Today the world is facing a more fluid and complicated set of international alignments than anything ever seen since the formation of the Western alliance system in 1949. NATO was created to serve defensive purposes and to inject American power into conditions of post-World War II economic devastation in response to the Soviet threats.[1]

After the Cold War, serious questions were raised about the necessity of NATO's continuity and existence. Thus, throughout the 1990s and into the new century, it was difficult for the United States to enlist support from European allies to develop and modernize relevant instruments of power, especially military one, for potential use elsewhere. These included the events after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the developments in the Greater Middle East. In the mid-1990s, the alliance decided to go out of area to avoid going out of business. Of course, the term “outside of area” meant Bosnia and Kosovo, even though both were demonstrably within Europe. In its new drive, NATO simply behaved as if its political decisions carry international legitimacy on an equal footing with the United Nations Charter.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 created a new security environment worldwide. In NATO for the first time the article 5 was invoked and assistance was offered to Americans in their fight against terrorism. During 2002, NATO adopted the doctrines and military plans and structures necessary for possibility of global intervention, new Response Force and command structure, etc. which incidentally involved a major and probably irreversible step away from collective self-defense as its primary function. Since then, NATO has agreed on its biggest ever enlargement and most sweeping extension of its military role when all members have agreed to let it take over the coordinating role for the ISAF force in Afghanistan and have kept open the door for it somehow to support future peace-keeping in Iraq.

The 2004 enlargement and the new NATO-Russia relationship make NATO a continuing important force for security and stability within Europe, even if it is starting to withdraw from its direct military role in the Balkans. For the United States, however, this role is no longer sufficient to justify the Alliance, unless NATO can also become militarily active in solving crises outside the European region. In this context, this paper attempts to deal with some pertinent questions including NATO's future role as the largest military alliance, which in the span of few years has twice expanded its membership to 26 countries. Furthermore, in another move NATO has actively entered the geopolitics of Eurasia while moving in Afghanistan and perhaps later in Iraq. In the latter section of this paper, we shall try to examine the implications of NATO's new postures for the regional countries especially for Russia and Iran which are showing more concerns.

A New Role for NATO

After the Cold War, George H. W. Bush and Clinton made a good show of pretending nothing had changed, but in fact everything had. In a broad strategic sense, there was no concert any more; there was only a one-man band. NATO, even as it expands as a political organization, is less relevant than ever to America's strategic considerations. NATO is still an outpost of American power, rather than a partner to it. Well before September 11, the contours of this new world system began to take shape. But neither the Americans nor the Europeans fully acknowledged that their roles were being newly defined, and that was one reason for all the ill feeling as the war on terror commenced. The Americans claim that their power is now the linchpin of stability in every region, from Europe to Asia to the Persian Gulf and to Latin America.[2] In that endeavor, NATO has become an instrument in a ‘tool-box’. It is within this context that Americans are defining new roles for this organization in Eurasia and the Middle East. This policy by the US has not been left without a challenge by other powers like France that resisted an active role by NATO in Iraq.

It is true that NATO won the Cold War in Christmas Day, 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But a different kind of NATO has survived which may last longer than expected. However this is not going to be the old NATO that would either act together or not act at all. This is a new NATO that is different in its size and mission.[3] Latest enlargement that has brought the number of its members to 26 will have implications for its orientation. Although US had a prominent role in NATO leadership since its establishment, this position is apt to be enhanced at least in the foreseeable future by inclusion of the new members that have pro-American stances. As for the NATO’s mission, it is now far more extended than the traditional Western Europe.

NATO Doctrine

NATO officials are facing problem for justifying the strategy of ‘preventive war’ in the United States. For instance, the US military will enjoy greater freedom to attack when and where it desires since the US security will be secured against ballistic missile attack. Extending this cover to European NATO allies has some perverse logic, but it may mean that diplomacy and multilateral arms control will take a back seat to unilateral force of arms – as was the case in Iraq. Clearly, developing this US agenda is divergent from the cooperative security model that European governments support.[4]

Although it is too early to be sure, it looks very much as if NATO’s role is shifting from a creator of generic common defense and security-building policies towards that of a “tool-box” from which military instruments can be picked up when the political conditions for using them have been generated elsewhere. It is possible that the Iraq experience will lead many allies to rediscover NATO’s ‘instrumental’ value also in the political sphere, as a dialogue channel across the Atlantic and a restraint, however modest, on US unilateralism. The critics say that NATO is too dominated by American decision-making. A review of the European Presidency report and the annexes at the Nice Summit clearly demonstrates a distinctive desire for the EU independence from NATO.[5]

Colin L. Powell the US Secretary of State while disclaiming the US unilateralist policies suggests that his country’s strategy is one of partnerships that strongly emphasizes the vital role of NATO and other U.S. alliances—including the UN. On the future role of NATO he has further remarked that “Some observers predicted that NATO would wither away after the Cold War, others that the United States and the European Union would even end up on a collision course. Neither prediction has, or will, come true. Not only have NATO survived, but also both its membership and its mission have expanded. It is true that we have had differences with some of our oldest and most valued NATO allies.”

Advocates of NATO believe that in the present world strategic environment some new definitions have to be improvised for NATO in which it could act as the military wing of the United Nations. This stems from a lack of appropriate mechanism for implementation of the article 7 of the UN Charter. Therefore, as was in the case of Kosovo, the UN had no option but to refer to the NATO forces for establishing peace and security there. Also, at present ISAF is acting as a representative of the UN in Afghanistan.

NATO Enlargement

The process of enlargement began in the early 1990s with the evolution from NATO's "North Atlantic Cooperation Council", the first mechanism of outreach to Central and Eastern Europe of late 1991 has moved forward with the so-called "Partnership for Peace" of early 1994 which became the stage prior to formal membership and on to all-out enlargement in 1995-1999, which the United States restricted to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary at that stage.[6]

In the mid 1990s, NATO created a military sub-alliance called "Partners for Peace" (PFP) and under that arrangement it has been training, arming and deploying military forces around both the Caspian and Black seas. The difference between NATO and PFP is, as one NATO official put it, ‘razor thin’. Through PFP, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have formal military liaisons at NATO's Supreme Headquarters. Under NATO auspices, PFP has created a joint Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion (CENTRASBAT), which is the embryo of a NATO-led military force in the region. Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed especially close military ties with NATO. The US and Turkish militaries have been supplying both countries with NATO compatible weapons. Azerbaijan has signed a mutual defense treaty with Turkey and a "defense cooperation agreement" with the United States.

Under PFP, 4,000 military officers from Caucasus countries have received military training in Turkey — a majority of them from Azerbaijan. Soldiers from Azerbaijan participated as part of a Turkish Army battalion in NATO's Kosovo occupation force. It was the first direct deployment of a Caspian unit by NATO. [7]

It is suggested that NATO expansion will complete "the process of creating a Europe whole and free," paving the way for a dramatic restructuring of Europe's security infrastructure, and leaving the United States to focus elsewhere. The first round of NATO expansion included the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. These countries were more military oriented; their intention was by getting into NATO, to be closer to the United States. But it seems that they are going to become closer to Europe. Since, Europe is more or less at peace and Russia is democratizing. Some experts believe that America really does not have much business anymore in Europe to take care of, and so it is going to focus on terrorism, Iraq, Northeast Asia and the Middle East. [8]

NATO and the New "Great Game"

Often it is claimed that the nineteenth century "Great Game" competition for the control of Central Eurasia is still alive and kicking also in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through this prism, the Caspian Sea basin is seen as a world-class oil area with complex economic and geo-strategic conflicts of interest and corresponding competing policies among surrounding states and the West, particularly the United States. The issues are not only the oil per se, but also the related conflicts of interest over pipeline routes and the U.S. intent to deny them to Russia and Iran. The rule of law, democracy and human rights come in at the tail end.[9]

However, some specialists suggest that the “Great Game” was not really about Central Asia but rather about British dominance of India. It is indicated that Central Asia was only of importance as a buffer for Great Britain against feared Russian incursions to displace the British in India. Therefore, the newly independent states of the Caspian, wrested from the Russian yoke, could not at once solve Western energy needs, expand democracy, and garner geopolitical advantages against Russia, Iran, and perhaps China. Also, this could prove counterproductive to American and even NATO long-run interests in Russia and Iran.[10]

Despite those arguments, the United States has been assiduously using economic, diplomatic and military carrots to encourage more and more 'regional powers' to play assigned roles in this 'concert' under its own regional direction. These countries include especially Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan on the western wing to distant Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on the eastern one of this American and NATO PfP concert hall. Stephen Blank writes that "Washington is now becoming the arbiter or leader of virtually every interstate and international issue in the area. [The US] administration now regards the Trans-Caspian as a 'backup' for Middle East oil supplies."[11]

Moreover, there are other indications that the United States is strengthening its positions in the Caspian region. Replacements of Shevardnadze's regime in Georgia, the prospects of stationing the mobile forces at the Apsheron [Abshuran] Peninsula, supporting the efforts of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in the militarization of the Caspian are some of the new moves. The military assistance NATO and the Pentagon intend to give to some countries in the Caspian region are aimed at strengthening America's positions. Within the framework of the Foreign Military Finance Program for 2004, the United States has plans to allocate $3.4 million for purposes of military assistance ($2.5 million to Azerbaijan and $700,000 to Turkmenistan). This money will be used to purchase US-made military equipment and arms as well as defense services and professional military training.[12]

While NATO members are after their policies in the Caspian region, Russia and Iran are also actively after their own interests. In military terms, Russia stays far ahead of other new republics in this region. All the armies of the former USSR republics continue to depend on armaments designed in Russia. They are in need of spare parts made in Russia or the technical services necessary for them. Also, the armed forces of these countries are very much dependent on Russian military agencies for their advanced operational or technical training. The Russian military bases continue their activities in many of the new republics.

However, nationalist movements in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the beginning of 1990s have provoked a strong anti-Russian sentiment and this has been reflected in the national policies for these states. In both Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia, there is an air of skepticism about Russians, therefore a close cooperation with member countries of NATO is considered as a necessary balancing act for these countries.

On its part, Iran is also actively pursuing its interest in the region. Iran is offering the most economical and shortest routes for the transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Seas region to the outside markets. Iran has advanced shipping terminals, network of oil pipelines, and needed skilled labor force. However, due to the American sanctions it has been deprived of utilizing most of these facilities. On the diplomatic side, before the ceasefire agreement of 1994 over Karabakh, Iranian diplomats were very active and in fact succeeded in many mediation efforts in arranging for ceasefires. However, the interference by other powers and the accusations leveled against Iran by the Republic of Azerbaijan that it was taking sides with Armenia prevented continuation of those diplomatic efforts. Besides, the ideological differences between the secular Republic of Azerbaijan and Islamic Iran and over a legal regime in the Caspian Sea for the demarcation of borderlines in the Caspian Sea lured the Republic of Azerbaijan to distance itself from Iran. Baku, in an explicit effort to exert pressure on Iran and to some extent on Russia, demonstrated its desire to join NATO while asking US forces to establish bases on its soil. Thus, Baku by Joining NATO intends to enhance its security edge against Tehran and Moscow.

As could be seen by NATO, extending its forces to the East is establishing its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus while exerting pressure on Russia and Iran, making moves to contain China and perhaps to some extent India. Existence of an air base in Absheron [Abshuran] Peninsula where US military aircrafts are flying has sent a message to both Iran and Russia. The presence of the US military in Central Asia and the Caucasus has been considered by some observers as an attempt to tighten the encirclement of Iran. If true, that policy is aimed at depriving Iran from its regional interests and to neutralize Iranian policies that contradict US policies and interests in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

In the new geopolitics of the region, the Caspian Basin is gaining more prominence since it has the potential to emerge as an alternative source of energy supplies over the coming decades, reducing pressure on Persian Gulf oil to meet the growing global demand for oil and tempering upward pressure on oil prices. At the same time, however, the competition for influence in the region and control over Caspian oil and gas resources and pipeline routes—which many observers have labeled the new “Great Game”—has the potential to foment instability and conflict. More important, developments in the Caspian region could affect Russia’s ongoing political and economic transition and its relations with the West. In the past few years, Russian hegemony in the former Soviet south has given way to a more open and fluid multipolar balance of power.

Competition for access to the energy resources of the Caspian Basin has been going on for some years. China and India, two of the most populous nations on earth, both rapidly developing have shown a keen interests in Central Asian resources to support their escalating energy demands. It is essential for these economies to have secure, easily accessible oil/gas supplies, and Central Asia potentially provides the perfect local answer. There have been attempts to bypass any Russian influence through diverting oil pipelines from both Russia and Iran. India and Pakistan have also shown an interest in pipelines, possibly to run through Afghanistan to Pakistan and possibly onwards to supply India's energy needs, though the current instability in Afghanistan has these plans on hold for the present. It is also doubtful whether India would countenance a pipeline running through Pakistan with the prevailing situation in Kashmir and the constant threat of nuclear conflict.

NATO-Iran Cooperation

There have been some suggestions on the merits of Iran-NATO cooperation despite the present mistrust and hesitations on both sides. It has been argued for instance that irrespective of Iran's strong reservations about greater NATO intrusion in the region, it might welcome an internationally organized peacekeeping force near its borders rather than an existing purely American-British enterprise. It is due to the fact that despite the dominant US role in NATO, Iran is exceedingly worried about the spillover of conflict from neighboring Iraq. Also, it is suggested that the question of Iran-NATO cooperation must be couched in terms of regional realities such as NATO-Russia cooperation and, more recently, Pakistan's induction as a "non-NATO ally,"[13] which in addition to Turkey's long-standing NATO membership, is translated into the greater proximity of NATO with Iran.[14]

Similarly from the other side it is argued that if NATO wants to remain successful in the coming years, it must seek to influence and accommodate Tehran. It is noticeable that Iran is the only remaining nation with a common border with NATO that has no formal relations with the organization. The followings are some reasons why NATO should seek Iran's cooperation:

First, it is declared interest of the NATO alliance to reach a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As Prime Minister Tony Blair declared, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains a vital strategic necessity, as does the recognition that our ultimate security lies in the spread of our values – freedom, democracy and the rule of law.[15] Iran has made no secret of its strong opposition to the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Process. Taking note of Iran's important role in the region, NATO could have a better chance for its policy by engaging Iran in that process.

Second, the most realistic territorial threat to NATO in the future will come from Turkey’s eastern borders. The Kurdish problem in the east will most likely become a more serious source of instability for Turkey than in the past, since the traditional methods of suppression will not be available to the central Turkish government once it becomes a member of the EU. It is clearly in NATO’s interest to reach a comprehensive and lasting accommodation with Tehran over trans-border issues involving Turkey.

Third, the ongoing dispute over access to scarce water resources that are now predominantly controlled by Turkey will become increasingly contentious as the regional consumption of water is dramatically increased due to extreme high rates of population growth, rapid urbanization, and improved standards of living. Water scarcity issues suggest that by 2010, NATO will have to make a commitment to stabilize its southeastern flank against external pressures. Iran has tremendous leverage over any lasting settlement of this issue.

Forth, the European Union is increasingly concerned with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Western Europe. Iran has for many years given shelter to the largest refugee population in the world, and has the power to control several regional conflicts that can create massive refugee problems spilling over eventually to Europe.

Fifth, Iran has long been the most effective barrier against drug trafficking from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Governments in most countries in the West now perceive the threat from international organized crime as a threat to national security. Cooperation and a change in policy toward Iran could effectively boost the efforts by Iran to stop the flow of narcotics to the markets in Western Europe.

Sixth, Iran is one of the key players in emerging regional and international nuclear issues. If NATO intends to uphold the present non-proliferation regime enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it should take effective measures to framework a policy that not only alleviates Iran’s anxieties and legitimate security concerns but ushers in a rational relationship with the country.

Last but not least, the role that NATO is playing in Afghanistan and the new role it is taking on in Iraq calls for cooperation with Iran that is a key player in the region. Notwithstanding, it should be mentioned that overcoming a long-term hostility between Washington and Tehran will be a central component in NATO’s future approach to Iran.


While some would assert the irrelevance of the Atlantic alliance in the new century, the Bush administration turned to NATO for assistance after 9/11, invoking Article 5, which called for the protection of the United States as a NATO ally. A 21st century agenda, focusing on security problems of the Western allies, emanates from beyond Europe marked by, in particular, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Those events and the common threats of terrorism have opened a new chapter in NATO-Russia cooperation. Thus the new NATO-Russia Council, established in May 2002, identifies terrorism as one of several areas for consultation and cooperation.

Interestingly enough, NATO has survived much longer than expected. However this is not going to be the same old NATO that would either act together or not act at all. NATO is still an outpost of American power, rather than a partner to it. The new NATO is different in its size and mission. Latest enlargement in 2004 brought the number of its members to 26. This will have implications for its future policies and postures. Although the United States has had a prominent role in NATO's leadership since its inception, this position is apt to be enhanced at least in a short-term period by the inclusion of 10 new members which are looking for closer ties with the United States. As for the mission, NATO's mission is now far more extended than the one in the traditional sphere in the Western Europe.