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The State Blog | Tehran and Baku Play Hardball

by ALEX VATANKA

06 Jul 2012 14:29Comments

Acrimony follows Iranian failure to adapt to neighbor's growing self-reliance.

The State is a weekly column about Iranian security and diplomatic issues. Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously he was the managing editor of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst.
[ analysis ] AlexVatankaThumbnail.jpg This week, Iran's official English-language Press TV ran the televised "confessions" of two nationals from the Republic of Azerbaijan. The men have been arrested on charges of espionage, affiliation with Israel, and seeking to promote separatism among Iran's ethnic Azerbaijani population. The men, Shahryar Hajizadeh and Farid Husseinov, were said to have been arrested in May, although the case is only now being publicized. A day later Baku responded. The country's Interior Ministry charged Hilal Mamedov, an ethnic Talysh and editor of Talyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh), with collaborating with Iran's intelligence services.

This tit-for-tat cycle has now become routine, and the last year has witnessed a serious deterioration in Baku-Tehran relations. The question is whether the acrimony is about to become more intense, and what more hostile actions would look like in practical terms. One thing is for sure: Iranian authorities resort to the use of televised "confessions" -- an inherently suspect method -- only in circumstances where there is desperation to go all out to make a point.

Iran's list of grievances against Baku is long. It ranges from Iranian fears that Azerbaijan has agreed to allow Israel to use the country as a platform to launch espionage and sabotage operations inside Iran to allegations that Baku is seeking to incite separatist tendencies among Iran's 20-25 million strong Azerbaijani population. Baku too has a long list of its own grievances against Tehran. It includes Iranian efforts to undermine the government of President Elham Aliyev at every turn, including the broadcasting of Azeri-language anti-Aliyev broadcasts into Azerbaijan and funding for Islamist groups that seek his ouster.

The reality of the sour relations is particularly hard for the officials in Tehran to bear. The historical, religious, and ethnic ties between the two countries are as close as anything Iran could wish for. On paper, Azerbaijan should be fertile ground for Iranian soft-power projection, particularly for the Islamist regime in Tehran with its often religious-centric approach to policy-making. Azerbaijan is after all one of only four countries in the world with a majority Shia population, and Tehran continues to tout itself as the guardian of global Shiism.

The fact that Baku has become a close ally of Israel is therefore doubly hard to endure. Given the international and regional pressures on Tehran, it is understandable that the Iranians are anxious about what the Israelis are up to in Azerbaijan. But it has to be remembered that Israel was not the party that created the rift between Tehran and Baku. In building ties with Azerbaijan, the Israelis are simply filling a vacuum, a tactic Iran itself has undertaken across the region on many occasions when it supported Shia and Islamist entities from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Palestinian Hamas.

Iran's approach to Azerbaijan can arguably be said to have been wrong from the day Tehran itself came out as the first capital to recognize the former Soviet republic's independence. It adopted a "Big Brother" approach that over the years became a major point of contention as Azerbaijan began to mature politically and self-reliant economically thanks to its growing oil revenue. Iran never adjusted its policies and rhetoric to this reality.

On a bilateral level, Iran continued to in effect ask for Baku to be the submissive partner in the relationship. On a regional level, it often facilitated Russian efforts to remain the dominant foreign power throughout the South Caucasus. On either count, this has not suited Azerbaijan.

There are those in Tehran who believe that the tension is rooted in the personality of President Aliyev, who is viewed as far less accommodating than his late father, Heydar Aliyev. This is at best an exaggerated and mistaken reading of the political realities in Azerbaijan. Dislike of Iranian attempts to export its revolution north is a notable area where Aliyev and some of his staunchest critics, such as opposition leader Isa Gambar, see eye to eye. The gap between Baku and Tehran can only stop widening if Iran opts to accept broader Azerbaijani aspirations and adjust its attitude toward Baku.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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