pressure imposed by Turkey in its blockade of Armenia due to the war with Azerbaijan. As a result, Armenia is not only a client state of Russia that hosts major Russian military bases and infrastructure, it also is Iran’s main partner in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, it cannot afford to burn bridges with the West and is still seeking to expand its sphere of discretion in its foreign relations with Western states.
Thus the way is open to the administration to combine incentives with pressure and even more desirable to help bring peace to the Caucasus to minimize Moscow and Tehran’s mischief-making there. By taking a serious role in the search for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh and by judiciously brandishing both benefits and penalties the administration can enhance U.S. presence in the region. Trump can also advance U.S. interests by aligning both of the states closer to Washington and distancing them from Tehran and possibly Moscow as well.
From past Iranian statements, we know there is a concern in Tehran about a possible U.S. military or intelligence presence in Azerbaijan. Washington can enhance its leverage upon Armenia and may be able to shake the Armeno-Iranian relationship to a discernible degree by combining threats and offers it.
Moreover, it desirable for the U.S. to advance its presence in the Caucasus for its own sake apart from the region’s relevance to the Middle East or specifically to Iran and/or Georgia. It is in Washington’s interest to expand energy supplies coming from the Caspian to Europe through the Caucasus. Greater U.S. engagement in the Caucasus also reduces Russian pressure in Turkey and provides a basis for advancing the troubled U.S.-Turkey alliance.
A fundamental point here is that the U.S. cannot advance its interests or its values of democracy and good governance — which both Armenia and Azerbaijan fall short of achieving — without demonstrating a robust, enduring, and credible interest in their security agendas. Otherwise, there is no reason for those governments to take our interests seriously, not to mention our values seriously.
There is a potential “trifecta” here. By strengthening our interest and ability to engage in the Caucasus with Armenia and Azerbaijan not only can we help promote peace and potentially better governance for which peace is a precondition. We can also reduce Russian and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and neighboring areas. Admittedly, the U.S. has many other interests and priorities. But if we are indeed looking to bring pressure to bear upon Tehran we could do much worse than start here.