On January 15, Foreign Affairs released an intriguing essay on Azerbaijan's relations with Iran and Israel (here). Not only did I learn a lot about Azerbaijani foreign policy, but it also got me thinking that Azerbaijan might be another example of a small state implementing what I called "small power" in a previous post, albeit in a way very different from Mongolia.
Alex Vatanta presents compelling evidence that tensions between the U.S./Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran are evidenced in the newly developing ties that Azerbaijan enjoys with Israel and its tense relationship with Iran. Azerbaijan has had a remarkably fraught relationship with its southern neighbor. These tensions are the result of several historical and contemporary issues. The most important for our purposes being the following:
1) More ethnic Azeris live in the Northern Iran than in Azerbaijan, the declared homeland of the Azeri people.
2) Occasional remarks from Iranian politicians suggest that they still see the South Caucasus as part of their historical domain/rightful sphere of influence.
3) Iran supported Armenia over Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, fearing that Azerbaijan might be trying to unite the "greater Azeri nation".
In response, Azerbaijan as sought closer ties not only with the Russian Federation, but also with the United States. More surprising to me, however, was that Azerbaijan and Israel are showing ties of increased cooperation. Both countries have an expressed interest in seeing Iran contained, monitored, and ultimately subdued as a regional threat. In response, Iran has attempted to improve relations with Azerbaijan, with overtures including the release of Azerbaijan citizens accused of spying in Iran and other diplomatic motions.
I suggest that Azerbaijan has taken steps that look an awful lot like "small power". It seems to me that Azerbaijan is developing a policy of subtle balancing behavior, whereby it can best achieve its foreign policy and security goals. By maintaining ties with Russia, but also bringing the "West" and Israel into the mix, Azerbaijan can ensure two things: one, it is not dependent on any one larger country; two, Iran is now in a position to take Azerbaijan seriously. Iran's previous heavy-handedness pushed Azerbaijan to take measures to ensure that Iran did not become a threat. Now, Iran will have to court this small Caucasian nation, to ensure that Azerbaijan does not become a larger concern than its small size and population might have suggested in the early 90s. The alternative, that Iran take actions against Azerbaijan, seems unlikely since Azerbaijan has not taken any definitive action against Iran and a pre-emptive strike would only worsen Iran's geo-political climate. Azerbaijan has played its hand well, and it seems to be working.
Anyone familiar with Mongolia, has likely noted important parallels between the three points of contention in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, laid out by Alex Vatanta, and the historically complex relationship between Mongolia and China. More ethnic Mongolians live in Inner Mongolia than the Mongolian state; there are occasional statements of Mongolia's natural place within the Chinese nation (like Tibet and Xinjiang/East Turkestan), and China has expressed concerns about pan-Mongolianism affecting the security and stability of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Mongolia's response has been remarkably similar to Azerbaijan's, in that the country has sought to deepen relations with countries besides its two neighbors - the "third neighbor policy". The differences are numerous (ex. Mongolian-Chinese official relations are quite good at this time and the U.S.-Chinese relationship is hugely better than U.S.-Iranian relations), but the similarities are also important and point to my larger argument that internationally engaged small states will take similar foreign policy directions with regard to their strategic environment. Azerbaijan, like Mongolia, can leverage certain things (location, ties with the West, love-less relationship with Iran) to increase its "small power" and ultimately further its foreign policy and security objectives.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.