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Iran at sea over Azerbaijan
By Mahan Abedin

The visit of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan early last month was generally met with cynicism and lack of enthusiasm by the more nationalist elements of the press in both countries. The Azeri opposition daily Muxalifat aptly captured the mood when it dismissed Khatami's grandiose remarks that the border between Iran and Azerbaijan is a "frontier of peace, friendship and brotherhood" as a deceptive statement made by the leader of an unfriendly country.

The tensions and mistrust on both sides are important because they are likely to have ramifications for the south Caucasus region and beyond. In fact, Iranian-Azeri tensions and outside influences and pressures on the latter may become the basis of a major conflict in the southern Caucasus. This is all the more reason to analyze the relations between these two states and highlight the areas that are most likely to give rise to conflict.

The geopolitical space that is now the Republic of Azerbaijan had been an Iranian territory for millennia before it was incorporated into the Russian empire at the beginning of the 19th century. The catalyst for these changes was the two Iranian-Russo wars in 1804-13 and 1826-28. The former ended with the Treaty of Gulistan, which ceded the majority of the northern parts of Azerbaijan to Russian control. The infamous Treaty of Turkamanchay, which concluded the hostilities of the late 1820s, in effect completed Russia's domination of what quickly became known as "northern" Azerbaijan. The sum effect of these hastily drawn treaties, which have been a major Iranian grievance ever since, was to irreversibly divide Azerbaijan into two distinct geopolitical and cultural spheres. In retrospect, this was the most grievous damage inflicted on Iranian territorial integrity since the Arab Islamic invasion of the 7th century.

"Northern" Azerbaijan became Russified over time, and the links with the south were progressively eroded. However, the collapse of the czarist wmpire in 1917 enabled the north to break away temporarily and hastily declare independence the following year. In a gesture that is now rarely remembered, the US president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, warmly received an Azeri delegation to the Paris peace conference. Privately, Wilson was allegedly a supporter of Azeri independence. This was the first major official US involvement with Azerbaijan, and 86 years later it may be regarded as the harbinger of a close strategic relationship between the two states.

In April 1920, the newly constituted Bolshevik armies moved into Azerbaijan and very quickly snuffed out the over-pretentious independent Azeri government. The two-year experiment in independence, which many believed was doomed to fail from the beginning, was at an end, and Azerbaijan was absorbed into the new Soviet empire. Although the Soviet Union modernized many aspects of Azeri life and improved the dreadful living conditions of most of its citizens, it nonetheless inflicted damage on the territorial integrity of the north. The Bolsheviks ceded the Azeri territory of Zangezur to Armenia, thus ensuring the geographic disconnection of the ethnically volatile Nakhchivan region from the rest of Azerbaijan. Moreover, the Soviet authorities periodically chipped away at Azeri territory, diminishing its geopolitical space progressively. The statistics speak for themselves: in 1920 Azeri territory amounted to 114,000 square kilometers, whereas on gaining independence in 1991 it had shrunk to 86,000 square kilometers.

Meanwhile, Iranian or "southern" Azerbaijan developed on a massively different historical trajectory. Azeris have dominated the Iranian state since the advent of the Safavid Empire in the early 16th century. The Safavids consolidated Shi'ism in the country and Azeris proved to be the most ardent exponents of Iranian Shi'ism. The history of the Safavid Empire is the history of the early Iranian nation-state, dominated as it is by the twinned forces of Iranian nationalism and Shi'ism. Despite having a Turkic language, Azeris were at the forefront of resisting eastern Ottoman expansion. In fact, the Azeri elite of the Safavid Empire proved to be the Ottoman Turks' most persistent and pernicious enemies, in effect weakening the Ottoman Empire and making it more vulnerable to the encroachments of Western Christian powers. This historical process contributed greatly to the cataclysmic decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and its eventual destruction in 1924.

The myth that Azeris in Iran constitute an oppressed minority has only held sway among extreme pan-Turkics in Baku and Ankara. Indeed, the realities of modern Iran depict a very different picture from that of pan-Turkic propaganda. While the total number of Azeris (including the 3-million-strong "Persianized" Azeri residents of Tehran) does not exceed 7 million, they have consistently punched well above their demographic weight. Azeris have dominated the modern Iranian military since its establishment in the 1920s. Moreover, a disproportionate number of Iranian political elites have hailed from the Azeri minority. This was the case with the former Pahlavi regime, just as much as it is the case with the Islamic Republic that succeeded it in 1979. Indeed, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an ethnic Azeri and so is Rahim Safavi, the overall commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the most important military-security official in the country.

The rapid breakup of the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1991 was greeted with mixed blessings in Tehran. While Iran was more than happy to see the Central Asian Muslim republics free from the shackles of Soviet communism, this attitude did not apply to Azerbaijan. The primary Iranian concern was that an independent Azerbaijan would act as a magnet for Iran's Azeri community. While Iranian security officials were well aware that Azeris would be most unreceptive to pan-Turkic and Azeri nationalist rhetoric, nonetheless they feared that a secular and successful Azeri state could sow dissension across the border.

These fears proved to be unfounded from the very beginning as the nascent Azeri state was quickly engulfed with internal political instability and an external conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The man at the center of all these disasters was Abulfaz Elchibey, a closet academic and extreme Turkic nationalist. An orientalist and Arabic scholar, he had once acted as an interpreter for a team of Soviet engineers constructing a dam on Egypt's Nile River. In the chaos of early Azeri independence, Elchibey moved to fill the political vacuum, even though he was wholly unsuited for politics.

Elchibey was elected to the presidency in June 1992 and subsequently presided over the near-disintegration of the nascent Azeri state. Apart from his pan-Turkic rhetoric, Elchibey had campaigned on the platform of moving Azerbaijan closer to Turkey, the United States and Israel; a move that would arouse the suspicions of any government in Tehran, Islamic or otherwise. However, it was Elchibey's political immaturity that most irked the political and security elite in Tehran. Ignoring all diplomatic norms, Elchibey openly called for Iranian Azeris to struggle for independence. He demonstrated the same kind of catastrophic immaturity in his handling of the conflict with Armenia and domestic Azeri politics. A combination of extreme ineptitude and arrogance finally forced Elchibey to flee his capital little more than a year after assuming office.

Elchibey's pan-Turkic rhetoric, his suppression of pro-Iranian forces in Baku and his ill-conceived ideas of turning Azerbaijan into a bastion of US and Israeli influence in the southern Caucasus tilted Iran toward Armenia in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. This produced an odd geopolitical landscape with ultra-secular Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a reliable ally of the US, supporting Muslim Azerbaijan and Iran, an Islamic state with a passionately anti-American ideology, backing Western and Christian Armenia.

Iran's backing of Armenia may have been prompted by provocation, but the tacit alliance between the two states made historical and geostrategic sense. Aside from sharing a similar Indo-European heritage, Iranians and Armenians always have been natural barriers to Turkic expansion in the Caucasus and beyond. In the harsh and unstable geostrategic environment of the late 20th century, these historical forces and interests converged to keep Azerbaijan weak and dependent on the good faith of its giant neighbor to the south. Indeed, at one stage during the most intense phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Iranian intervention saved Azerbaijan from almost complete collapse. Nevertheless, overall, Iranian support for Armenia was instrumental in enabling the latter to not only uproot Azerbaijani influence from Nagorno-Karabakh but to seize 20% of Azeri territory in the process.

The rise of Heydar Aliyev did not significantly ease tensions with Iran. A former high-ranking KGB (Committee for State Security) apparatchik and first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Aliyev was an experienced and shrewd politician. However, his authoritarian instincts brought him into conflict with Iran. Aliyev cracked down hard on pro-Iranian parties in Azerbaijan and attributed any form of Islamic revival in the republic to Iranian interference. The Azeri security services regularly rounded up pro-Iranian political activists on charges of espionage and Islamic subversion. In fact, the Azeris, perhaps as a result of US and Israeli pressures to talk up the "Islamic" threat from Iran, were completely misreading Iranian ambitions in their country. As in other parts of the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, the Iranians were much less interested in spreading militant Islam than penetrating the political, military, security and economic institutions of these emergent states.

Aside from expanding commercial relations with Azerbaijan, the Iranians relied on intensive covert and intelligence activities to consolidate their influence in the country. In January 1995 the Iranians dedicated an entire department of the Intelligence Ministry to espionage operations in the former Soviet republic. Iranian penetration of the newly reconstituted Azeri security services became so pervasive that in mid-1996 the Iranians managed to uncover an extensive joint Azeri-Turkish espionage cell in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan. Aside from recruiting agents in the provincial administration of Iranian Azerbaijan, this network's brief included the dissemination of pan-Turkic propaganda and irredentist ideas. According to well-informed sources, a senior Turkish intelligence officer was apprehended by Iranian security. Even though the Turkish officer did not have diplomatic immunity, the Iranians quickly returned him to Ankara on the understanding that the Turkish government would drop its unfounded accusations that Iran was giving support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Battle over resources
These political and ideological schisms are dwarfed by the prospect of conflict over the legal status of the Caspian Sea and the energy resources that are contained in it. The Iranian position has always been that the legal status of the Caspian Sea must be based on the Iranian-Soviet treaties of 1921 and 1940. The latter treaty stipulates that the Caspian is an "Iranian and Soviet Sea" underpinned by the "principles of equality and exclusivity". However, in March 1998 the Russian government, without prior consultations with the Iranian side, communicated to the Aliyev regime that Moscow would no longer have any objections to unilateral offshore oil and gas development.

The arrival of Western oil companies in Azerbaijan and the development of that country's offshore energy infrastructure were treated with the greatest levels of concern in Tehran. This was accentuated by Iran missing out on a lucrative deal to act as a transit route for the export of Azeri oil via the Persian Gulf. The Americans applied intense pressure to persuade all parties concerned to replace the most convenient and economically efficient route (ie Iran) with the Turkish port of Ceyhan - the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route. Moreover, the Iranians feared that oil exploration activities in the Caspian were beginning to encroach on its yet to be determined territorial waters. Thus in early 2001, the Iranian navy fired warning shots at an exploration boat belonging to BP and forced it to sail away.

The ever-increasing concentration of US energy interests in Azerbaijan has brought the country under greater US influence. This influence grew exponentially after the terrorist assaults on September 11, 2001, to cover security and military fields. Indeed, the Americans seized the opportunity to establish a visible military presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Although publicly the Americans deny maintaining military forces in Azerbaijan, the Iranians have on numerous occasions complained to the Baku government about the presence of US military "advisers" in the country. The Iranians are also concerned about the concentration of US signals intelligence (SIGINT) resources in the south of the republic, close to the border with Iran.

The primary Iranian concern is that Azerbaijan will be used as a base by the Americans to subvert the Islamic republic in the event of a sudden deterioration in Iranian-US relations. There are even concerns that US aircraft may use air bases in the former Soviet republic to attack Iranian nuclear infrastructure. To forestall this scenario, the Iranians have unleashed a wave of threats at Azeri officials. In the event of Azeri collaboration with the US in a conflict situation, the Iranians have communicated to Azeri officials in no uncertain terms that they would provide unqualified support to the Armenians in a future war over the "final" status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Given that 20% of Azeri territory remains under Armenian occupation, this unqualified support can only result in the demise of the Azeri republic. This is a scenario that would be most welcome to a significant constituency in Iranian Azerbaijan that seeks Azeri "reunification" in the context of the Iranian nation-state.
Notwithstanding these threats and geopolitical maneuvers, it is clear that both Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan stand to lose from any potential conflict over Caspian energy resources, as it will likely involve direct Iranian-US confrontation. Given this lose-lose matrix, both sides have a strong vested interest in forging a common position over the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Once this is achieved the sanctimonious high officials of the Islamic Republic will have little need for grandiose statements.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia.

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Sep 28, 2004



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