Alexei Makarkin
UPI Senior News Analyst

Middle East Times, Egypt
May 1 2006

MOSCOW -- Escalation of the US conflict with Iran directly affects
the interests of its neighbors.

A military solution may generate serious problems for Iraq, where it
took the political forces several months to agree on the distribution
of government positions. Moreover, a Shia has again become prime
minister, and the Iraqi Shias have historical ties with their brethren
in Iran. Understandably, political risks in Afghanistan and Pakistan
will markedly grow. The states of the South Caucasus, also Iran's
neighbors, will face problems, too.

The media report that the United States is hoping for Azeri cooperation
- its territory could be used as a potential bridgehead for military
action against Iran. This may or may not happen, but nevertheless is
on the agenda. The agenda may include the use of Azeri airspace and
airfields, and the deployment of US troops on Azeri territory.

Obviously, Baku is not very enthusiastic about this prospect. To begin
with, Azerbaijan maintains close relations with Iran. They signed a
non-aggression and cooperation treaty in 2002. Last December their
representatives attended the inauguration of the gas pipeline -
under a 25-year-long bilateral agreement, Iran will supply 80.5
million cubic meters of natural gas a year.

During his recent trip to Baku, Iranian defense minister Mostafa
Mohammad-Najjar said: "The security of Azerbaijan is the security of
Iran. Our defense capability is your defense capability." He seemed
keen to find out the Azeri position on the eve of Aliyev's visit to
the US. It is clear, however, that if Azerbaijan becomes an American
ally in the war against Iran, it will itself become a target for
Iranian missiles."

Moreover, Iran is the home for at least 35 million Azeris - their
number being bigger than the population of Azerbaijan itself - many of
them with relatives in Azerbaijan. It is rumored that the Americans
may try and use the ethnic factor - contradictions between the Azeri
Diaspora and the Tehran regime (as Stalin tried to do in 1946). If so,
the United States will find it hard to do without Baku.

But let's not forget that Stalin did not succeed, although the Iranian
central government was much weaker than it is now. In addition, if
hostilities break out, refugees may flood Azeri territory and create
serious problems for the Baku authorities.

Finally, the Islamic fundamentalists in Azerbaijan may use military
action to enhance their positions by espousing anti-American rhetoric.

While Baku is thinking about its position in the Iranian crisis,
Armenia is worried that it may have a negative effect on the Karabakh
problem, in which the United States is increasingly trying to act as
a go-between. So far, the point at issue is whether Baku will grant
Karabakh the right to self-determination, and sanction a referendum,
the results of which are already clear. Only in this case will Armenia
agree to concessions, and return to Baku control over the areas of
the country, outside Karabakh, which are now occupied by its armed

For the time being, Aliyev rejects the idea of a referendum as a matter
of principle - if he agrees to it, he will weaken his position inside
the country and give the opposition an excuse to lash out at him.

Today, the Americans are emphasizing their role of an "honest broker"
at the Karabakh negotiations, and are trying to exert equal influence
on either side. But the question is if they are so interested in Azeri
territory as a bridgehead for military action against Iran, how can
they "compensate" Baku for the tremendous political risks involved?

At the very least, the United States could support the Azeri option
of the Karabakh settlement, which Armenia finds unacceptable. At most,
Washington may look the other way if Baku possibly attempts to resolve
the issue with military force. The leader of the Armenian opposition
Stepan Demirchyan said with good reason: "The consequences of a war
in Iran will be destructive for the whole region." He added that a
war in Iran would spell disaster both for Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia.

Although unlikely, even the possibility of such a war causes concern
in Armenia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations,
which have a vested interest in peaceful settlement of conflicts
on their territory. Thus potential US military intervention in Iran
may not only result in huge casualties, part of which will be caused
by Tehran's retaliation, but also exacerbate old seats of tension,
which have been almost extinguished. In short, it could trigger a
chain reaction with unpredictable consequences.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy general director of the Center for Political
Technologies in Moscow and wrote this commentary for the RIA Novosti
news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti.