AzeriReport mid=48
July 31 2012

There is a tendency to view the tense relationship between Azerbaijan
and Iran through the prism of religion. But bilateral enmity is rooted
more in strategic considerations than it is in ideology or religion.

The emergence of an independent Azerbaijan after the 1991 Soviet
collapse was always going to be a challenge for Iran, given that
it revived old fears about separatism among Iran's large Azeri
population. Over the years Iranian national sensitivities have been
heightened by calls coming from some nationalist circles in Azerbaijan
for reunification with predominantly Azeri lands in Iran, as well
as by Baku's tendency to accentuate all things Turkish, often at the
expense of the country's Iranian cultural heritage.

>From an Iranian perspective, Tehran early on tried to make the best
of a difficult situation - recognizing, for example, the Republic
of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that there were two provinces with
the identical name in Iran. For comparison, Greece still refuses to
recognize the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

To this day, Iranian leaders are miffed by what they see as a lack
of Azerbaijani reciprocity for Tehran's recognition gesture, along
other relatively magnanimous actions. Iranian perceptions of Baku's
lingering hostility have helped push Tehran to build broad ties to
Christian Armenia, the bitter rival of Azerbaijan.

Pipeline politics in the 1990s also played a major role in fostering
Azerbaijani-Iranian tension. Back when the energy-export derby
was just getting started, many oilmen acknowledged that exporting
Azerbaijani and Central Asian oil & gas via Iran made considerable
economic sense. But the United States insisted that Iran be excluded
from regional pipeline plans, and Baku, eager to win Washington's
support for its own foreign policy objectives, not least its desire
to recover Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, went along with the American
demand. Tehran, naturally, was angered by Baku's willingness to accede
to US wishes.

These days, at a time when Iran is increasingly cornered by crippling
economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union,
along with Israeli threats to use all means necessary to end its
nuclear program, Iranian leaders see Azerbaijan's close military
cooperation with Israel as a threat. It has sought to counter
this threat by mobilizing a network of radical Shiite Islamists
in Azerbaijan.

When it comes to its policy on Azerbaijan, Iran's strategic objective -
to weaken the government of Ilham Aliyev - is in perfect alignment with
the political agenda of the Islamic Republic's more hardline rulers,
who are desperate to rekindle a sense of Islamic revolutionary fervor
inside the country after three decades of authoritarian and corrupt
theocratic rule.

President Ilham Aliyev's administration, meanwhile, has its own
concerns. Since the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, officials in
Baku have faced challenges not only from Islamists inside the country,
but also from local Twitterati.

In this context, Azerbaijan's strong stance toward Iran can be seen
as a hedge against an explosion of domestic discontent. The Iranian
nuclear crisis in particular has enabled Baku to cast itself as a
potentially important Western ally and has helped it build strong
relationships with the United States and EU. Azerbaijani leaders have
made it clear that, as a strategic partner, it expects Washington and
Brussels to turn a blind eye to Baku's bleak human rights record,
and give authorities a free hand to do what they deem necessary in
order to maintain the status quo.

For the most part, Washington and Brussels have complied, offering
only muted criticism of Azerbaijan's lack of progress toward
democratization. But there have been exceptions, and these have
prompted shrill responses by Baku. For example, bilateral relations
between Azerbaijan and Germany took a nosedive after German officials
and news media severely criticized Azerbaijani rights practices,
and Baku responded with vitriolic statements aimed at Berlin.

Azerbaijani officials also reacted with anger and disbelief, when
the European Parliament adopted at the end of May 2012 a scathingly
critical resolution on human rights conditions in Azerbaijan. Top
presidential aides, including Novruz Mammadov and Ali Hasanov,
insinuated, bizarrely, that Europe plotted together with Iran to
undermine Azerbaijan's "independent foreign policy."

Relations between Baku and Tehran will likely remain strained as long
as both leaderships feel the benefits of escalating tensions outweigh
the costs. Ideology, religion and nationalism certainly play a role in
the bilateral drama, but none of these factors explains why tension
is approaching an alarming point now. Iran's Islamism per se isn't a
problem for Azerbaijan, nor is Baku's secularism a problem for the
Islamic Republic. After all, Azerbaijan enjoys cordial relations
with such countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while Iran tries
to prop up the secular regime of Bashar Assad, at war with Muslim
fundamentalists, albeit of a Sunni persuasion.

It is mainly the survival strategies of the ruling elites in both
countries that are causing friction. This is especially true in the
case of Azerbaijan, since Iran provides for a perfect enemy against
which to rally both domestic and international support. For Iran,
Azerbaijan is not the main concern among its neighbors: Saudi Arabia
and United Arab Emirates are. But occasionally lashing out at another
"Western stooge" serves the interests of the ruling clique in Tehran
just fine.

* Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats
Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.

This article was first published by

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress