Written by Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
The visit to Israel in April 2013 by Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mamadyarov intensified growing Iranian concerns over the tightening ties between Jerusalem and Baku, both of which view Iran as a threat. Iran’s progress in its nuclear program and the failure of the nuclear talks with the West have raised Tehran’s threshold of sensitivity about a military attack on its nuclear facilities, and it increasingly fears that Azerbaijan is turning into a base for such a strike.
In recent months, Iran has stepped up its critical public tone toward Baku’s “incautious” policy. Iran continues its covert subversive activity in Azerbaijan including through Lebanese Hizbullah, which is providing assistance to local terrorist and espionage cells. Iran’s aim is to build an infrastructure for retaliation there in case it is attacked, and also to try and influence Azerbaijan’s domestic political arena. Azerbaijan has exposed and arrested a number of Iranians, Hizbullah operatives, and local activists on suspicion of involvement in terror and subversion.
Some 25 million Azeris live in northwestern Iran, forming the country’s largest minority. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is of Azeri extraction. Both Iran and Azerbaijan are Shiite, and both have territorial claims that sometimes rise to the surface. Some in Iran refuse to accept the loss of the province of northern Azerbaijan, which was conquered by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The humiliating agreements which the Persian Qajar dynasty was forced to sign are part of a legacy that the Islamic regime seeks to replace with an ethos of resistance to foreign forces at any price.
Today, Iranian-Azeri relations are being influenced more and more by the geostrategic environment, leading Tehran to a more menacing stance toward what it sees as the threat posed by Israel via Azerbaijan. This could include renewed attempts to strike Israeli and Western targets in Azerbaijan.
In 2008, 2011, and 2012, Iranian terrorist cells were uncovered there that planned to hit Jewish, Israeli, and American targets, including assassinating the Israeli ambassador to Baku and attacking Chabad’s Ohr Avner Jewish school in Baku.
The visit to Israel in April 2013 by Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mamadyarov, which involved meetings with the president, prime minister, and security officials including the defense minister, again intensified Tehran’s concerns over the growing ties between Jerusalem and Baku, both of which view Iran as a threat, albeit to different extents. A telegram sent by the U.S. embassy in Baku at the beginning of 2009 said the Israeli-Azeri relationship was largely hidden from view and that Azeri President Ilham Aliyev had described it as “an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”1 Since then, considerable security, political, and economic elements have been added to this relationship, only aggravating Tehran’s fears about the more covert aspects.
This tightening of Israeli-Azeri relations augments Iran’s sense of encirclement, which had indeed diminished since the United States’ exit from Iraq (on Iran’s western border) but still exists. To the south, foreign forces are active in the Persian Gulf; the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain. To the east, NATO is still operating in Afghanistan. And to the north, in Azerbaijan, Iran views the “Israeli threat” as the most tangible of all, both in terms of a platform for a military attack and a base for intelligence gathering and special operations against Iran, which claims the assassins of its nuclear scientists came from Azerbaijan.
Furthermore, Iran, after its fleeting honeymoon with Ankara, sees the gradually improving Israeli-Turkish relations under U.S. patronage as yet another threat. Moreover, Azerbaijan, which is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has no embassy in Israel but is the source of a large part of the oil that Israel consumes.
The newspaper Jomhouri Eslami, which is identified with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and presidential hopeful for the presidential election in June 2013 and head of the Expediency Council, wrote that Mamadyarov’s visit to Israel and high-level meetings there had ramped up tensions among the nations of the Caspian Sea littoral, and that the visit had occurred precisely as Azerbaijan was covering up its trade and political relations with Israel (“the Zionist entity”). The paper surveys Israeli companies’ involvement in Azerbaijan and asserts:
Israel’s activity and presence in Azerbaijan on the northern border of Iran is aimed at exerting pressure on Iran and conducting security and intelligence activity against it and at getting prepared for the delusion of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities….Because of its strategic location, Azerbaijan offers Israel a springboard for espionage, military activity, and assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists.
The paper also refers to the military contracts signed between the two states, amounting to “$1.6 billion in defensive missiles and UAVs.” The article goes on to claim that Israel has also infiltrated Azerbaijan’s cultural-religious activity in an effort to distance it from its Shiite heritage. “In the last few years [former Azeri President] Heydar Aliyev and his son [President] Ilham Aliyev have steadily contaminated this nation by launching anti-Islamic and Zionist programs [such as] the Eurovision contests, all with the aim of eliminating Islam and secularizing Azerbaijan.”2
At the end of 2012, the Iranian satellite TV channel reported in English that
Following a rise in the U.S. radar activities in the Astara Rayon region in Azerbaijan and the presence of Israeli military advisors, Azerbaijan has been using Orbiter ultra-light drones to carry out operations along the border with Iran and Karabakh…. Azerbaijan also uses Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for control and surveillance missions.3
In recent months, Iran has stepped up critical public tone toward Baku’s “incautious” policy and growing ties with Israel and the West – particularly the United States. Meanwhile, it continues its covert subversive activity in Azerbaijan including by means of Lebanese Hizbullah, which is providing assistance to local terrorist and espionage cells. Iran’s aim is to build an infrastructure for retaliation there in case it is attacked, and also to try and influence Azerbaijan’s domestic political arena. Azerbaijan, for its part, is wary of this Iranian activity, which is directed at both foreign (Israeli and U.S.) interests and local political activists, and in recent years has arrested a number of Iranians, Hizbullah operatives, and local activists on suspicion of involvement in terror and subversion.
Iran’s progress in its nuclear program and the failure of the nuclear talks with the West have raised Tehran’s threshold of sensitivity about a military attack on its nuclear facilities, and it increasingly fears that Azerbaijan may serve as a base for such a strike. Notably, a 2012 article in Foreign Policy quoted senior U.S. intelligence officials saying Azerbaijan would serve as a base for attacking Iran or for rescue operations after an Israeli attack.4 In a 2012 meeting in Iran between Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Abiyev asserted: “The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country.”5 Ahmadinejad, for his part, visited Azerbaijan in October 2010 for the summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).6
Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Khamenei’s representative on the council and top nuclear negotiator, met in late April 2013 with the visiting secretary of the National Security Council of Azerbaijan and warned him of “Western powers’ efforts to destabilize certain countries [meaning Azerbaijan] in order to prepare the ground for their presence and secure their own interests in those countries…. Examples of such actions can be found in the color revolutions and some regional countries like Syria.” Jalili said that “opportunities and mutual threats” could set the stage for more cooperation between Tehran and Baku in various cultural, political and economic fields.7 In February 2013, Jalili met with the Azeri president and declared that Iran and Azerbaijan would not allow countries from outside the region to affect their relationship.
Azerbaijan borders two countries that have aspirations to recreate their glorious past: Iran, once the center of the Persian Empire, of which Azerbaijan was part; and Turkey, whose current leaders aspire to regain the power of the Ottoman Empire, at least in terms of political influence and leadership of the Muslim states. Between these two “giants” and the various regional and ethnic conflicts related to them, Azerbaijan seeks to pursue an independent, cautious foreign policy that takes into account the constraints stemming from its geostrategic location.
The issue of Azerbaijan’s political, military, and economic relations with the West since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 adds an additional security-strategic layer to Azeri-Iranian ethnic-religious tensions. The two countries share a similar ethnic-religious heritage. According to several assessments, in northwestern Iran there now live close to twenty-five million Azeris, forming the country’s largest minority; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is of Azeri extraction and so is opposition leader Mir Hossein Musawi.
Both countries are Shiite, and both have territorial claims that in times of quiet are almost not mooted but in times of crisis again rise to the surface. Some in Iran refuse to accept the loss of the province of northern Azerbaijan, which was conquered by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century as part of its conquests of the Transcaucasus region, and they still see it as a historical Iranian province, though usually repressing such aspirations.9
In 1813 and 1828, the Persian Qajar dynasty could not withstand the Russian armies and was forced to sign the Gulistan and Turkmenchay agreements, which divested the Persian Empire of Georgia and the lands that today are Armenia and Azerbaijan. In today’s Iran, these humiliating agreements are still synonyms for bowing to foreign forces and part of a legacy that the Islamic regime still seeks to replace with an ethos of independence and resistance to foreign forces at any price.
Many in Azerbaijan have adopted a more or less dogmatically secular way of life, to Islamic Iran’s disappointment, after almost seventy years of secularization under the Soviet Union. At the same time, many still view the region of Iranian Azerbaijan, what they call “southern Azerbaijan,” as a part of greater Azerbaijan, and the considerable portion of the Azeri people who live there as entitled to their own language and independence. Iran, of course, opposes this, and recently stepped up arrests of Azeri activists in its territory because of what it called their “setting up illegal groups and anti-regime propaganda.”10 Ethnic tensions also arise at soccer matches. For example, during a match last March between the Tractor Sazi team from Tabriz in northwestern Iran and the Al-Jazira team from the UAE, tensions erupted after a number of Azeri-Iranian fans waved a sign saying “South Azerbaijan [i.e., northwestern Iran] isn’t Iran.”11
After a conference in Azerbaijan where participants called to annex the Azeri-populated areas of northwestern Iran, Iran bitterly criticized the participants and the Azeri leadership for facilitating the gathering. The Azeri ambassador in Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a severe reprimand, and was called on not to allow any more such conferences on Azeri soil since they could deal a fatal blow to the two states’ relations. The spokesman of the public relations department in Iran’s Baku embassy condemned the conference and said that “despite Tehran’s policy of promoting friendly ties with Baku and although Tehran respects Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and does not interfere in its internal affairs, certain anti-Iran elements have unfortunately carried out hostile and offensive measures by stressing unfounded territorial claims against Iranian sovereignty.”12 In December 2012, the Iranian embassy in Baku denounced anti-Iranian remarks made during the Convention of the World Azerbaijanis in Baku and called the event a “plot aimed at harming the friendly relations between Tehran and Baku” and at promoting “international Zionism and global arrogance.”13
Members of the Majlis (parliament) in Iran were even less restrained in their response. Mansour Haqiqatpour, head of the Majlis National Security Committee, said that residents of several cities in Azerbaijan, including Baku, who were separated from Iran during the Qajar reign and its war with Russia, had expressed interest in returning to the Iranian fold and that Iranian residents of Ardabil, Tabriz, Urmia, and Zanjan (which have Azeri minority populations) had expressed their willingness to respond harshly to the actions of the Azeri government and announced their readiness to reclaim the towns stolen from Iran during the Qajar dynasty.14 In a similar vein, Ardabil’s representative in the Majlis, Kamal Aladeen Firmouzan, said a referendum was needed on whether to restore Azerbaijan to Iran and claimed that Azerbaijan’s citizens openly and strongly desired this. He asserted that the “abominable” United States and Israel, along with the “Wahabi regime” (Saudi Arabia), had succeeded to penetrate deeply into Azerbaijan, and hence Azeri politicians had started to show sympathy for “traitorous and separatist elements and groups.”15
Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of the newspaper Kayhan, which generally reflects Khamenei’s positions, also proposed appealing to Azeri officials to hold a referendum among the residents of the areas that had been “taken” from Iran, in which they would be asked if they wanted to be annexed to Iran. Shariatmadari called this a “logical and basic step toward democracy” and claimed Azerbaijan’s residents yearned to become part of Iran again. He said the conference that was held in Baku, which demanded independence for Iran’s large Azeri minority, was only one of many steps Baku was taking to subvert the Azeri people’s religious feelings and their affection for Iran.16
From time to time Iran criticizes the Azeri government’s anti-religious policy and its measures against activists who seek to enforce the dress code that is practiced by Iranian Shiites. Last year more than half the Majlis members voted for a motion of condemnation after the death of activist Vaqif Abdullayev. They claimed he had died for promoting the dress code and said he had “sacrificed his life after he was subject to torture for defending religious values.”17 The motion also criticized the holding of the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest in Baku, calling it a display of immorality. The head of the Tabriz Religious Seminary, Hojjat al-Eslam Seyyed Hussein Seyyedi-Sani, asserted that;
the Eurovision that is held in the Islamic and historic city of Baku will lead to a definite clash between the values of the West and those of Islam….By hosting the contest Azerbaijan is seeking to disguise its real face [of religiosity] and create a false pose of democracy and human rights….One can see in the contest a Zionist plot aimed at dividing Azerbaijan and distancing it from its Islamic heritage.
He also condemned the gay pride parade that was held there.18
In 2012, the pro-reformist Iranian newspaper Aftab analyzed the complex Iranian-Azeri relationship. The paper claimed that, while in recent decades the two states had tried to conduct a careful policy and avoid exacerbating tensions, it appeared that in recent years this approach was not working. The deterioration was evidenced in harsh verbal attacks, the summoning of ambassadors, and derogatory statements by senior military and political officials. Aftab discussed the influence of the Arab Spring on the Azeri opposition, the anti-religious measures of the government, and the tightening of relations with the West and Israel, asserting that all this had fostered growing tension and misunderstanding between Iran and Azerbaijan.
The paper also said that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Azerbaijan had accused Iran of boosting its support for Shiite pro-Islamic opposition groups; strengthened its measures against religious activists and especially those with political tendencies; prohibited the wearing of the hijab in schools and universities, while taking many other steps against religious activity that had sparked protest among various elements in Iran; and, finally, expanded its security cooperation with Israel, causing relations with Iran to suffer.
On the one hand, the paper sums up, the two states’ stable relations in recent decades were influenced by the basic factors of geography, common cultural-religious characteristics, transportation, and trade relations (which continue to exist and develop even today) – all this despite Azerbaijan’s far-reaching secularization, the struggle over energy sources, and Israel. On the other hand, dynamic factors and events in the geostrategic environment had had negative effects and fostered tensions.19
In sum, Iran is conducting its relations with Azerbaijan with great wariness. Its hopes that Azerbaijan, which was liberated from the yoke of the Soviet Union, would choose Iran as a model were quickly dashed when Baku instead chose a secular-Western direction. Baku’s insistence on taking this independent course and enhancing its relations with Israel precisely when the nuclear crisis is reaching its apogee has aggravated the two states’ relations, with harsh statements coming from Tehran – even as the two states keep trying to project an atmosphere of relations as usual. The Azeri foreign minister’s visit to Israel certainly set off warning lights in Tehran.
Iranian-Azeri relations are being influenced more and more by the geostrategic environment and less by the basic factors that had shaped these relations for decades. So far Iran, amid severe Western sanctions and a sense of isolation, has gone no further than verbal attacks and subversive activities in Azerbaijan. Iran has constant friction with the West in the Persian Gulf, and the West takes this friction into consideration in its possible escalation scenarios over the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has threatened several times to block the Strait of Hormuz and attack American bases in the Gulf States. In the context of such scenarios, Azerbaijan has not yet attained a central place on the West’s agenda. Russia, too, has to be included in the broader picture; it takes great interest in what happens in the southern Caucasus and in that regard is likely sooner or later to break its silence.
The very strong Iranian reaction to the anti-Iranian conferences in Baku (including calls to annex Azerbaijan) and the Azeri foreign minister’s visit to Israel, which put the two states’ heretofore covert relations out in the open, suggest that Iran could change its policy and may even open a front with the West in Azerbaijan. Iran could also escalate its responses to Azerbaijan’s measures; it views the country as a real threat not only in the military-security sphere (i.e., to its nuclear facilities) but also in the economic and, particularly, energy domain.
Thus, the geostrategic changes now occurring may lead Tehran to revise its policy – from a combination of implied threats, careful diplomacy, and economic inducements to a more menacing, resolute stance toward what Iran sees as the threat posed by Azerbaijan. This, among other things, could include renewed attempts to strike Israeli and Western targets (including military ones) in Azerbaijan. In 2008, 2011, and 2012, Iranian terrorist cells were uncovered there that planned to hit Jewish, Israeli, and American targets in the country, including assassinating the Israeli ambassador and attacking Chabad’s Ohr Avner Jewish school in Baku.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence company.