Over the past several weeks geopolitical experts have been talking a lot about what the surprise U.S. drone attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, on Jan. 3 means for the Middle East and relations between the major powers. What has received considerably less attention, however, is what Soleimani’s killing means for the South Caucasus, a region whose small size belies its strategic importance.
Located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the South Caucasus is a major energy supplier and an increasingly important arena for competition between regional powers, like Turkey and Iran, and great powers, like the U.S. and Russia.
Washington believed that taking out Soleimani would restore the leverage it had lost to Iran and Russia’s growing role in the region. Although U.S. sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, sparking anti-government demonstrations, Russia, China, much of Europe, and even many American political leaders have railed against the Soleimani strike.
The assassination was more than just a bid to eliminate a military leader who had planned attacks that killed thousands of American troops in Iraq and Syria. It was also aimed at weakening the “Axis of Resistance” — comprising Iran, Russia, Syria, and groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon — and undermining Iran’s broader geopolitical strategy, under which Tehran has increased its stature in the Middle East at Washington’s expense.
Reactions from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia
All of the South Caucasus nations — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — decried the strike as a threat to the region’s stability. But only Georgia, which has been a darling of the American foreign policy establishment and the closest U.S. partner in the region, said Washington had the right to protect its citizens overseas.
Despite Azerbaijan and Armenia’s three-decades-long hostilities over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, their reaction to the strike was almost identical: Both conveyed condolences and called for U.S.-Iran de-escalation.
Armenia must be careful not to step on Iran’s toes because its economy depends on oil from its southern neighbor. It has also put considerable effort into developing a strategic relationship with Iran as a counterweight to the region’s other major power, Turkey, with which it has strained relations.
For its part, Azerbaijan has sought to maintain good relations with Iran as a counterweight against its longtime antagonist Russia. For Baku, another consideration is that more than 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Iran. A U.S.-Iran conflict could send a lot of them fleeing north to Azerbaijan, creating the kind of humanitarian crisis that occurred when millions of Syrians fled the civil war in their country for Turkey and Europe.
Azerbaijan’s leaders are also mindful that Iran once warned Baku that in the event of a conflict with the West, it might attack the pipelines that send Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe — a move that would cripple its economy. Azerbaijan also knows Iran has the weapons to make good on its threats, including the Qiam-1 and Fateh-113 short-range ballistic missiles, which it has used in conflicts in the Middle East, including its Jan. 8 retaliatory strike on Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces.
Unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia does not share a border with Iran, nor is it dependent on Iranian oil, meeting its needs from Azerbaijan. For two decades it has aspired to become a member of the European Union and NATO. The Georgian military has trained regularly with American troops and still participates in the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. More than 20,000 Georgian troops have served with their U.S. partners in Iraq and Afghanistan on a rotating basis.
The South Caucasus’s importance in the US-Iran saga
Were a war with Iran to break out that spilled over into the South Caucasus, there could be major repercussions. Europe’s energy security could suffer a serious blow if the oil and gas pipelines that run from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean and Europe were to be attacked. In fact, attacks on those pipelines have already happened: Russia bombed sections of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in Georgia during the 2008 war.
Another threat is that a war between Iran and the West could result in a new humanitarian crisis in the region by sending tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into the South Caucasus — a crossroads between Asia and Europe — on their way to the continent.
Another scenario, although less likely, is that Iran could attack American embassies in the South Caucasus with its proxies. It used pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to do this in Baghdad after a U.S. air strike killed a number of militia members, and the subsequent rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed a U.S. contractor and the storming of the U.S. embassy helped to set the Soleimani strike in motion.
The killing of Soleimani brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, although the risk of further escalation seems to have receded, at least for now, largely as a result of a carefully calibrated Iranian response — missile strikes on Iraqi military bases that house U.S. troops that were designed not to cause casualties. Nevertheless, tensions between the U.S. and Iran will endure, and were a conflict to break out, it would have grave consequences that would ripple far beyond the Middle East, including, due to its geographical location and strategic importance, the South Caucasus as well.
Rauf Mammadov is a resident scholar on energy policy at The Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of energy security, global energy industry trends, as well as energy relations between the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Caucasus.
Fuad Shahbazov is a Baku-based Senior Analyst, covering regional security and defense policy issues. The views expressed in this piece are their own.