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    Central Asia
     Mar 7, 2012

Iran muscles in on Azerbaijan
By Robert M Cutler

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

MONTREAL - The debate over Iran and its relations with the international community has taken on such a character that egregious errors of fact and logic cannot be allowed to stand, especially when they concern relations with smaller neighboring countries such as Azerbaijan.

Polemics from Tehran against Baku reflect the fact that Iran's anti-Azerbaijan policy is driven by three motives. It is worthwhile to enumerate them after the briefest recall of the situation on the ground.

Wars between Russia and Persia in the early 19th century ended


the rule of local khans and established the present border between Azerbaijan and Iran, as the former was made part of the Russian Empire (and later Soviet Union) while "southern Azerbaijan" became part of the Persian Empire. Since 1991, the independent Republic of Azerbaijan has emerged as an autonomous player in Caspian Sea and world energy markets with significant offshore deposits of oil and gas.

With a population just over 9 million scattered over an area of 86,600 square kilometers (approximately the size of Portugal), including Nagorno-Karabakh, the 20% of Azerbaijan's land surface occupied by Armenia since the 1994 ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan's energy resources and geopolitical location have given it over the past two decades an international profile far higher than could otherwise be expected.

The three motives that drive Iran's anti-Azerbaijan policy are:

First, Azerbaijan's independence attracts the attention of the ethnic Azeri minority in Iran. [1] Second, Iran cannot stomach Azerbaijan's relations with the West in matters of security and energy. Third, the secularism of the Azerbaijani model gives the lie to the millenarian pretensions of the Tehran regime. Let me address these matters in sequence.

First, Azerbaijan's independence attracts the attention of the ethnic Azeri minority in Iran, which comprises over a quarter and possibly as much as a third of Iran's population. Like other ethnic minorities in Iran (which together comprise half the country's population), ethnic Azeris are denied the right to educate their children in their national language and to use it in interaction with state institutions such as during judicial proceedings or in written bureaucratic forms. [2]

In the early 1990s, the then Azerbaijani president Abulfaz Elchibey made a few statements about "southern Azerbaijan" (ie, ethnic Azeri locales in northwest Iran) upon which Iranian commentators have drawn ever since, in order to seek to justify Tehran's support for "Christian" Armenia over "Muslim" Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

However, Elchibey left the presidency in Baku nearly two decades ago and no subsequent leader has ever repeated his views. Indeed, as demonstrated by the facts documented below, Azerbaijani state policy has respected the integrity of the Iranian state rather more scrupulously than Iran has respected Azerbaijan's.

Second, Iran cannot stomach Azerbaijan's relationship with the West in matters of security and energy. But it is Iran that has been threatening Azerbaijan for over a decade rather than vice versa as some commentators have it.

Thus, in the summer of 2001, the deployment of military force by Iran in the Caspian Sea and the threat of its use compelled a BP-led exploration mission including an Azerbaijani vessel to cease its work on the offshore Alov hydrocarbon deposit. [3]

Moreover, Iran has for years already been seeking not only by words but by deeds to destabilize the legitimate government of Azerbaijan. A few examples demonstrate the point. Fifteen Iranians and Azerbaijanis were convicted in Azerbaijan in 2007 for spying on US, British, and Israeli interests, including oil facilities, and conspiring to overthrow the government. In 2008, Azerbaijani authorities exposed and thwarted a plot by Hezbollah operatives with Iranian assistance to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Baku. [4]

Four months ago, the Azerbaijani journalist Rafiq Tagi was murdered in Baku for publishing an article critical of Iran, likely by an Iranian agent or pro-Iranian elements in Baku. [5] And in December 2011, three Azerbaijani men were detained after planning to attack two Israelis employed by a Jewish school in Baku. [6]

Against this background, warnings, for example, that Iran "could ... engag[e] in counter-covert operation activities" in Azerbaijan and that "Tehran will take it to the next level and most likely take action inside Azerbaijan" represent admissions of responsibility for what has already been occurring. (See, Tehran takes issue with Azerbaijan, Asia Times Online, February 15, 2012). This would be risible if the events themselves were not so tragic in their consequences.

Third, the secularism of the Azerbaijani model gives the lie to the millenarian pretensions of the Tehran regime, this being all the more dangerous to the theocrats since Azerbaijan has a predominantly a Shi'ite population. Hypocritical to its own religious declarations, Iran has favored "Christian" Armenia over "Muslim" Azerbaijan from the start of the conflict between the two South Caucasus countries.

The Tehran regime's advocacy of Islamic and Muslim unity is revealed as a thin tissue seeking to obscure the assertion and pursuit of Iran's own national interests as conceived by its ruling elite ("mullahklatura"), just as Moscow's advocacy of international proletarian unity was during the Cold War a cover for asserting and pursing Russia's national interests, as conceived by the Soviet ruling elite ("nomenklatura").

Iran's support for Armenia has come in more than words. To indicate but a few deeds: Iran opened a crucial gas pipeline to Armenia in 2007 providing an energy lifeline, is constructing two hydroelectric plants on the Araks River that marks their common border, and has built a highway and railroad between the two countries. [7]

Armenia has reciprocated Iran's attention. According to a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Armenia has facilitated the purchase by Iran of rockets and machine guns later used to kill American troops in Iraq. [8] In March 2011, Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan accepted the invitation of Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to celebrate Novruz (Persian New Year) in Tehran, where the leader from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, underlined that the Iranian government "has placed no limits on the development of cooperation with Yerevan". [9]

With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's descent into anti-Israeli demagoguery to compete with Iran in Arab public opinion and distract the Turkish electorate from his government's faltering economic performance, Azerbaijan today represents the institutionalized historical memory of the 2,400-year coexistence of Turkic Muslims with Jews.

The well-known epitome of this relationship in modern history is the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II's formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 to take up residence in Turkey.

That being so, the ruling elite in Tehran view the very existence of Azerbaijan as giving the lie to their own pretensions about the immutability of conflict between Jews and Muslims in general. They thus seek to remove that existence.

As far back as 1999, for example, in reference to the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the Iranian armed forces Hassan Firouzabadi threatened the Baku government by pointing to the presence of "Shiite Azeris with Iranian blood in their veins" in the region where the base might be established. [10]

Firouzabadi has continued in this manner for over a dozen years. Just last August, he personally threatened the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev with a "dark future" if he did not "pay heed" and cease "to bar Islamic rules". [11]

But can Iran's aggressive words and deeds be at all justified? Is Azerbaijan actually hostile to Iran? The facts say no. Azerbaijan has supported Iran's right for peaceful nuclear program. [12] In January 2011, it signed a five-year agreement to supply least one billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to Iran. [13] Most notably, Azerbaijan has pledged that its territory would not be used for military purposes against Iran. [14]

Yet we read in Asia Times Online (see above reference) that Baku should "prepare for the worst consequences if its territory or air space [is] used for strikes against Iran", because it "has entered into a Faustian bargain that may well backfire".

The author of that article explicitly mentions the failed car bomb in New Delhi and an incident in Tbilisi in order to assert that they "serve as a warning sign that [Baku] could be witness to similar, if not worse, troubles threatening [Azerbaijan's] peace and tranquility if it continues to favor Iran's adversaries".

Still more striking, he writes: "Tehran's ruling elite may resort to offensive measures inside[!!] Azerbaijan, ... scaring energy investors, and thus introducing economic hardship"; and again, Iran "retaliat[es by] ... sowing the seeds of instability in the South Caucasus-South Caspian region"; and again, "Tehran will take it to the next level and most likely take action inside [the first "inside" was not a mistake!] Azerbaijan."

Further facts could be adduced to demonstrate how Baku, not Tehran, has the right to be the aggrieved party between the two; however, there are limits to the patience that an author is entitled to expect of a reader. Nevertheless, the facts already presented here must surely make clear the perils of "reportage" that only recites the views of one power in the region, while trusting that readers far away lack in-depth knowledge of it.

Such a commentary as the one cited here, when it is brought up against real and indisputable (and documented) facts on the ground, is revealed as a compendium of such shamelessly open threats as have long characterized the Tehran regime, threats that, when publicized in certain ways, may in turn represent a signal for a terrorist mobilization by agents already in place.

In that context, it is worth noting that as recently as late February, members of a terrorist cell created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) and the Lebanese Hezbollah were arrested in Azerbaijan. [15]

1. The ethnic group is actually called "Azerbaijani" although "Azeri" is in wide popular use. Here I use "Azeri" for the ethnic group in order to avoid confusion, since "Azerbaijani" is also the proper adjectival form of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
2. International Federation for Human Rights [FIDH], The Hidden side of Iran: Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, [Dossier] no. 545a, (Paris: FIDH, October 2010), pp. 15-16. All URLs were verified on 21 February 2012.
3. Robert M. Cutler, "Renewed Conflicts in the Caspian," FSU Oil & Gas Monitor, No. 145, 13 August 2001, pp. 46.
4. Sebastian Rotella, "Azerbaijan seen as new front in Mideast conflict", Los Angeles Times, 30 May 2009.
5. Il'gar Rasul, "Rafik Tagi rasskazal o pokushenii" [Rafiq Tagi Talked about the Attack], Radio Free Europe, 22 November 2011 (in Russian); see also Rauf Orudzhev and Rauf Mirgadyrov, "Iranskii aiatolla poprivetstvoval ubiistvo v Azerbaidzhane" [Iranian Ayatollah Welcomed Murder in Azerbaijan], Zerkalo (Baku), 29 November 2011 (in Russian).
6. "In Azerbaijan, the planned attack on the Ambassador of Israel", Baku Today, 25 January 2012.
7. Armen Israyelyan, "Iran, Armenia share interests in regional issues: 20-year-old history of diplomatic relations", Panorama (Yerevan), 20 February 2011.
8. US Secretary of State, Washington DC, to US Embassy, Yerevan, "Letter from Deputy Secretary Negroponte regarding 2003 Armenian Arms Procurement for Iran", 24 December 2008.
9. Gayane Abrahamyan with Gohar Abrahamyan, "Armenia: Iranian Tourists Let Loose in Yerevan for Novruz", EurasiaNet, 1 April 2011.
10. Jomhouri Eslami (Tehran), as cited in "Iran Report", Radio Free Europe (1 February 1999).
11. "Iran top commander warns Azerbaijan's Aliyev not to suppress people's awakening", ISNA [Iranian Students' News Agency] (Tehran), 11 August 2011.
12. "Azerbaijan supports diplomacy on Iran" PressTV (Tehran), 24 October 2010 (URL as cached by Google).
13. Giorgi Lomsadze, "As Iran Gets a Big Slice of Azerbaijan's Energy Pie, Europe Comes Knocking", EurasiaNet, 13 January 2011.
14. "Editor sentenced over article about possible US attack on Iran", Pravda, 30 October 2007.
15. K. Zarbaliyeva, "Terrorist group of Sepah and Hezbollah neutralized in Azerbaijan", Trend News Agency, 21 February 2012.

Robert M Cutler is a senior research fellow at the Institute for European, Eurasian and Russian Studies, Carleton University, Canada.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing..


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