As a confrontation with Russia continues to build, the United States feels compelled to reevaluate, reshape and reinforce its web of alliances. From the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians, Washington is already stepping up its involvement along Russia's European periphery. At the same time, we are starting to see the southern arc of the U.S. alliance structure form, beginning with Iran, reaching up into the Caucasus through Azerbaijan and then swinging westward to Turkey.
First, a checkup on Iran. The U.S.-Iranian talks are entering a critical phase as negotiators undertake the contentious task of drafting the details of the nuclear agreement ahead of the July 20 deadline. Naturally, there will be a number of hiccups along the way, but one of the best ways to gauge progress in these negotiations is to watch what's happening in Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional adversary. On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said he had extended an invitation to his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom. After months of Iranian courting and Saudi snubbing, this was the first big signal that the House of Saud is coming to terms with the inevitability of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
There are two sides to the Iranian strategy from the U.S. point of view. On the one hand, the United States will pursue a strategic partnership that extends well beyond a nuclear understanding with Iran. On the other hand, the United States will work to balance its relationship with Iran through its already strong presence among Gulf Cooperation Council states. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reaffirmed that message when he met with GCC defense ministers Wednesday in Jeddah. Notably, he called on these states to form a collective response to address the threats in the region posed by Iran. In other words, Washington would prefer to keep a healthy competition alive between Iran and its historical Gulf rivals, in line with the broader U.S. balance-of-power strategy. The Saudis appear unnerved enough by the U.S.-Iranian negotiation to try and make their own peace with Tehran, but Washington will do what it can to convince the Saudis that it is not about to abandon them and that a Saudi-Iranian truce is not necessary at this time.
Looking northward, Azerbaijan is a small but critical piece of U.S. strategy in the region. Washington has not paid much attention to Baku in recent years, but that is starting to change now that the United States is keen on finding useful allies abutting Russia, particularly ones that aren't completely beholden to Russia for their energy supply. Azerbaijan will maintain an exceedingly cautious approach toward the United States and Russia as it waits for more tangible support from Washington. The kind of support Baku is looking for ranges from weapons deals to political and financial backing on a trans-Caspian pipeline that would link Central Asian energy to Azerbaijan for transit onward to Europe. It is still too early in the relationship to assess how far Washington is willing to go in backing Azerbaijan, but this is where the United States will have to pin its Caucasus strategy.
And then there's Turkey, which has had a troubled relationship with Washington under the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy ironically ended up isolating the country on a number of fronts, making it a problematic ally for the United States. But as we saw throughout the Cold War, Turkey, in its role as the gatekeeper to the Mediterranean and Black seas, remains a critical anchor to any U.S. strategy designed to counterbalance Russia.
There are hints that the United States is ready to invest more political capital in Turkey to stabilize this somewhat wobbly alliance. Any U.S. moves toward Azerbaijan need to be coordinated with Turkey, which has the regional heft and cultural and historical links to compete in the Caucasus. But Ankara still has to tread carefully with its Russian energy suppliers and, like many countries in the region, wants to gauge the strength of U.S. commitments in this region.
In Cyprus, of all places, the Turks now have an emerging opportunity to size up the United States. Turkey has been urgently trying to accelerate peace talks with its rivals in Greek Cyprus, hoping that a settlement over the island would restore Turkey's clout in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel and Cyprus have been developing their offshore natural gas reserves while sidelining Turkey and Turkish-backed North Cyprus. Israel, eager to repair its strategic relationship with Turkey, has been pushing an underwater natural gas pipeline connection to energy-hungry Turkey, but those plans can move forward only if Ankara and Nicosia work out their differences and settle on their respective maritime boundaries. For its part, Turkey has set an ambitious timeline to seal a deal with Cyprus by the end of 2014. What it needs, however, is a strong external player that can propel this negotiation along.
Enter the United States. From May 21 to May 23, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will make a rare trip abroad to Cyprus, where he will meet with both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will follow Biden's visit in the coming weeks. The last U.S. vice president to visit Cyprus was Lyndon Johnson in 1962, and only four secretaries of state have ever visited the island. Even with a number of foreign policy challenges in play, the United States is preparing to provide the diplomatic muscle needed to break through this 40-year-old conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Whether the United States actually succeeds in this endeavor is another question, but the effort alone is sure to hold Ankara's attention. From subtle gestures in Riyadh to quiet discussions in Baku to a developing negotiation in Cyprus, these are the pieces that point to a much broader U.S. strategy in play.