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Tangle in the Caucasus

Iran and Israel Fight for Influence in Azerbaijan Alex Vatanka January 15, 2013 Article Summary and Author Biography

The standoff between Iran and the West has moved into the Caucasus, where both the Islamic Republic and Israel are trying to woo Azerbaijan -- a country with firm historical connections to Iran but whose interests have overlapped with those of Israel. The dynamic is upsetting the regional balance of power and threatening to overturn nearly two decades of uneasy peace.

ALEX VATANTKA is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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Europe. I ranian officials and the state-controlled media have stressed Tehran’s desire for friendlier relations with Baku. During his visit to Baku last October. and both countries are predominantly Shia. and the Middle East has been the object of frequent speculation. the Islamic Republic’s mortal enemy. it is not historical affinity but rather intense suspicion and rivalry that shape ties between Baku and Tehran.A mosque and the city waterfront are reflected in a new building in Baku (David Mdzinarishvili / Courtesy Reuters) As Iran’s progress on its nuclear program continues unabated. Azerbaijan. At the center of the tensions in the region lies Azerbaijan. and Georgia. a country with firm historical and cultural connections to Iran but one whose interests have overlapped with those of Israel.) Ahmadinejad’s statement. blatantly misrepresented the current state of affairs. at the same time. Yet Ahmadinejad’s statement in Baku was not entirely insincere. they are prodding the Azerbaijani government to reconsider its foreign policy alignments -. is what a violent confrontation would mean for the South Caucasus -. and an Israeli or a U. Tehran kicked up a fuss after ethnic separatists from the northwest Iranian region of Azerbaijan held a conference in area just north of Iran where the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West is already palpable in everyday life. Meanwhile. Long considered a powder keg. a court in Baku gave lengthy prison sentences to 22 Azerbaijanis charged with spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and plotting to carry out attacks against U. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described his country’s relationship with Azerbaijan as “brotherly and very deep. although no less pertinent. 2013 may well mark the climax of the long-standing impasse between the Islamic Republic and the West. however. (Ethnic Azeris populate much of the northwest region of Iran. The potential f allout from such an action for the United States. the region. The same month Ahmadinejad made the statement. and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Hopes for a diplomatic solution are fading. military strike on Iran’s nuclear program seems increasingly likely. is once again on the brink.” drawing on the two countries’ shared ethnic and religious heritage. which includes Armenia.principally its close ties with . in December.S. Over the past few months.S. today. which is also known as Azerbaijan. far less discussed.

Persia relinquished to the Russian Empire its territorial claims on most of the eastern parts of present-day Georgia and the territories that now make up Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the two agreements. Many families have branches on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. In August 2011. General Hassan Firouzabadi. it represents only one aspect of Tehran’s interests in the South Caucasus. In an explicit threat. it spans broader economic and military cooperation.with much speculation about Azerbaijani soil being used as a staging ground for Israeli military operations -. the three co untries of the region view their large southern neighbor through very different lenses. For Iranian leaders. Israel and Azerbaijan share the common goal of containing Iranian influence. having repeatedly failed to repel invading Russian armies. the Persian Qajar dynasty signed the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay.” As two of only four Shia-majority countries in the world. In this joint front. Nevertheless. And there are more ethnic Azeris living in Iran (estimated at 15-20 million) than in the Republic of Azerbaijan itself (around nine million).while Israel possesses superior weapons technologies and other resources. With so many commonalities. this uncomfortable reality has raised the stakes. and mutual diplomatic support. Firouzabadi warned of insurrection in Azerbaijan. Nowhere in its immediate neighborhood does Iran see such an unambiguous Israeli footprint as it does in Azerbaijan. trade and investment. forcing them to vacillate between threats and overtures in their attempts to sever Baku’s relationship with Israel. But the Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership does not rely solely on the question of Iran. Azerbaijan provides proximity to Iran -. scholars and policymakers alike cannot afford to ignore the parallel developments in the South Caucasus.Israel. the word “Qajar” is still synonymous with territorial loss and nati onal humiliation. which has helped Tehran evade sanctions through its banking sector. lambasted the Azerbaijani government for its secular policies and ties to Israel. Occasional statements from Tehran leave no doubt that many Iranians still consider the South Caucasus part of their historical domain. Azerbaijan and Iran share important religious ties. a sphere where deference to Iranian interests is expected if not vocally demanded. the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces. although the Israeli presence in Azerbaijan is a significant security concern for Iran. stating that “Iranian blood flows in the veins of the people of [Azerbaijan]. In 1813 and 1828. In Iran. INTERTWINED HISTORY It has been nearly 200 years since Iran lost its foothold in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan and Iran would seem likely to be natural allies. . Iran enjoys cordial ties with Georgia and intimate relations with Armenia. As the Western standoff with Iran plays out over the next year. and their hearts beat for Islam. In fact.

recently put it: “Iran gives life to Armenia. hoping that it would serve as fertile ground for spreading the Islamic revolution.and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy. the Azerbaijanis quickly point out that Tehran’s relations with Armenia have been trouble-free compared with its ties with its Muslim neighbors. despite knowing full well that this would anger Iran. Since Ilham Aliyev became president of Azerbaijan in 2003. Ira n provided vital backing to Armenia in its war against Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. the world’s second-largest Azeri-populated city. Nothing exemplifies this latter shift more vividly than the close ties Azerbaijan has forged with Israel. Moscow is highly sensitive to Islamism on its southern flank. however.But the opposite has been the case. In recognition of the improved relations. But from the early days of independence. Armenia and Iran have signed more than 30 bilateral agreements. as Baku expressed irredentist sentiments and promoted the idea of a “Greater Azerbaijan. during the tenure of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev.” A PRECARIOUS BALANCE A cycle of provocation and retaliation has become the central characteristic of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations in recent years. and Iran provides Armenia with roughly 23 percent of its natural gas supply -. from 1993 to 2003. Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister. and Tehran has continued to support Armenia ever since. the Azerbaijani elite evinced no interest in emulating Iran’s marriage of religion and politics.” which would unite Azerbaijan (the country) and Azerbaijan (the region in northwest Iran). Iran rewarded Azerbaijan with a consulate in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz. looking instead to secular Turkey as its prime political and economic partner. formal relations between Azerbaijan and Iran grew more stable. In Azerbaijan. deadly border incidents in July and October of the previous year. Baku quieted its calls for unification with the northwest Iranian region of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile. When Azerbaijan broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. As Araz Azimov. When Tehran has appealed to Azerbaijan’s Islamic identity.the country’s chief source of energy. Azerbaijan has been adamant that Iran has no basis to criticize its ties with the Jewish state given that Tehran has long ignored Baku’s pleas to shun Christian Armenia. the recall of . Iran’s stance in that unfinished war has never been forgiven. Tit-for-tat measures have included arrests of each other’s citizens on charges of es pionage. Tehran broadly acknowledged that the South Caucasus fell within Russia’s sphere of influence and thus avoided playing its Islamist card too blatantly in Azerbaijan. Iran’s initial euphoria at the prospect of a new Shia state quickly turned into d read. which dragged on from 1988 to 1994 and ended in an inconclusive cease-fire. Tehran quickly recognized it as an independent state. From the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994 to the early years of the twenty-first century. most recently in March and July 2012. Fearing Baku’s intentions to fuel secessionism inside its borders. Baku has grown both considerably richer -thanks to revenues from energy exports -.

. As one senior Azerbaijani parliamentarian.S. at a rally in Baku. and is willing to go to any length to undermine the legitimacy of its leadership. direct Iranian military retaliation. It is clear that the idea lacks momentum among Azeris living in Iran. put it to me in Baku. neither side appears ready to let ties plunge much further. Tehran claims that Baku has given the Mossad a blank check to conduct operations against Iran from Azerbaijani soil. A war involving Iran. Ever since Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan closed in 1993. the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov reportedly told his Iranian hosts that “Azerbaijan will never allow an action against Iran from its soil. would almost definitely harm Armenia’s economic interests. despite all the acrimony.) Baku. a senior member of the Iranian parliament and a former IRGC commander. military operation against its nuclear program. when Azerbaijan signed a $1.” Shortly thereafter. Iran was swift to condemn the Aliyev government. At the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran last September. “No serious person in Azerbaijan speaks of unification [with the south]. and.6 billion defense deal with Israel that included air defense systems.” The standoff between Iran and the West also threatens Armenia. Iran’s vice president. Yet. But these worries are vastly exaggerated. Baku released an Azerbaijani citizen who had been charged with spying for Iran. which have become Armenia’s sole avenues to world markets and its principal trading partners. intelligence equipment. meanwhile. Baku fully understands the security risks it would face in the event of a war between Iran and the West. finances radical Islamist groups in the region.S. and plenty of incendiary rhetoric. Last February. and Iran released two Azerbaijanis who had been arrested on charges of espionage. a fact that the leadership in Baku is well aware of.” (The documents have not yet been publicly released. said that “Azerbaijan’s cooperation with the U. there is no evidence that Baku would look to an attack on Iran as an opportune moment to realize its irredentist dreams. therefore. after Tehran protested against the burning of pictures of Iran’s supreme leader. Moreover. including sponsoring anti-Aliyev broadcasts in the Azeri language. Tehran’s recent overtures to Azerbaijan are part of a broader effort to limit Iran’s isolation and prevent Baku from aiding or joining an Israeli or U. inaccessibility to the semi-autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan (an Azerbaijani region sandwiched between southern Armenia and northern Iran). extended an olive branch by visiting Aliyev in Baku. including mass refugee inflows. In turn.ambassadors in May 2012. and Israeli spy agencies will harm the Azeri people” and claimed that Iran had documents showing “Azeri officials have helped Mossad and CIA agents” in “the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. complains that Tehran does not respect Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. Yerevan has grown reliant on Iran and Georgia. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. and unmanned aerial vehicles. Asim Mollazade. Hassan Mousavi. Esmail Kosari. in the worst case.

3 billion. weakens the hand of Armenia. that is Tehran’s assumption. That. Baku spent $175 million on defense. Government officials across the South Caucasus are now experiencing first-hand the cost of the region’s three unresolved territorial disputes (Nagorno-Karabakh. is forcing Tehran to recalibrate its overall approach to the South Caucasus. Tehran might agree to distance itself from Armenia.And the political impact could be greater still: the main fear in Yerevan at the moment is that Tehran might be forced to reassess its close ties with Armenia as a result of the impasse. But there is also a larger factor at play: the ascendency of Azerbaijan as an economic and military player. Azerbaijan is unlikely to abandon its deepening ties with Israel or pursue adventurous actions against Iran. in 2012. Although it is debatable whether Azerbaijan has agreed to become a launchpad for Israeli operations. being wooed by both Iran and Israel has its benefits. despite the fact that Israel is the more reliable partner. any jolt to the geopolitical landscape has the potential to reignite old. this would be the worst -case scenario. South Ossetia. Whether or not the confrontation between Iran and the West comes to a head in 2013. the figure was estimated at $4. Tehran’s latest political maneuvers vis-à-vis Azerbaijan are driven by the perception that its security is at risk. the South Caucasus will remain entangled in the stalemate with much at stake. On the whole. This regional dynamic. which understandably fears a more aggressive Azerbaijani posture. From Armenia’s perspective. violent conflicts. If Iran wants to mollify Azerbaijan to ensure that it does not aid the United States or Israel in a military operation. Where does Iran fit in the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus? For starters. the standoff between Iran and the West is shifting the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. in turn. and Abkhazia): when the status quo is so fragile. From Baku’s perspective. however. more than anything else. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan recently suggested that Baku’s defense buildup could be a precursor to a new round of war: in 2003. which in turn guides the mix of Iranian threats and conciliatory measures aimed at Baku. because it could embolden Azerbaijan and tempt it to seek a military solution in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both a more stable peace and another descent into war seem but a hair’s breadth away .