Why the Neighborhood Matters: The Case of Azerbaijan


2013-09-13 by Robbin Laird

The current Syrian crisis reminds one of the importance of understanding the neighborhood.

A crisis is always contextual; and the neighbors are part of what happens next and the shape of geopolitics to come.

Too often the public could not find countries within which crises are unfolding on the map.

And too often foreign policy analysts seem to act as if foreign policy crises are math problems, which have right and wrong answers. 

Geography matters as well.  The neighborhood is the neighborhood.


U.S. engagement in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel are inextricably intertwined with the next phase of the Syrian crisis.

It is rather simple: any strike against Syria is part of the context of the ongoing story of the neighborhood and its evolution.

A strike would not a defining moment that “solves” history or provides the correct formula to solve the math problem.

We are publishing a Special Report by Dr. Richard Weitz on Azerbaijan which provides a core example of why geography matters, and why shaping strong U.S. relationship with the country is part of shaping a neighborhood policy which can give the US better rather than worse options.  

We have to start by looking at the map and we quickly see that Azerbaijan is strategically located, bordering Iran and Russia.

Then we can add that it is an energy rich state, and one can easily grasp that it is a key player in the region and beyond.

And if one adds that they have been part of the effort of several states in the region to work with the United States in Afghanistan the picture becomes clearer. Working closely with Azerbaijan is a good idea as part of the regional dynamic.

STRATFOR’s George Friedman provided a good sense of the importance of Azerbaijan to U.S. interests in a recent piece in Forbes.

It is a country that borders both Russia and Iran. 

In Russia it borders Dagestan; in Iran it borders the Iranian Azeri region. The bulk of Azeris live in Iran, where they are the largest ethnic minority group in the country (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an Azeri).

Azerbaijan is a predominantly secular country. It feels threatened by Iranian Shiite terrorism and by Sunni Islamic terrorism in the north. Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s in which it lost an area called Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, which was backed by the Russians. Russian troops are now based in Armenia. 

A government that appears to have close ties to Russia has replaced the formerly pro-American government of Georgia. Azerbaijan finds itself in a tough place, and the country’s position between Russia and Iran makes it critical. A secular Muslim state in this region hostile to both Iran and Russia is not all that common. 

Azerbaijan has another strategic virtue from the American point of view: energy. 

The Russian strategy has been to maintain and deepen European dependence on Russian energy, on the theory that this would both increase Russian influence and decrease the risk to Russian national security. The second phase of this strategy has been to limit alternatives for the Europeans, including Turkey. 

The complex tension over oil and natural gas pipelines boils down to the fact that the Russians do not want significant energy sources that are outside of Russian control to be available to Europe.


Another important consideration is the future of Afghanistan.

As the United States shapes the next phase of the Afghan policy, a key consideration is not forgetting the relationships forged with the Uzbeks, Kazaks or Azerbaijanis are a key part of the overall effort.  

As one Turkish analyst put it with regard to Azerbaijan and Afghanistan:

As far as Baku is concerned, the use of Azerbaijani territory in the supply route to Afghanistan underscores its strategic position as a gateway to Central Asia, as well as its support for the struggle against international terrorism.

The participation of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Afghan peacekeeping mission following 9/11 strengthened their sovereignty and independence;

forging links with major powers outside of the neighborhood has proved valuable in this geopolitically complex environment.


There is an American tendency to think that tomorrow is a fresh day in the geopolitics of history and simply a prelude to solving the next math problem.

Additionally, it is clear that the Syrian crisis and how it is being handled will only exacerbate the Iranian challenge to the United States and the West.  Azerbaijan is an important ally in trying to shape an Iranian future more compatible to Western interests than would otherwise be the case.

In the report officially released on Monday, Richard Weitz looks at Azerbaijan and its regional role.  He underscores the importance of a small state, strategically located in the evolution of U.S. options within the region as well.

But it is not a math problem to be solved.

It is an engagement, which is part of shaping better rather than worse outcomes from the American point of view.