March 21, 2012, Wednesday

The Iranian crisis: what does this mean for regional stability?

With the prospect of an Israeli and/or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, there is growing curiosity about how this increasingly tense dynamic will play out in Iran’s neighboring countries. While Iran has been engaged in a hot spy-versus-spy war for years, now the temperature is rising and threatening to spread to the Caucasus.

The government in Baku seemed remarkably unperturbed by the events that have brought us ever closer to a possible Israeli/US attack on Iran- until war loomed on the horizon. For many years Baku has been able to maintain this complex balance of bilateral relations, working with Iran whilst also cooperating closely with the US. But with the crisis coming to a head, it is unclear whether this balance is tenable. In fact, it poses a serious challenge to Azerbaijani foreign policy. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s temporary membership on the UN Security Council was a diplomatic victory, but it also puts the country in a difficult position, as the situation in Iran is likely to come before the Security Council again within the next two years: Baku will be forced to choose between further alienating Tehran or standing against the wider international community.

To this end, there are two interrelated arguments supporting this perceived lack of reason.

Firstly, in the context of the emerging instability, Baku has found itself the site of a proxy war; Iran has sought to target Israel on Azerbaijani territory, and Israel has tried to prevent it from doing so. According to Azerbaijani security services, Iran has been sponsoring terrorist attacks on US, Western and Israel embassies and elements of the civilian Jewish community in Baku. News reports identified a rabbi as one of the planned targets. Last week, Azerbaijani security services arrested 22 people allegedly hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the US and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies. This latest thwarted attempt is by no means without precedent: on Jan. 24, local security forces foiled a two-man terrorist cell that was planning attacks against the country’s prominent Jews. The local experts have indicated that Iran has been trying to build an extensive spy network in Azerbaijan.

Increasingly, Iran is being portrayed as an irrational actor with potential Islamic influence by Azerbaijan’s secular government, the public and commentators of different political leanings. Iran provides financial and ideological support to fundamentalist groups in Azerbaijan, as well as to the media -- for example, Iranian “Sahar TV,” which broadcasts in Azerbaijani is often critical of the secular regime in Baku, seeking to spread Islamic Revolution ideas to Muslim people. In addition to the traditional media, Iran employs hackers, who have defaced the websites of several Azeri state agencies over last few months, posting “enemies of Islam” slogans across homepages. Though Tehran denies any link to such activities, few in Azerbaijan are convinced of their sincerity. In the last visit of the Azerbaijani defense minister to Iran, the Azerbaijani delegation encountered an act of disrespect on the part of the Iranian authorities, who had switched the order of colors on the Azerbaijani flag, which signals a sign of distress or surrender. Furthermore, by turning the horizontal tricolor of blue, red and green upside-down, green was placed at the top, elevating Islamic over Turkic heritage.

Iran tries to portray the Azerbaijani government as anti-Islamic or even “Zionist” as a means of distancing the more than 20 million Azerbaijani people who are living in Iran. Tehran is seeking to emphasize the importance of Islamic tradition in the identity of this group, suggesting that this part of their identity is not reflected by attitudes in Baku.

For Azerbaijan, a diplomatic solution to the problems with Iran is essential; otherwise, it will simply lurch from one crisis to the next. But the current developments indicate a high level of unpredictability, and thus diplomatic means are losing ground. The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey met in Nakhchivan on March 7, where they signed a mutual declaration that emphasized good will for future cooperation.

But this sunny outlook has been clouded by news reports that Azerbaijan has agreed to a $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel, likely its largest ever single arms purchase. Iran sees this as an act of anti-Iranian aggression, but it is Armenia, not Iran, that should be worried. In light of this development, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev visited Iran last week and promised that “Azerbaijan will not allow other countries to use its territory to launch an attack on neighboring Iran.” As mentioned above, by arresting the 22 people who were planning terrorist attacks against the US and Israeli embassies, a new crisis period in Iran-Azerbaijan relations has begun.

The question here is not whether or not a war will be launched against Iran, or whether or not Azerbaijan will assist the West. There are simply a set of facts that demonstrate a careful counter-balancing act between the two parties, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Firstly, Azerbaijan has nothing to gain by attacking Iran or even by cooperating with an Israeli or US military intervention. Moreover, it is clear that targeted airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would create huge refugee flows into Azerbaijan, particularly as few of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located near Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan’s public doesn’t trust Iran, true -- but its fear isn’t about Iran’s nuclear program, but rather of Iran’s meddling in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.

Secondly, Iran and Azerbaijan already cooperate on some level through a deal in which Iran supplies natural gas to Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region, which is geographically isolated from Azerbaijan proper, in exchange for a 15 percent commission on transit fees for natural gas that is shipped from Azerbaijan through the 30-mile long Baku Astara (BA) pipeline that travels through Iran. Any crisis with Iran would damage the stability of Nakhchivan.

Thirdly, beyond its Islamic Revolutionary rhetoric, Iranian foreign policy towards the neighborhood, especially towards Azerbaijan, has been manifestly realistic. Thus, Tehran officially claims it is neutral, but it supports the continuation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict via its economic relations with Armenia, which runs counter to Azerbaijani interests.

For now, though, events continue to cast a shadow over Iran-Azerbaijan relations, and unfortunately, this negative spiral is on the verge of getting out of hand.

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