Understanding Azerbaijan’s Geopolitical Perceptions

Editor's Desk

Mitchell Belfer

Understanding Azerbaijan’s Geopolitical Perceptions


Azerbaijan’s geopolitical situation largely determines its strategic priorities and presents solutions. This policy analysis suggests that there are three ways for Azerbaijan (and the other Caucasus states) to overcome its geopolitical situation, through: hegemony, neutrality or alliance. However, of the three, only alliance with exogenous powers, such as the GCC and its members, could assist Azerbaijan survive in its own region; by out-flanking its more aggressive rivals and reinforcing second and even third fronts in order to provide Baku additional strategic options, enhance its balancing capabilities and gain important breathing space. Such actions however, will likely produce a security dilemma since Azerbaijan’s out-flanking will produce the (mis)perception in Tehran, Yerevan and, probably, Moscow, that Baku is attempting to enhance its regional position at their expense. So, the question is: how can Azerbaijan overcome its geopolitical vulnerabilities – via alliance – without sparking conflict? This analysis maintains that while it would be inappropriate to relegate armed conflict as impossible, the likelihood of conflict diminishes as deterrent capabilities are enhanced. Functioning alliances produce credible deterrence and hence alliance is preferable to other policy strands in geopolitically sensitive regions. Before continuing, it is important to identify the specific details of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical situation in order to better grasp the nature of its challenges, rivals and the dimensions of its security policies that work at overcoming these.

Azerbaijan’s Geopolitical Situation

Four key geographic features have, since Azerbaijan’s earliest history, helped define its place in the region and the wider international community. These are: 1. the country’s protective ring of mountains, 2. the pincer river system of the Araxes and Kura which provides fresh water for agriculture and consumption, food-stocks, hydroelectricity capabilities, and (previously) access to more distant places (navigation), 3. arable land for agriculture in the range of some 15%-18%, and 4. the Caspian Sea seaboard (some 713 kilometres) which connects Azerbaijan to Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. These deserve deeper analysis since they serve to (partially) determine Azerbaijan’s interests and behaviour.

Mountains—Three ranges embrace Azerbaijan: the Greater Caucasus which form part of the border with Georgia and Russia, the Lower Caucasus shared with Armenia and the Talysh along much of the Iranian frontier. It is important to remember that mountains are not neutral territories and neither are they some form of “no man’s land” or natural buffer areas. Mountains are of vital strategic importance and states have traditionally expended tremendous national energies attempting to gain high grounds as natural gateways and ramparts. In the Caucasus, many of the current conflicts are based on mountain boundaries and one of the main reasons for this work’s proposal that Azerbaijan shift to a more Arab-focused flank to out-manoeuvre Iran is based on Iranian control over vital mountainous regions which could be used as pressure points in their dyadic relationship. Vying to secure their share of the mountain ranges while preventing others from doing so, is a vital, defining, interest of Azerbaijan no matter the century or political orientation of its leadership.

Rivers—While some 25 notable rivers criss-cross Azerbaijani territory, it is the flow of the Araxes (Araz) and the Kura (Mt’k’vari) that has risen to geopolitical significance for Azerbaijan (and the other riparian states) since these, together, form the country’s most important sources of potable water (re: Kura), are a significant source of foodstuff and provides hydroelectric power potential. While detailing the specific geographic contributions these rivers have made to Azerbaijani geopolitical decision-making falls beyond the scope of this work, it is important to remember that both retain their own basins and the each basin helps water the country’s agricultural sector. Hence, the Araxes and Kura basins – and the rivers running through them – bear direct socio-economic and material significance for the communities that rely on them and, by extension, geopolitical significance for the state. And, the Araxes forms a huge portion of the Iran-Azerbaijan border; it is political by its very nature. Since these rivers flow through most of the Caucasus countries – the Araxes flows through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Iran and the Kura flows through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan – they may act as geopolitical tools.

Upstream states can use water flows to pressure downstream states (as with Turkey’s control of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates) and therefore increase downstream states’ sense of vulnerability. Since both of these rivers are predominately within Azerbaijani territory, it has been more sensitive to the way others use them and has spent considerable diplomatic energy ensuring that upstream states do not interrupt water flows. In terms of this assessment – to explain why Azerbaijan should seek to outflank Iran by politically investing in the Arabian Gulf – the Araxes and Kura should be understood in two ways. First, the Araxes river-border is more a symbolic division than a material one and since the USSR’s Cold War industrial projects all but drained the river, the boundary is rather porous. Iran is more capable of exerting pressure on Azerbaijan than in the inverse. For Azerbaijan to rebalance the pressure on Iran, it needs to move beyond their shared frontiers. It is also worth noting that potable water in Iran is on the decline owing to poor infrastructure, sanctions and a policy black-hole, the Islamic Republic is facing an acute water crisis. Since Azerbaijan is water-rich and Iran increasingly water-poor, the latter may have an additional incentive to attempt to seize Azerbaijani water sources especially as Iran’s demographic boom continues apace. Again, for Azerbaijan to prevent this, it could – as discussed in greater detail below – consolidate its relationship with the Gulf States to balance against the Islamic Republic.

Arable Land—Similar to its water resources, Azerbaijan maintains an abundance of arable land as a percentage of its total landmass. This implies that Azerbaijan could be autarkic in the production of foodstuffs and has increased the geopolitical value of its territory. With environmental challenges unfolding at a heightened pace, states seek to control adequate food production capabilities and arable land has come again to represent an important geopolitical resource. In the wider Caucasus region, only Turkey (26.7%) has managed to enhance its arable lands to a greater degree than Azerbaijan (22.8%). Each of Azerbaijan’s identified adversaries has significantly less – as a percentage – arable land (Iran 10.8%, Russia 7.4% and Armenia (15.1%).1 This is particularly hard on Iran since the country is facing a population boom and will require additional foodstuffs while urbanisation continues to draw people away from more rural communities and the looming sanctions further frustrate Iranian food production. So, much like the situation related to water, Azerbaijan will need to balance against Iran’s growing appetite by reinforcing its strategic position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. For Russia and Armenia arable land is a less important geopolitical item since the former is facing a rapid decrease in its population and the latter is largely a small, self-sufficient rural state.

The Caspian Sea—The world’s largest lake – in surface and volume – is one of the most important geopolitical areas in contemporary international relations owing to the states that share the Sea and the riches buried beneath its seabed. Specifically, and to put the Sea region into context, ‘the EIA estimates that there were 48 billion barrels of oil and 292 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves within the basins that make up the Caspian Sea and surrounding area in 2012.2 As a result, control over the Sea and its littoral has emerged as a key interest for local and international powers alike. For Azerbaijan this has been a mixed blessing, since it has implied a steady flow of allies and adversaries. Unfortunately however, none of Azerbaijan’s allies share the littoral; Georgia and Turkey – Azerbaijan’s only regional allies – are Black Sea states while its other partners are located in more distant regions. So, Azerbaijan shares the Sea with two acutely adversarial states, Russia and Iran, and has frosty relations to Turkmenistan. At the same time, its relationship to Kazakhstan is deeply problematic since the latter has been forced into Russia’s sphere of influence and has very little room to manoeuvre. In this context, it is clear that the Caspian Sea acts as a source of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical strength – much of the states’ national wealth is derived from Sea-related resources and its international alliances are a reflection of its geopolitical position – and its ultimate vulnerability since its adversaries are lined along the littoral. Azerbaijan retains neither the capabilities nor interests to dominate the Caspian Sea or its environs. Instead, it seeks to maintain a legitimate exclusive economic zone (EEZ) so that it may add many of the Sea’s hydrocarbon resources to its national coffers. Iran and Russia, however, are attempting to project their power around the Sea and hence Azerbaijan’s geopolitical strategy is based on bringing exogenous powers into the region in order to prevent its hijacking by either of these aspiring states.

Before turning to the types of alliances Azerbaijan may pursue, it is essential to lay bare the main geopolitical challenges that currently preoccupy Baku. For the most part these have not changed since ‘Baku suddenly emerged in the 1890s as the world’s oil capital.’3 However, they serve as one of the foundations for strategic decision making in the country and therefore need further presentation and understanding.

Azerbaijan’s Main Geopolitical Challenges

Three identifiable geopolitical challenges are currently facing Azerbaijan. First, there is the very real possibility of encirclement and with encirclement come the possibility of enforcing an economic quarantine of Azerbaijan, especially in its hydrocarbons trade. With Georgia, as Azerbaijan’s only allied neighbour, under intense Russian pressure, Armenia bent on maintaining its Nagorno Karabakh proxy and both Russia and Iran steadily increasing their Central Asian presence, Azerbaijan’s international access is becoming more and more retarded and its constraints increasingly apparent. Second, as noted above, there is a “southern push,” strategically and demographically, from Iran. Instead of being satisfied with the existing status quo of an encircled Azerbaijan, it is clear that Iran is trying to break through to its north and on the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has recognised this challenge and recently (2013) developed its own Maritime Security Strategy (MSS) that is designed for ‘enhancing border protection and tackling possible threats to [its] hydrocarbon fields, wells, production facilities, and underwater pipeline systems in the Caspian Sea.’4 Finally, as in other parts of the post-Soviet space, Azerbaijan needs to remain vigilant against low-intensity operations that seek to slice away slivers of its national territory (re: salami tactics). While there are no sizable Russian language minorities in the country (re: Ukraine) or “disgruntled” cultural-political groups (re: Abkhazia and South Ossetia vis-à-vis Georgia), Russia and Iran are eying Azerbaijan – especially its energy fields – and have supported Armenia’s seizure of Nagorno Karabakh. There are fears that Armenia will attempt to consolidate its position through further expansions, together with Iranian and Russian interference.

Since there are clearly three main challenging states for Azerbaijan, it is essential to justify the selection of Iran for a new strategic thinking for Azerbaijan; as a means of dealing with all of its main challenges. On the surface, exacerbating existing Iran-Azerbaijan tensions may seem counter-productive. However, this work suggests that since Azerbaijan is not a great regional or international power and remains relatively small compared to Russia, Iran and (allied) Turkey – though it is considerably more powerful than Armenia – it is unable to comprehensively deal with each of its challenges simultaneously. Instead, it is forced to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Azerbaijan should prioritise containing Iran since it seems to pose the greatest threat and solving its Iranian challenge may heighten Azerbaijan’s deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis Russia and its compellence capabilities vis-à-vis Armenia. In short, by dealing properly with Iran, Azerbaijan would also enhance its security vis-à-vis both Russia and Armenia without having to resort to armed conflict. While both Russia and Armenia will likely remain competitors of Azerbaijan, Iran is the most dangerous for the time being and Azerbaijan must take preventive action to better secure itself from the Islamic Republic. This threat assessment is due to several overlapping features.

First, Iran is an expansionist power. While the Islamic Republic has done much over the past decade (or so) to adopt a tech/media savvy approach for generating international sympathy and garnishing support for its foreign policy, its actions speak volumes. For instance, in a recent publication, Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, candidly verifies Iranian strategic goals by noting that

(b)eyond its borders, Iran seeks to enhance its regional and global stature; to promote its ideals, including Islamic-democracy; to expand its bilateral and multilateral relations, particularly with neighbouring Muslim-majority countries and non-aligned states; to reduce tensions and manage disagreements with other states; to foster peace and security at both the regional and international levels through positive engagement; and to promote international understanding through dialogue and cultural understanding.5

While Zarif intended to assuage international fears, his depiction of a chief Iranian priority being the promotion of its ideals beyond its frontiers is less than comforting given that such ideals are based on a lethal brew of sectarianism, chauvinism and theocratic governance. A quick glance at how those ideals have affected the regional situation stand in testament to the nature of Iranian interference since it ‘seems unlikely that Iran seeks to conquer any of its neighbours outright […] it seems more likely that Iran seeks to ensure that all of the region’s governments are friendly to it and subservient.’6

Second, Iran is ideologically driven and does not typically play by the same geopolitical Westphalian rules of statecraft. Iran is not only seeking an enhanced geopolitical position, it is seeking to export its Islamic republic-esq ideological structures implying that, if successfully implemented, Azerbaijan faces a fundamental and existential threat from Iran. Third, there is an intimidating imbalance of power between Azerbaijan and Iran stemming from access to key material power resources, relative GDP and GNP compared to arms production and procurement, size and strength of the armed forces, territorial and population size, participation in international organisations, levels and depth of international alliances (current) and national cohesion. Fourth, there is a sizable ethnic-Azerbaijani population in Iran and the latter is loathe to allow Azerbaijan to grow in regional power and influence lest it becomes a magnet for those Azerbaijanis living in Iran. In other words, since Azerbaijanis comprise some 40% of Iran’s population, the Islamic Republic is particularly sensitive to changes to the balance of power within the dyad, implying that – in this case – it remains an intrusive, status quo actor—one that Azerbaijan is required to counteract in order to enhance its strategic position in the region. Finally, in addition to the ethnic Azerbaijanis which live in Iran, a sizable chunk of Azerbaijani territory is occupied by the Islamic Republic, which will likely take preventive actions in order to prevent its return.

Breaking the Rhythm: Solving Azerbaijan’s Geopolitical Challenges

For its part, Azerbaijan has three options for dealing with Iran: hegemony, neutrality or alliance. While Azerbaijan lacks the political will to assert itself to the levels needed to assume regional hegemony, it should be remembered that being relatively small in a particular region does not, automatically, relegate a state to the second tier of regional or international stewardship.  Azerbaijan has the financial surpluses, healthy institutions, a consolidated body politik, international alliances, modern armed forces, food and potable water autarky and stable demographic situation needed to more comprehensively assert itself along the Caspian littoral and emerge as a regional hegemony. This would not occur in a vacuum however and Azerbaijan has sought to maintain a secure regional political environment instead of altering the balance of power for its own power aggrandisement. It recognises that any considerable Caspian power projections from Baku would produce increased tensions along the littoral and potentially lead to open hostilities. So, Azerbaijan’s decision not to pursue hegemony is largely rooted in its national desire to prevent greater regional instability. This may seem odd considering that neither Iran nor Russia are deterred from reaching for hegemony on the same logic and Azerbaijan has adopted a strategy (alliance) that is much less antagonising than reaching for hegemony. With Iran actively seeking regional hegemony, and Russia actively supporting that endeavour, Azerbaijan’s attempts at the same objective would likely spark a region-wide arms race and, ultimately, war. In such a situation, Azerbaijan would be at a severe disadvantage considering that two of its three chief adversaries are located along the littoral, while the third is proximate.

At the same time, Azerbaijan does not have the luxury of being able to follow a posture of neutrality; the region is far too dangerous. Sure, Azerbaijan could attempt to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland (armed neutrality) or Sweden (allied neutrality) but the costs would be too great since such a posture would be seen as an intrinsic national weakness by its more entrepreneurial neighbours and invite interference. The violation of Belgium’s neutrality prior to the outbreak of hostilities in WWI acts as a constant reminder of the risks associated to neutrality in periods that favour offensive strategies, where the main actors view others’ neutrality as a licence to intervene. The Caucasus, as mentioned, is unforgiving and maintaining and offensive posture is often the only way to produce stability and enhance national defence. This is particularly true since Iran is Azerbaijan’s chief adversary—Iran would not likely respect Azerbaijani neutrality in its rise to regional hegemony. This assumption is based on the Islamic Republic’s past record of interference in Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Azerbaijan.

So, since Azerbaijan is not attempting to emerge as a great regional power or hegemon, and given that adopting a neutral posture would be too risky, there is an air of determinism to Azerbaijan’s security position—it must attempt to balance emergent threats via alliance. However, localised alliances are difficult to form and even more difficult to maintain owing to the fluidity of the region and the great powers present. Azerbaijan is situated on the wrong side of the prevailing alliance network in the region. It is therefore a priority that it develop alliances with states situated beyond the Caucasus, that are able to assist it in achieving its regional goals of (in the worst case) deterring Iran and preventing collective action by Armenia, Russia and Iran against its interests, or (in the best case) create disharmony within that nexus. In short, Azerbaijan requires international allies for dealing with its regional challenges. This analysis concludes that Azerbaijan seek alliance with the GCC states in a bid to out-manoeuvre and deter the Islamic Republic, so that it may also deter Russia and constrain Armenia from further expansive efforts.

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  1. See ‘Arable Land (% of Land Area,’ The World Bank, 2014. This information is available at: <http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.ZS> (accessed 12 August 2014).
  2.  US Energy Information Administration, ‘Oil and Natural Gas Production is Growing in Caspian Sea Region,’ 11 September 2013. This article is available at: <www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=12911> (accessed 02 August 2014).
  3.  Karl E. Meyer, The Dust of Empire, The Century Foundation, New York: USA, 2003, p. 164.
  4.  Peter Dunai, ‘Azerbaijan Inaugurates Shipyard,’ IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 51:31, 30 July 2014, p. 20. 
  5.  Mohammad Javad Zarif, ‘What Iran Really Wants: Iranian Foreign Policy in the Rouhani Era,’ Foreign Affairs, 93:3, May/June 2014, p. 49.
  6.  Kenneth M. Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy, Simon and Schuster, New York: USA, 2013, p. 11.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 1