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How Azerbaijan’s anti-Iran policies are backfiring

Meanwhile hawks in Washington are encouraging President Ilham Aliyev to stoke tensions with Tehran.

Analysis | Europe

The hope for de-escalation of tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan following last week’s phone call between their foreign affairs ministers, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Jeyhun Bayramov respectively, has so far proved to be short-lived.

At a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States a few days after the call, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev accused Iran of using the Nagorno-Karabakh region for drug trafficking to Russia and Europe, without producing any proof. Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed back against what it called “Aliyev’s astonishing claims.”

Adding fuel to its anti-Tehran campaign, the regime in Baku detained a number of Azerbaijani Shiite clerics considered “pro-Iranian,” including a former imam of the Baku Djoumah (Friday) mosque Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and Sardar Babaev, the main redactor of the religious website Both Ibrahimoglu and Babaev studied in Iran, but while the former was released after a long and detailed interrogation, the latter has been formally charged with treason — a charge that, if the past treatment of religious activists is any guide, is likely to result in a long imprisonment and torture. Baku will also use the case to bolster its credentials in the United States and Europe as a bulwark against Iranian-backed “Islamic extremism.”

These latest incidents strongly suggest that, at least for now, Aliyev is unwilling to dial down tensions with Tehran. Baku’s military success against Armenia has clearly emboldened him to openly challenge its southern neighbor as well. When Iran conducted large scale military drills near the borders of Azerbaijan, its conventional arsenal was widely dismissed on Azerbaijani pro-government websites as no match for Azerbaijan’s Israel- and Turkey-powered high-tech equipment. Aliyev counts on Ankara’s and Tel Aviv’s continued military and diplomatic support as a sufficient deterrent against Tehran.

Israel’s support, in Aliyev’s calculation, should also translate into Washington’s — all the more so when the prospects of reviving the Iran nuclear deal remain uncertain and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is warning of “other options” should diplomacy fail.

In this context, as Iran’s relations with its traditional rivals in the Persian Gulf — Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — are slowly thawing, Azerbaijan is emerging as an alternative staging ground for anti-Iran activities. In fact, since the renewal of the hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, an array of Washington think-tankers sought to expand the conflict to Iran, in hopes that Iranian Azerbaijanis would play act as a stalking horse in fulfilling these hawks’ old dreams — optimally the dismemberment of the country along ethnic lines, or, at least the fostering of armed secessionist movements that would force Tehran to turn inward. Either outcome would be seen as a major win for Israel, Iran’s arch-foe — a key motivation for this group of pundits. With tensions between Tehran and Baku rising, these hawks see that goal within their reach. And Aliyev seems to think that the possible benefits of cozying up to Israel and United States outweighs the risks and costs of angering Iran.

Yet Aliyev’s confidence seems misplaced and counterproductive. Iran’s military exercises near Azerbaijan’s borders were not designed as a preparation for invasion, but rather to get Baku’s attention to Tehran’s displeasure with what it sees as the former’s unfriendly policies. While Iran spent much of the past decade wrestling with the challenges in the Persian Gulf, it paid relatively little attention to the Caucasus. However, Iran has proved to be a highly adaptable, low-cost practitioner of asymmetrical warfare. One sure consequence of Aliyev’s bravado is that Tehran will now focus on strengthening its deterrence against Azerbaijan.

One relatively cost-effective tactic traditionally employed by Tehran to that end is to build up proxies. During the recent tensions with Baku, reports emerged about the creation in Azerbaijan of Hüseynçilər, or Husseynites, after a martyred Shiite imam. It attracted attention with a signature logo of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite security force, on its banner. Hüseynçilər, however, for now seem to be more about media hype than a real force.

This is because Azerbaijan presents a different landscape from the countries where Tehran has successfully cultivated proxies, such as Lebanon or Iraq. While nominally majority Shia, the decades of Soviet atheism, followed by a heavy emphasis on secular Turkic nationalism during the independence years eroded Azerbaijan’s connection with Shiism. In fact, the Aliyev administrations — both Ilham and his father and predecessor Heydar — welcomed the spread of Sunnism in the country as a way to distance Azerbaijan from Iran and bring it closer to Turkey. Pro-Turkish sentiment has been greatly reinforced after Azerbaijan’s victory in the war against Armenia.

The government also adopted a somewhat more sophisticated approach to the pockets of committed Shiite believers who still live in the country. While in the past it leaned heavily on repression, it now coopts prestigious religious leaders in an effort to create a sort of national-Shiism, i.e. a variant of faith that is politically pro-state and independent of Iran. One such example is the sheikh Shahin Hasanli, who started in the 1990s as a member of a radical Khomeinist society, and now is part of the official religious establishment. In the midst of the crisis with Iran, Hasanli explicitly distanced himself and fellow Azeri Shiites from Tehran. Rumors in Baku have it that he might replace the current chair of the Board of Caucasus Muslims, a state body in charge of “official Islam,” which is seen as too close to Iran.

Yet there remain a not insignificant number of people in the country disaffected by the corruption and socio-economic inequalities that have grown all too obvious under the Aliyevs’ dynasty. While victory in the war can overshadow these concerns for a while, that won’t last forever. With the secular opposition decimated by Aliyev, it is quite conceivable that, at least to some extent, the discontent will acquire a religious-political form, providing some opening to Tehran in the long run.

Over-emphasizing the Pan-Turkist aspect in its struggle with Tehran is also backfiring on Baku. Stressing the Turkic origins of some of the historical Iranian dynasties, like the Safavids and the Qajars, is not an argument for secession from Iran, as some ideologues in Baku would have it, but rather reinforces the Iranian Azeris’ connection with Iran.

In fact, the recent Baku-Tehran flare-up rekindled the long-dormant view in Iran of the Caucasus as a renegade province cleaved away from it in the 19th century by the Russian empire. The rise of Iranian nationalism, in both its religious and secular forms, is another long-term consequence that Aliyev and his supporters failed to foresee. One of its implications is that Tehran has already started pivoting to Yerevan, thus ironically making Baku’s claims of its pro-Armenian tilt a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, Iran decided to use Armenia, rather than Azerbaijan, as its conduit for North-South trade, a project into which Azerbaijan has invested a big deal as a ticket to its post-oil prosperity. 

While such projects are more of a long-term nature, Iran already possesses its ultimate conventional deterrent: its missiles whose range covers Azerbaijan’s entire territory. Iran has demonstrated its ability to strike with precision on Saudi oilfields, despite Riyadh’s close security relationship with the United States. Admittedly, such a strike would signify a massive escalation and invite retaliation, possibly with the participation of Turkey, so the threshold for undertaking it would be extremely high. However, Iranian leaders have amply demonstrated in the past that, if pushed into a corner, they would not hesitate to lash out at their perceived enemies. Thus, Aliyev’s newfound pugnacity and provocation towards Iran risks undermining Azerbaijan’s long-term security.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. 10/12/2020 (Photo: Photographer RM via
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