By Svante Cornell
March 30, 2023
On January 27th, a gunman entered Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran, Iran, killed the embassy security officer and wounded two others. The episode received only fleeting coverage in the international media. In the wake of the incident, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, openly accused “some of the branches of the Iranian establishment” of being responsible for the attack, and Baku promptly evacuated its embassy staff and dependents. It was a clear sign of the frictions between Azerbaijan and its not-so-friendly neighbor, Iran.
To be sure, relations between the two countries had deteriorated sharply since the fall of 2020, when Azerbaijan, using mainly Turkish and Israeli weaponry, succeeded in taking back territories long occupied by regional rival Armenia. In that conflict, Iran had played a distinctly unhelpful role, seeking to stall Azerbaijan’s military advances and providing covert support for Armenia. But the incident itself, as well as its fallout, is indicative of a larger realignment of power politics now underway in Eurasia – one with immense implications for U.S. interests.
Over the past two years, regional events have highlighted the importance of the Caucasus, the narrow isthmus between Iran and Russia that connects Europe to Central Asia through the Black and Caspian seas. America’s ill-conceived withdrawal from Afghanistan shut down hopes that landlocked Central Asian states would be able to open transport routes through that country, thereby connecting to the Indian subcontinent and the Indian ocean. Then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine abruptly shut down the land transport corridor linking China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus. Suddenly, the only land route linking China and Central Asia to Europe is the one that passes through the Caucasus.
But while America has paid increasing attention to Central Asia in recent years – Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region in February – it has all but ignored the three countries of the Caucasus. This, in spite of the region’s growing importance in relation to Central Asia, and to the countering of Iran.
Indeed, the Caucasus is a region where alignments don’t fit easily into preconceived notions. Iran has supported Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan, largely because up to a third of Iran’s own population consists of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis, whom Iran fears may seek to separate and join up with their northern brethren. Conversely, Israel has developed strong relations with Azerbaijan, capitalizing on the staunchly secular nature of Azerbaijani society and its government’s efforts to promote inter-religious harmony. Israeli drone technology, for instance, was critical to Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war.
Turkey’s shift has been dramatic, too. A decade ago, Islamist impulses led the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pursue an accommodation with Iran while expanding the country’s stature in the Middle East. Turkey’s support for political Islam, in turn, led to the collapse of its relations with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But the war in Syria put Turkey and Iran on a collision course, while changing domestic politics over the past half decade have led Istanbul to adopt a foreign and security policy heavily influenced by the nationalist (rather than Islamist) preferences.
As a result, Turkey has mended fences with Arab nations and with Israel – a process that has been facilitated by Azerbaijan, which managed to keep excellent relations with both Jerusalem and Ankara throughout. More important, from an American perspective, is the fact that Ankara has emerged as the strongest regional counterweight to Iran. Last December, the Turkish defense minister supervised joint military exercises along the Azerbaijani border with Iran, responding to drills that Tehran had organized only weeks prior in which Iranian forces practiced an invasion of Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan now have a defense pact – something that has enabled Baku to speak up against Tehran in ways that were unthinkable a year ago.
Then there is Armenia. While Turkey and Azerbaijan are joining forces with Israel to counter Tehran, Yerevan finds itself stuck in an entente with both Tehran and Moscow dating back to the 1990s. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has making noises about escaping Russia’s orbit of late, launching overtures to the U.S. and the European Union. But Russian influence in Armenia’s national security bureaucracy remains strong, as does Russian ownership of critical infrastructure in the country. More worrying is the fact that Armenia appears to have played a critical role in Iran’s transfer of drones and missiles to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
In the middle of it all is Georgia, previously America’s closest partner in the region. But in recent years, Georgia’s government – now under the control of a shadowy tycoon who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s – has become increasingly skeptical of the West.
America’s national security bureaucracy separates the Caucasus and the Middle East into different bureaus, with Central Asia in yet another office. This is part of the reason the U.S. has failed to respond to the ways in which the regional politics of these regions intertwine. In view of the challenges posed by Russia and Iran, however, Washington’s confusion is no longer tenable. It is in America’s interest to encourage Turkey’s emergence as a counterweight to Iran, and to nurture the growing alignment between Ankara, Baku and Jerusalem. The U.S. also needs to work to recover its influence in Georgia, as well as to reinforce the efforts it began in late 2022 to bring about a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of the above, however, requires a much stronger American commitment to the security and stability of the countries of the Caucasus.
Svante E. Cornell is the Director of AFPC’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
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By Svante Cornell
December 22, 2022
With considerable pomp and circumstance, the Biden administration recently unveiled its signature National Security Strategy. The document, intended as an authoritative expression of the Administration’s priorities in the field of foreign affairs, pays extensive attention to the great power challenges posed by China and Russia, framing them as the greatest threats to contemporary American security.
Yet, in spite of this, the new Biden strategy pays scant attention to the region located between those two Eurasian behemoths – Central Asia – or to the countries that reside in it.
This makes no sense. If the U.S. aspires to answer the challenges posed by Russia and China, how can it ignore the part of the world where those two powers meet? Chinese and/or Russian domination of Central Asia would effectively enable powers hostile to the United States to connect southward and westward to South Asia and the Middle East, and thus shift the balance of power on the entire Eurasian continent. This would empower their partner, Iran, and lead hesitant or wayward American partners (such as Turkey and India) to reconsider their loyalties. Moreover, if it is locked out of Central Asia, America’s ability to respond to crises on the Eurasian continent would be diminished. This would stand in stark contrast to September 2001, when the U.S. was able to rapidly mount a campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan from bases in Central Asia.
Biden, though, is hardly unique. He joins a long list of presidents who have proven unable to approach Central Asia strategically. There are probably many reasons for this dysfunction, but at its root lies a conceptual problem: U.S. policymakers have historically been unable to decide where the region fits in their mental map of the world.
The different iterations of the National Security Strategy, or NSS, provide ample evidence of this. The first NSS to mention Central Asia is the 2006 version, issued by the George W. Bush Administration. Under the novel heading of “South and Central Asia,” an explicit effort to center U.S. policy on Afghanistan, it termed the region “an enduring priority for our foreign policy.” By contrast, the Obama administration’s first NSS, published four years later, did not so much as mention Central Asia. Obama’s second, in 2015, made an oblique reference to the region in a passage on India and Pakistan. Central Asia reappeared in the Trump administration’s 2018 NSS, again under a “South and Central Asia” heading, with the emphasis being on counterterrorism and building a region “resilient against domination by rival powers.” But the Biden administration’s NSS inexplicably puts Central Asia at the very end of the “Europe” heading.
These shifts mirror fluctuations in the U.S. national security bureaucracy. The Bush administration’s National Security Council put Central Asia together with South Asia, paralleling the new Bureau of South and Central Asian affairs at the State Department. But the Obama NSC put Central Asia under the Senior Director for Russian Affairs. Trump then moved it back to South Asia. Biden, like Obama, has again placed Central Asia under Russia. But these changes were not echoed at the State Department. Thus, for most of the past two decades, the NSC and the State Department have treated Central Asia as part of different continents. It’s a small wonder, therefore, that America has failed to develop a coherent approach to the region.
This disconnect has real-world consequences. Most glaringly, Central Asia has been missing from America’s policies to counter nefarious Chinese activities in Asia – perhaps because the Obama and Biden administrations did not even see it as part of Asia. Never mind that Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his flagship Belt & Road Initiative in the capital of Kazakhstan in 2013, and made the region the destination of his first foreign trip after his two-year, COVID-induced isolation.
The Biden NSS emphasizes its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asian states. But it fails to mention security matters in its policy prescriptions for the region. By contrast, the document’s approach to the Middle East reassures that “the United States will support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, and we will make sure those countries can defend themselves against foreign threats.” Such language would have been quite appropriate for Central Asia as well, signaling a real commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This tepid state of affairs is no longer tenable if indeed it ever was. It is high time for the U.S. government to finally make a lasting determination on how it views Central Asia’s role in connection to America’s interests concerning China, Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. It is time for the United States to finally view Central Asia in its own right, rather than as an appendix to something else. Doing so means engaging actively on security matters in the region, deepening political and economic dialogues with regional states, and more adroitly countering Moscow and Beijing’s overtures there.
Heads of State from Japan, India, Turkey, and South Korea have all visited Central Asia in recent years, showing their understanding of the region’s growing importance. In October, the European Union raised its own level of interaction with Central Asia to the same level. Meanwhile, Central Asia has never been visited by a U.S. President. The sooner this changes, the sooner America will be able to truly confront Russian and Chinese influence in one of the world’s most critical regions.
Svante E. Cornell joined the American Foreign Policy Council as Senior Fellow for Eurasia in January 2017. He also serves as the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. His main areas of expertise are security issues, state-building, and transnational crime in Southwest and Central Asia, with a specific focus on the Caucasus and Turkey. He is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the Joint Center’s bi-weekly publication, and of the Joint Center’s Silk Road Papers series of occasional papers.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute invites you to join for a presentation and discussion regarding the International Monetary Fund's October 2022 Regional Economic Outlook for Central Asia and the Caucasus report.
Svante Cornell, Director,Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at American Foreign Policy Council
Subir Lall, Deputy Director, Middle East and Central Asia Department, International Monetary Fund
Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at American Foreign Policy Council
Wednesday December 14, 2022, 10:30 AM-11:30 PM EST
Co-organized by the CAMCA Forum founders:
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at AFPC
The CAMCA Network
The Rumsfeld Foundation
Forum on CAMCA: A New Era
Join the fall 2022 Rumsfled Foundation Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan (CAMCA) fellows for a presentation on the region's next chapter. From it's geostrategic location to its large and viable workforce, CAMCA countries have the potential to create a shared economic system supporting regional trade investments, labor and peacekeeping, Join the Fellows to learn how the U.S. can better interact with, and invest in, this rapidly developing region.
When: Wednesday November 9, 3:00 - 4:30 PM EST
Where: American Foreign Policy Council, 509 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002
Moderator: Svante Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at American Foreign Policy Council
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in cooperation with the Development Strategy Center
Forum on Uzbekistan's Constitutional Reforms
At his inauguration after being re-elected President in November 2021, President Mirziyoyev announced the imperative of constitutional reform. This month, he presented the basic outlines of these reforms, which will be put to a nationwide referendum. The reforms intend to modernize the country’s basic law, with the aim of bolstering rights and develop the social nature of the state. A panel of Uzbek and Western experts will provide an initial analysis of these amendments and their implications.
When: Thursday July 7, 2022, 9:00-11:00 AM EST
The event will also be live-streamed on the CACI Facebook page and on Zoom.
Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Eldor Tulyakov, Executive Director, Development Strategy Center
Uzbekistan’s Reforms in Regional Perspective
Dr. Johan Engvall, Deputy Research Director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Constitutional Reform in the New Uzbekistan
Prof. Mirafzal Mirakulov, Doctor of Law
Judicial Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Mjuša Sever, Co-founder and Director of Regional Dialogue, a Slovenia-based NGO with a branch office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The Rule of Law: Constitutional Guarantees for the Rule of Law, Protection of Personal Rights and Freedoms
Senator Shukhrat Chulliev, member of the Constitutional Commission and deputy chairman of the Judicial Committee of the Senate of Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Political Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Anthony Bowyer, Advisor for Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Improving the Constitutional Foundations of Parliamentary Control, Ensuring Freedom of Speech and Access to Information
Ilkhom Abdullaev, member of the Constitutional Commission, chairman of the Committee on Innovative Development, Information Policy and Information Technologies of the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis
Social Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Dr. Farrukh Irnazarov, Co-Founder at RANSIF Group and Central Asian Development Institute, and Rumsfeld Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Topical Issues of Building a Welfare State in the Context of Constitutional Reforms
Dr. Gulnoza Sattarova, Head of the Department of the Institute for Problems of Legislation and Parliamentary Studies under Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan
The Meaning and Implications of Uzbekistan’s Constitutional Reforms
Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute