Tensions Growing Between Azerbaijan and Iran?

9 MINS READMar 10, 2011 | 13:11 GMT
An increasing number of protests in Azerbaijan in recent months has Baku viewing Iran as a possible instigator of unrest. Although Iran has some levers in Azerbaijan, such as a large Shiite population, several factors — including Russia's potential involvement — will lead Tehran to proceed with caution in its attempts to destabilize the Azerbaijani government.
As unrest continues brewing in the Middle East, STRATFOR has noted that Iran has been able to exploit or perhaps even instigate the instability in the region to its benefit, particularly in the Persian Gulf states. Tehran could be pursuing a similar strategy in a country contiguous with Iran: Azerbaijan. Just as in the Persian Gulf, Iran has an interest in exploiting any unrest or instability in Azerbaijan to increase its influence in the country. The increasing tempo of recent protests in Azerbaijan have given Iran an opportunity to use its substantial levers in the country — including ties to Azerbaijani opposition parties and influence over the country's religious and educational institutions — to pressure its small northern neighbor. Iran's recent moves have created tensions between the countries, and Azerbaijan has openly accused Iran of interfering in its domestic affairs. But while these tensions and Facebook-organized protests slated for March 11 could increase the risk of further instability in Azerbaijan, many factors — from demographics to Russia's influence to Iran's primary interest in the Persian Gulf countries — will ultimately make Tehran act cautiously in attempting to provoke unrest in Azerbaijan.

Iranian-Azerbaijani Relations: A History

Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have a complex history. Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire since antiquity but in the Middle Ages, the Persians and Ottomans contested over Azerbaijani territory as the Azerbaijanis went through a process of Turkification. In the early 19th century, the Russian Empire became the dominant force in the Caucasus region. Later, Azerbaijan was one of 15 republics under formal Russian control during the Soviet Union. Modern Azerbaijan has been independent for nearly 20 years, but all three of its former colonial administrators — Russia, Iran and Turkey — retain substantial (and competing) influence in the country. Iran and Azerbaijan share substantial cultural ties; Iran is the premier power of Shi'ism, and roughly 85 percent of Azerbaijan's population is Shiite. Iran has used sectarian ties to project influence in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Lebanon, Bahrain and even parts of Saudi Arabia. However, unlike Iran, Azerbaijan's population is predominantly secular — a tradition from the Soviet era that the government in Baku, including current President Ilham Aliyev's administration, has retained and guards fiercely. Also, there is a large ethnic Azerbaijani population concentrated in northern Iran — roughly 25 percent of Iran's total population — that Tehran feels it must keep in check. Modern-day relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are mixed. Their economic relationship is solid; trade between them is roughly $500 million per year, and Iran is one of Azerbaijan's main importers of natural gas. However, political relations have become more contentious; Iran has politically and financially supported the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), a pro-Iranian and religious Shiite opposition party officially banned by Baku. Tehran, meanwhile, is concerned about Baku's use of its links to certain segments of Iran's ethnic Azerbaijani population to sow discord within Iran and serve as a launching point for the West into Iran. Tehran most recently accused Baku of such actions in the Green movement's failed attempt at revolution in 2009. Geopolitically, the countries' strategic interests often clash. Iran has strong ties with Armenia (Azerbaijan's foe), while Azerbaijan has good relations with the West, and political and military ties to Israel — both of which are uncomfortable for Tehran. These factors have created tense relations, though not outright hostile, which naturally rise and fall with shifting global issues.

Current Azerbaijani Unrest and Iran's Role

In this context — and coinciding with unrest in the Middle East — tensions have risen between Baku and Tehran as an increasing numbers of protests have occurred in Azerbaijan in recent months. In December 2010, one day after the Baku Education Department banned the wearing of the hijab for grade-school girls in the classroom (creating some controversy among the more religious segments of the public), roughly 1,000 people protested the ban near the Education Ministry. Approximately 15 people were arrested. Several conservative clerics in Iran spoke publicly against the ban, claiming that it defied Azerbaijan's Islamic heritage. The leader of the AIP, Movsum Samadov, vocally criticized the ban and followed his remarks with posts on his website calling for the overthrow of Aliyev's government. According to STRATFOR sources in Azerbaijan, Baku believes Samadov had a part in organizing these protests throughout Azerbaijan and, more generally, that Tehran is attempting to influence Azerbaijan's education system and boost ties to conservative populations in Azerbaijan's southern regions. As a result, the Azerbaijani security forces cracked down harshly on the opposition group and other conservative religious groups, arresting several AIP party members — including Samadov, who the government accused of plotting acts of terrorism in the country. Baku has worked to alleviate the tensions created by the hijab ban and its aftermath, as well as the resulting increase in public dissatisfaction (most notably by easing the hijab ban in early January). However, Azerbaijan has increased its rhetoric against Iran, and several government officials have directly accused Tehran of interfering in Azerbaijani domestic affairs — a not-so-subtle reference to Iran's actions following the hijab ban. Small groups of Azerbaijanis have protested in front of Iranian embassies in Baku and in European capitals over such interference, and Azerbaijani officials have claimed that several Iranian media outlets — including Sahar TV, Ahlul Bayt News Agency, and Press TV — have issued inflammatory anti-Azerbaijani propaganda to exacerbate tensions and unrest in the country. Iran has responded that there has been no such interference, and Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mohammad Baqer Bahrami added that both countries have media that are "not particularly well-informed" about such issues. Tensions increased again recently as a group called "11 March - Great People's Day" has used the social network website Facebook to organize anti-government rallies across Azerbaijan beginning on March 11 (exactly one month after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak decided to step down). Reportedly, all of the organizers of the group live abroad except for one of the founders: Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a 29-year-old former parliamentary candidate. Baku has worked aggressively to stymie these protests; the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry has said that such protests have not been approved by executive authorities and would be "resolutely thwarted." Hajiyev was arrested March 4 in Ganja, and several other youth activists tied to the Facebook group have been detained in recent days. Several Iranian media outlets have played up these arrests as evidence of Baku's concerns "about a possible spillover of regional uprisings into the nation." According to STRATFOR sources in Azerbaijan, Baku believes that Iran is behind the majority of the activity behind the Facebook group and is using certain media outlets to spin up the movement ahead of the protests.

Factors Preventing Serious Instability

Although tensions have been increasing, more fundamental factors make serious unrest or a potential revolution in Azerbaijan unlikely. It is doubtful that the Facebook activists will be able to create serious disruptions in the country on March 11; the group has a following in the low thousands (most of whom are young and do not reside in the country) and has made only general calls for rallies across the country with little evidence of real organization. However, certain segments of society among the poorer rural villages and conservative or radical religious elements have real grievances against the government (but would not likely have ties to such Facebook activists). As STRATFOR previously mentioned, though Azerbaijan is not seriously at risk of an Egyptian or Tunisian-style revolution, it is among the potential problem states in the former Soviet Union. But Aliyev is popular among the general public, and Baku has a powerful internal security apparatus that has thus far shown no signs of disloyalty to the regime, which has proved capable of controlling the security situation. Another important factor is Russia's role. As the predominant power in the Caucasus, with levers into all three southern Caucasus countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), Moscow is comfortable with its relationship with the regime in Baku. While Russia does not have the same level of influence in Azerbaijan (the most independent of the Caucasus countries) as it does in Armenia, or the direct military presence it has in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the current geopolitical climate in the Caucasus is favorable to Moscow. Russia is therefore not interested in a serious disruption of the status quo, especially one that could give Tehran or the West more influence in Azerbaijan. If Iran meddles in Azerbaijan too much, Russia can put pressure on Iran, either by controlling the operations of Iran's Russian-built Bushehr nuclear facility or increasing cooperation with the West over sanctions and weapons sales. While Iran ultimately might be interested in the overthrow of the government in Baku, as it is with certain Middle Eastern regimes, it is more realistically aiming for general instability in Azerbaijan. Instability, even in the form of low-level protests, draws Baku's focus further inward and could put Western interests in the country at risk in favor of Iranian interests and influence. Therefore, due to factors such as the sizable Azerbaijani population in Iran and Russia's potential involvement, Tehran ultimately will be cautious in how far it goes in provoking unrest in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to concentrate on its true target: the countries of the Persian Gulf.

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