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Azerbaijan Jockeys For New Geopolitical Weight

S ource: Al Jazeera

What do the US and Israel have to gain by strengthening Azerbaijan’s
naval capacities in the Caspian sea?

Washington, DC – As the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran has
loomed over the past several months, a great deal of attention has
been paid to Israel’s close ties with Iran’s northern neighbour,
Azerbaijan. And while those ties are indeed close, the two countries
nonetheless have very different concerns vis-a-vis Iran – ones that
make them unlikely to cooperate on any potential Israeli strike
against Tehran.

The most visible part of Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation is in the
weapons business. Azerbaijan and Israel announced a massive arms
deal, worth US $1.6bn, earlier this year, fuelling speculation that
Israel was using Azerbaijan as a proxy against Iran. That speculation
spiked when the US magazine Foreign Policy reported that Israel was
negotiating to use airfields in Azerbaijan in case of a strike on Iran.

But while Israel’s concern about Iran is Tehran’s nuclear programme
and the fear that Iranian nuclear weapons could be used against them,
Azerbaijan has displayed a less alarmist view of Iran’s nuclear
intentions. Azerbaijan has opposed efforts to broaden sanctions
against Iran and, as WikiLeaked US diplomatic cables have shown,
have consistently rejected US entreaties to pressure Iran either
publicly or privately on its nuclear programme.

That Israel is Azerbaijan’s major weapons supplier has more to do
with the particulars of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical situation than with
a desire for a strong strategic partnership. A part of Azerbaijani
territory, the region of Nagorno Karabakh, has been occupied by
Armenian forces since a brutal war in the 1990s, and Azerbaijan’s top
national priority is regaining its territory – by force, if necessary.

And as it builds up its military to prepare to retake Nagorno Karabakh,
it can afford to buy the best. Azerbaijan’s economy, since gaining
independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has boomed, and now its
per capita GDP is over $10,000, putting it on par with Thailand,
Colombia and South Africa. Its defence budget is reportedly over
$3bn. Yet, it is cut off from many of the major arms markets.

Russia is a strategic ally of Armenia, and the US Congress, led by
members friendly to Armenian-American lobby groups, has imposed
restrictions on arms sales to Azerbaijan. So, for world-class
armaments, Israel is perhaps the best remaining option.

An uncomfortable demographic fact

However, Azerbaijan does have significant strategic concerns about Iran
as well, and tensions between the two countries have the potential
for creating a new flashpoint in the region – albeit one unrelated
to Israel.

Tensions between the two countries are rooted in an uncomfortable
demographic fact for Iran: about one-sixth of its population are ethnic
Azeris (and according to some estimates, a quarter), concentrated
in the northern regions bordering Azerbaijan. Since Azerbaijan
became independent, Tehran has feared its potential influence on
the frequently aggrieved Azeri minority. Nationalist politicians in
Azerbaijan have fanned that flame by referring to their country as
“North Azerbaijan” and the Azeri areas in Iran as “South Azerbaijan”.

For years, Azerbaijan has complained about Iranian proselytisers in
Azerbaijan – a largely secular country – and about Iranian television
broadcasts – in the Azeri language – beamed into Azerbaijan. And this
year, tensions between the two countries have increased dramatically.

Azerbaijan’s security forces have rounded up dozens of “terrorists”
that it says were working for Iran and preparing to attack American
and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Two poets from Azerbaijan who went
to Iran to participate in a poetry contest were apparently detained,
but Iran has refused to offer any information about the two men’s

Perhaps most absurdly, conservative clerics in Iran organised several
demonstrations at Azerbaijani consulates in Iran, protesting the
holding of a “gay parade” during Baku’s hosting of the Eurovision
Song Contest. This, in spite of the fact that there was never any
such plan to hold such a parade. During the week of Eurovision,
Iran recalled its Baku ambassador for consultations.

The tension has frequently manifested itself militarily, in addition
to politically. The source of Azerbaijan’s wealth is the rich oil
and natural gas fields in the Caspian Sea, but the borders of each
country’s waters in the sea have not been delimited, leading to
the possibility of disputes over petrowealth. The most famous such
incident occurred in 2001, when an Iranian warship and fighter jets
threatened a BP research vessel operating in what Azerbaijan considers
its territorial waters in the Caspian Sea. But there have been several
subsequent events.

In 2009, an Iranian drilling rig entered waters that Azerbaijan
considered its own, and according to US diplomatic cables, Azerbaijan
government officials fretted that they did not have the naval capacity
to respond. As a result of that perceived threat, Azerbaijan has
been building up its naval capacity. Among the weapons in the $1.6bn
Israeli purchase were anti-ship missiles. And in April, Azerbaijan’s
navy exercised against a foe that closely resembled Iran’s navy.

Caspian strategy?

People & Power – Rearming the Caucasus – Part 1 Analysts in Baku
agree that Iran is the most significant threat in the Caspian. “How
will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil
wells in some territory that we consider ours?” asks Tahir Zeynalov,
an analyst at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “Maybe some crazy guy,
because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he
will declare ‘go and install that well over there’. The possibility of
serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it.”

It’s not entirely clear what Iran’s strategy is in the Caspian.

Throughout history, it’s had relatively little presence on the sea,
which has been largely controlled by Russia since Peter the Great
expanded his empire to the sea in the 18th century. In both economic
and strategic terms, the Persian Gulf is far more significant for Iran.

Part of Iran’s concern is that its nemeses in the US and Europe
appear to be trying to gain a foothold in the Caspian. Major Western
companies are already cooperating with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to
exploit the oil and gas in the sea, and the European Union, and to
a lesser extent the US, are working with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan
to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian, leading to Europe.

Even more worrying, from Tehran’s perspective, is the US military
moves in the sea. Although the moves are not especially ambitious
by American standards, they nevertheless have made a splash on the
closed Caspian. The US has donated some patrol boats and training for
Azerbaijani naval special forces. As recently as 2009, the infamous
private military company Blackwater was conducting some of that
training, according to WikiLeaked diplomatic cables. And the cables
also show the US repeatedly pushing Azerbaijan to strengthen its navy,
in particular its ability to conduct surveillance in their part of
the Caspian. The 2009 incident involving the Iranian drilling rig,
too, illustrated the deep, if behind-the-scenes, cooperation between
the US and Azerbaijan on Caspian naval security.

The US role in training and equipping Azerbaijan’s navy has spooked
Iran, said one naval analyst in Baku who asked to remain anonymous:
“Iranians think they are a besieged fortress… The US cooperation
here is nothing special but they build conspiracy theories about it.”

And the plot is about to get thicker. Iran recently announced the
discovery of a large oil and natural gas field, which President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad said “will change the energy and political balance around
the Caspian Sea”. Indeed it could: while Iran hasn’t yet announced
the exact location of the deposit, what information it has given
suggests it could be in waters that Baku considers to be Azerbaijan’s.

Nevertheless, for Azerbaijan, conflict with Iran can only harm them.

Iran’s naval and air forces in the Caspian, while not particularly
strong, can still easily outgun Azerbaijan’s. And in spite of recent
moves by Azerbaijan to bolster their naval capacity, the source of
Baku’s wealth in the Caspian is still vulnerable to Iran. Meanwhile,
Azerbaijan remains focused on regaining Nagorno Karabakh, which
adventurism in Iran would not help.

So as much as a weakened Iran would benefit Azerbaijan, in case of a
war there, Azerbaijan’s main goal will to avoid becoming collateral
damage, and to bide its time until it can defend itself from its
larger southern neighbour.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He
is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet, US News and World Report
and Slate.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Centre
on Crisis Reporting.

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