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Iran’s Threat to Azerbaijan

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Recently Iran held large-scale military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan. It was a way to threaten the Azeris, to remind them that Iran’s powerful military was right next door, and obliquely to signal Iran’s unhappiness with Azerbaijan for maintaining close ties to Israel. A report on Iran’s worries about Azerbaijan’s alliance with Israel, is here: “Why we should care about threats to Azerbaijan,” by Jonathan S. Tobin, Israel Hayom, October 10, 2021:

Most Americans couldn’t find Azerbaijan on a map. The former Soviet republic is located in between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, and has as its neighbors the republics of Georgia and Armenia – other former captives of the tsarist and Communist empires – as well as the southern reaches of the Russian Federation ruled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. To its south is Iran, a country that counts a third [actually, 30%] of its people as ethnic Azeris. All of which is to say that although this part of the world is largely unknown to Americans, it’s a fairly dangerous neighborhood.

So when Iran deployed a large portion of its army and conducted military exercises close to the Azeri border last month, the people of that much smaller country and its government, located in the ancient city of Baku, held their breath. For all of its obscurity and remoteness, the security of Azerbaijan is an issue that ought to concern more than the 10.2 million people who live there.

Understanding the complicated politics of the Caucasus region isn’t easy. Nor is all of what’s going on there directly connected to issues that concern the security of the Middle East, the West or the United States. But Azerbaijan’s current dilemma illustrates the ripple effect of actions taken elsewhere. That country’s conflicts with its neighbors in Armenia and Iran, as well as with Russia, cannot be viewed in isolation. More to the point, seemingly unrelated actions taken by other countries that do not, at least on the surface, have much to do with them, such as America’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan or the Biden administration’s stubborn determination to revive former President Barack Obama’s policies aimed at appeasing Iran, are actually having serious consequences on the ground that cannot be ignored.

The first thing to understand about the borders of the countries in the Caucasus is that, not atypically, they were often drawn with little concern for the loyalties of the local populations. Just as a huge chunk of Iran is populated by Azeris who are considered suspect by Tehran, a portion of Azerbaijan – a region called Nagorno-Karabakh – is heavily Armenian. The neighboring republic of Armenia has coveted the territory since the breakup of the Soviet Empire 30 years ago, and it has been the cause of intermittent and sometimes bloody fighting since then. In this conflict, Russia has been supportive of the Armenians while Turkey has backed the Azeris. The Azeris have defended their sovereign territory from what they consider to be a foreign invasion while Armenians talk about a long struggle that dates back more than a century to the genocide perpetrated against them by Turkish Ottomans.

Iran’s rulers are deeply concerned with the minorities that constitute more than 50% of the country’s population – the Kurds, the Arabs, the Balochis, and the Azeris – that have intermittently demonstrated their separatist desires. The three million Balochis, in the far east of Iran, are Sunnis, and for both sectarian and ethnic reasons bristle under Iranian dominance; they want, ideally, to join the nine million of their fellow Balochis in Pakistan, to create an independent Balochistan. This past January, the Iranians hung Javid Dehgan, a Balochi militant, for having killed Revolutionary Guard members. Other Balochis, members of the Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl, have been responsible for several recent attacks on Iranian security forces in the province of Sistan-Balochistan.

Similarly, the Arabs in Khuzestan, on the Persian Gulf, where 85% of Iran’s oil and 60% of its natural gas are produced, have repeatedly rioted against the central government. The Iranians claim there are only two million Arabs in Khuzestan; the Arabs claim there are five million of them. Whatever their number, the Khuzestanian Arabs have long complained of discrimination by the Persians. In 2005, there were mass riots and mass arrests of 25,000 people in Khuzestan, and many Arabs were summarily executed. Arrests, torture, and executions have continued to imperfectly keep the peace. There were more riots in 2007, followed by more repression; in 2015, there were a wave of arrests made so as to head off any tenth-anniversary revolt; the rage remains. But if those Khuzestanian Arabs were supplied directly with arms, by the Saudis or the Emiratis, and with the money to buy additional arms and to outfit and pay Arab fighters from outside, they could cause a great deal of destruction to the oilfields and thus to the Iranian economy.

The Kurds in Iran are another worry for Tehran. After World War I, the Kurdish people in the Middle East were promised by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) a large degree of autonomy, with the promise of future independence. But Ataturk managed to undo that promise in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), and the Kurds — who number about 45 million people — were instead split among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. There are about ten million Kurds in Iran, about 12% of the population. The rulers in Tehran remember with dread the last violent uprisings by Iranian Kurds, in 1979, which were ferociously crushed, with at least 30,000 Kurds killed. Iran has to keep large numbers of troops in the Kurdish areas, and must continually worry about the possible threat of peshmerga volunteers from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who might make their way to help their fellow Kurds in Iran.

But of all the minorities, it is the 25 million Azeris — about 30% of the population – who most worry Tehran. There are, in fact, more than twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. The Azeris in Iran have not been well treated. The Iranian government has banned the teaching of the Azeri language and literature in Iranian schools. When, in 2015, the Iranians broadcast programs that mocked the Azeri accent and language, this alone led Azeris, already on the edge, to demonstrate in many cities, shouting such slogans as “stop racism against Azeri Turks,” “long live Azerbaijan,” and “end the Persian racism,” in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, and Zanjan, and even Tehran itself. Civil unrest among the Azeris is a given.

Jonathan Tobin continues:

Why is Jerusalem involved in this mess?

Simply put, the Jewish state is, as it has been throughout its modern existence, looking for allies with common interests. In this case, that means a common fear of Iran. The connection with Azerbaijan also gives Israel some leverage in its always complicated relationship with Russia and even with Turkey, whose authoritarian Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is deeply hostile to Israel, yet regards Iran as a more potent threat to its security.

For the Azeris, as with the Gulf state Arabs who have embraced Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, Israel is a vital ally against Iran and a useful source of military equipment and training. By helping the Azeris hold their own against more powerful foes, Israel has given the Islamist regime in Tehran, which continues to dream of regional hegemony and of perpetrating nuclear genocide against the Jewish state, a reason for caution. Indeed, Jerusalem has placed both a painful thorn in Iran’s side and undermined Russia’s influence. Though it has largely flown underneath the radar of the international press, the alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan has flourished.

This has created a balance of power in the Caucasus that has, despite occasional efforts by Armenia to overturn it, remained relatively stable. But like the ripples that emanate from a rock thrown in a body of water, the impact of other seemingly unrelated actions has the potential to overturn it all or at least encourage miscalculations that may lead to bloodshed.

While the Biden administration seems to believe that its retreat from Afghanistan is just a matter of bad optics, the implications of the collapse of an American ally are more than theoretical. Anything that weakens the United States and strengthens those pledged to continue waging war against the West – both figuratively and literally, as is the loss of a treasure trove of American military equipment to the Taliban – becomes noticed by those who share such goals.

So it was hardly surprising that in the aftermath of that disgraceful episode, Iran began flexing its muscles. Already emboldened by President Joe Biden’s feckless attempts to bribe them to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal in talks being conducted in Vienna, the Iranians decided to send a message to the Azeris. By mobilizing its forces on the border and conducting exercises, Iran was telling the Azeris that their good relations with Israel and the United States are no defense against Iran’s military might.

And in case the Azeris didn’t understand the implications of this gesture, Iran let it be known that the second phase of the effort was code-named Operation “Fatehan-e Khaybar” or “Conquerors of Khaybar.” The reference to Khaybar is telling; it’s the name of a battle that took place in 628 CE in which the early Muslim caliphate led by the Prophet Muhammad wiped out the Jewish tribes that lived in part of what is now Saudi Arabia.

Far from being intimidated, the Azeris think the Iranians are bluffing. In a gesture clearly intended to convey their confidence in their ability to defend themselves, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev paid a visit earlier this week to the city of Jabrayil, which was recaptured by his forces last year after it was occupied for a time by Armenian-backed separatists. To reinforce his point, the Azeris staged a photo opportunity in which Aliyev was pictured fondly patting an Israeli-made Harop drone, a weapon that had helped his army defeat the Armenians.

In the face of Iran’s threatening behavior – those military exercises on the border with Azerbaijan — Aliyev chose to flaunt his close military relations with Israel. The Azeris in Azerbaijan know how vital Israeli weapons and training were to their victory in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. And so do the Azeris inside Iran, which must make Tehran nervous about their loyalties in the ongoing conflict between Iran and Israel.

In response, Iran sent its foreign minister to Moscow to confer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss their mutual displeasure with the Azeris.

This is the sort of saber-rattling that could lead to another war. But, thanks to the Israelis, the Azeris think that they are in a good position to stand up to Iran and remind Russia that their interference must be kept to a minimum. Aliyev understands that Iranian demands that he drop ties with Israel would leave his country defenseless. And despite its posturing, Iran knows it can’t afford to let animosity with Azerbaijan get out of hand since the rogue regime in Tehran is already up to its neck in risky terrorist conflicts elsewhere.

Israeli weapons were key not only to Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia, but continue to be essential to its survival. Without Israeli weapons, intelligence sharing, and military training, Azerbaijan would be easy prey for an aggressive Iran, determined to crush Azerbaijan, and in so doing, hoping to end its appeal for Azeri separatists inside Iran. Tobin thinks that Iran will not go to war with Azerbaijan, even if that country continues to maintain close ties to Israel, because it has too much on its plate already, supporting the terrorist groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Iraq. Iran doesn’t need another drain on its resources and attention, nor should it be providing a reason — an excuse — for Israel, coming to the aid of Azerbaijan, to make war on Iran and completely destroy its nuclear program. Furthermore, were Iran to go to war with Azerbaijan, the Azeris, who make up a third of the Iranian population, could well take the side of, and try to help, their fellow Azeris – a risk of subversion that Tehran wants to avoid.

To the extent that Americans pay any attention to these events, the sheer complexity of these entangling alliances may cause them to regard the whole issue as one they should ignore. The United States, whose security is a function of continents and oceans, has often preferred to regard foreign affairs as a problem that others should worry about. But the obvious conclusions to be drawn from recent events are significant.

The strength demonstrated by Israel and Azerbaijan should be enough to keep the situation from escalating. Still, the reason why things threatened to get out of hand in the first place was the perception of American weakness and the encouragement that perception gave to Iran and other Islamists. “Leading from behind,” as Obama and Biden seem to think is wise, is actually the most dangerous kind of defense and foreign policy that can be imagined, both for Americans and for those who look to them for leadership.

The Americans, despite their much-ballyhooed pivot from the Middle East toward China as the next great foreign threat, should not forget Iran’s continuing regional aggression, through its system of proxies and allies – the Houthis in Yemen, the Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now, too, Hamas in Gaza. The Bidenites have demonstrated weakness both in their confused rush to the exits in Afghanistan, and in their concessions made to Iran at the negotiations in Vienna, in a vain attempt to persuade Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has pocketed these concessions and asked for still more. Tehran has now demanded that the U.S. should release at least $10 billion of frozen Iranian funds if it wants Iran to resume nuclear talks. The perceived weakness of the Bidenites has also led Iran to hold military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan, meant to intimidate the Azeris and warn them not to become too close to Israel. Fortunately, Azerbaijan, with the most powerful military in the region on its side – the IDF – has refused to be rattled. In the face of Iranian threats, the Israel-Azerbaijan alliance will only be strengthened.

Iran is particularly worried about two things: First, a strong Azerbaijan would naturally encourage Azeri separatists inside Iran to work toward an enlarged Azeri state, with Azeri-populated areas of Iran becoming part of Azerbaijan. Second, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could allow the IDF to establish bases in the country, making it much easier for Israel to launch air and missile strikes at Iran’s nuclear facilities from bases 1200 kilometers closer to the Islamic Republic than are those in Israel. The recent military exercises by Iran did have an effect, but it was the very opposite of what the Iranians had expected. Instead of scaring Azerbaijan into dropping its alliance with Israel, that military alliance has remained solid. Azerbaijan views Iran, correctly, as keeping in thrall 25 million of the Azeri people; Iran is thus the permanent enemy of Azerbaijan, just as it is of Israel. And there is nothing Iran can do, including those recent military exercises, to weaken the alliance between the two.

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