The World's New Powder Keg


Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first trip to the South Caucasus since assuming office. On the day of her arrival in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, fighting broke out on the country’s border with Azerbaijan leaving dead eight soldiers. Coincidence? Clearly not. The outbreak of violence was a blatant attempt to draw attention to an issue that has long since gone dormant in the West’s popular memory. Naturally, both sides deny engineering the hackneyed publicity stunt.

In order to understand what’s at stake here, a little history lesson is in order. The Armenian-Azeri border has been tense for years. As the Soviet Union was unraveling, ethnic Armenians began to chafe against the hastily delineated borders of Azerbaijan. In the southwest corner of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had a mammoth 80 percent of its population comprised of ethnic Armenians, who demanded either unification with their mother country or independence. War erupted in 1988 and, in the ensuing six years, an estimated thirty thousand were killed and over one million were forced to flee their homes. A Russian brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, though the conflict was never formally ended and remains “frozen.” The international community still considers N-K to be a part of Azerbaijan, though the country exercises almost no control over the region, which has its own government.

Today, 95 percent of N-K is Armenian. The brittle peace that was established in 1994 looks more tenuous than ever in light of the recent skirmishes. Clinton warned that an escalation of the conflict “could have unpredictable and disastrous consequences.” And she’s not wrong. Every regional power has a stake in the conflict. Any solution to the N-K issue will have to juggle Russian, Iranian, and Turkish interests in the region.

Russia’s Role Russia is, of course, the regional hegemon and casts a long shadow over the South Caucasus. Russia has long since been Armenia’s patron, arming the country at discount prices or nearly for free. This strategic partnership with Russia has helped offset Azerbaijan’s high-powered defense budget that stands at nearly ten times that of Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s bilateral relations with the Kremlin are less friendly. Azeri disdain for Russia, of course, lies in its overt support of Armenia. More recently, relations have grown even more acrimonious in a dispute over a major radar installation in Gabala, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has stridently demanded an increase in the lease from $7 million to $300 million. Russia also sees Azerbaijan as a NATO thrall, cooperating with the United States on many fronts in the War on Terror.

Turkey’s Take Turkey’s relations with Armenia are growing amicable, but they will remain in a diplomatic morass for some time; as of yet, Turkey has not recognized its genocide of over one million Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. Azerbaijan, however, has superb relations with Ankara. The mutual intelligibility of Turkish and Azerbaijani, and the sharing of much culture and history, prompted the Turkish foreign minister to refer to the pair as “one nation with two states.” The two have partnered on many energy projects, and Azerbaijan plans to invest a colossal $17 billion in Turkey over the coming years to construct the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline. In the event of any regional conflict, Turkey would align resolutely with Azerbaijan.

Iran’s Interference Iran’s population is at least 15 percent Azeri, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and opposition leader Hussein Moussavi. Both countries are also overwhelmingly Shia. Yet, relations between the two countries could not be worse. Iran resents Azerbaijan’s close relations with the West and Israel. Indeed, relations between Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic have been particularly bilious ever since the former’s purchase of  nearly $2 billion in arms from Israel and alleged harboring of Israeli agents. Israel no doubt sees Azerbaijan as a partner in the region. Indeed, both have attempted to build secular societies despite harboring large fundamentalist populations. What’s more, both reside in dangerous neighborhoods, surrounded by countries they cannot trust at best and are openly antagonistic to at worst. Predictably, the new Israeli partnership has fomented a rapid downward spiral for Iran and Azerbaijan’s relations. Many analysts see Iran as equally likely to look for trouble with Azerbaijan as Armenia is.

Conversely, Iranian ambassador to Armenia Mohammad Reisi blithely said that the countries’ relations are “the closest ones…in the region.” Should the frozen N-K dispute heat up, it is no mystery whom Iran will favor.

Why Should Uncle Sam Care? The stage is clearly set. On one side stands Turkey and Azerbaijan, and, on the other, Russia, Armenia, and Iran. The United States thus far has found a consistent and reliable partner in Azerbaijan. Over the last decade, 40 percent of ground, naval, and air support bound for Afghanistan has passed through Azerbaijani territory. The country’s dismal human rights record aside – indeed, the United States has far more nefarious partners – it would be unwise to abandon Azerbaijan. Even with the Afghan War drawing to a close, Azerbaijan can still act as a counterweight to Russian and Iranian influence in a region where the United States is want for friends.

Armenia is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a scion of Russia, for better or worse. Moreover, the American-Armenian lobby is powerful, and even succeeded in preventing the dispatch of a formal American ambassador to Azerbaijan. The United States can pander to both the Armenians and the Azeris, as it has done for years. What is certain is that political vacillation on N-K must come to an end. The frozen conflict must be resolved for the sake of regional stability. With so many actors involved, the South Caucasus is a powder keg redolent of the Balkans of early 20th century Europe.

The international community as a whole has an interest in ensuring that Caspian oil continues to flow, and Azerbaijan’s stability is central to that aim. The abeyance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, for example, because of an avoidable regional conflict would wreak havoc on a global energy market already under tremendous pressure. Hillary Clinton ought to pay several more visits to the region in the near future to ensure that Armenia and Azerbaijan’s glacial peace process quickens its pace.