Friday, March 23, 2012

Azerbaijan: Between Iran and a Hard Place

The presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran.The former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is a small country sandwiched between Russia and Iran along the coast of the Caspian Sea, which is in fact the largest salt lake on earth, not a sea. Americans should not feel bad if they can't find it on a geography quiz. But due to its unique location, the country is playing an increasingly important role in the West’s confrontation with Iran. So far this year, Azerbaijani security services have arrested three groups of Iranian agents planning terrorist attacks against American businesses, Western oil companies, Israeli diplomats and prominent members of the Jewish community. Just last week, a network of twenty-two Iranian agents trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was rolled up in this Caspian Sea country.

Theocrats in Tehran also have a problem with the Azerbaijani leadership’s secular nature. This is not surprising, as millions of ethnic Azeris live in northern Iran—or Southern Azerbaijan—under ethnic and linguistic discrimination and may want a freer life like their brethren in Azerbaijan.

Iran is attempting to undermine secular Azerbaijan by paying off preachers in mosques, stirring up religious extremism in the country’s South, beaming in Shiite Islamist propaganda broadcasts and supporting radical organizations. The government in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is guarding against radical Shiite organizations that may try to gain political power.

The Larger Neighborhood

Yet the animosity is not only about religious observance but also about geopolitics. Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have steadily deteriorated as Azerbaijan continues to develop its ties to its “older sister” Turkey, the United States, NATO and Israel. Read More