Azerbaijan jockeys for new geopolitical weight

What do the US and Israel have to gain by strengthening Azerbaijan’s naval capacities in the Caspian sea?

Israeli President Peres Visits Azerbaijan
Since Iran began to impose its drilling rigs on Azerbaijani waters, the country has sought to strengthen its naval capacities through weapons deals with Israel and training from the US and Blackwater [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – As the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran has loomed over the past several months, a great deal of attention has been paid to Israel’s close ties with Iran’s northern neighbour, Azerbaijan. And while those ties are indeed close, the two countries nonetheless have very different concerns vis-a-vis Iran – ones that make them unlikely to cooperate on any potential Israeli strike against Tehran.

The most visible part of Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation is in the weapons business. Azerbaijan and Israel announced a massive arms deal, worth US $1.6bn, earlier this year, fuelling speculation that Israel was using Azerbaijan as a proxy against Iran. That speculation spiked when the US magazine Foreign Policy reported that Israel was negotiating to use airfields in Azerbaijan in case of a strike on Iran.

But while Israel’s concern about Iran is Tehran’s nuclear programme and the fear that Iranian nuclear weapons could be used against them, Azerbaijan has displayed a less alarmist view of Iran’s nuclear intentions. Azerbaijan has opposed efforts to broaden sanctions against Iran and, as WikiLeaked US diplomatic cables have shown, have consistently rejected US entreaties to pressure Iran either publicly or privately on its nuclear programme.

Russia is a strategic ally of Armenia, and the US Congress… has imposed restrictions on arms sales to Azerbaijan. So, for world-class armaments, Israel is perhaps the best remaining option.

That Israel is Azerbaijan’s major weapons supplier has more to do with the particulars of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical situation than with a desire for a strong strategic partnership. A part of Azerbaijani territory, the region of Nagorno Karabakh, has been occupied by Armenian forces since a brutal war in the 1990s, and Azerbaijan’s top national priority is regaining its territory – by force, if necessary.

And as it builds up its military to prepare to retake Nagorno Karabakh, it can afford to buy the best. Azerbaijan’s economy, since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has boomed, and now its per capita GDP is over $10,000, putting it on par with Thailand, Colombia and South Africa. Its defence budget is reportedly over $3bn. Yet, it is cut off from many of the major arms markets. Russia is a strategic ally of Armenia, and the US Congress, led by members friendly to Armenian-American lobby groups, has imposed restrictions on arms sales to Azerbaijan. So, for world-class armaments, Israel is perhaps the best remaining option.

An uncomfortable demographic fact

However, Azerbaijan does have significant strategic concerns about Iran as well, and tensions between the two countries have the potential for creating a new flashpoint in the region – albeit one unrelated to Israel.

Tensions between the two countries are rooted in an uncomfortable demographic fact for Iran: about one-sixth of its population are ethnic Azeris (and according to some estimates, a quarter), concentrated in the northern regions bordering Azerbaijan. Since Azerbaijan became independent, Tehran has feared its potential influence on the frequently aggrieved Azeri minority. Nationalist politicians in Azerbaijan have fanned that flame by referring to their country as “North Azerbaijan” and the Azeri areas in Iran as “South Azerbaijan”.

“Among the weapons in the $1.6bn Israeli purchase were anti-ship missiles. And in April, Azerbaijan’s navy exercised against a foe that closely resembled Iran’s navy.

For years, Azerbaijan has complained about Iranian proselytisers in Azerbaijan – a largely secular country – and about Iranian television broadcasts – in the Azeri language – beamed into Azerbaijan. And this year, tensions between the two countries have increased dramatically. Azerbaijan’s security forces have rounded up dozens of “terrorists” that it says were working for Iran and preparing to attack American and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Two poets from Azerbaijan who went to Iran to participate in a poetry contest were apparently detained, but Iran has refused to offer any information about the two men’s whereabouts.

Perhaps most absurdly, conservative clerics in Iran organised several demonstrations at Azerbaijani consulates in Iran, protesting the holding of a “gay parade” during Baku’s hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest. This, in spite of the fact that there was never any such plan to hold such a parade. During the week of Eurovision, Iran recalled its Baku ambassador for consultations.

The tension has frequently manifested itself militarily, in addition to politically. The source of Azerbaijan’s wealth is the rich oil and natural gas fields in the Caspian Sea, but the borders of each country’s waters in the sea have not been delimited, leading to the possibility of disputes over petrowealth. The most famous such incident occurred in 2001, when an Iranian warship and fighter jets threatened a BP research vessel operating in what Azerbaijan considers its territorial waters in the Caspian Sea. But there have been several subsequent events.

In 2009, an Iranian drilling rig entered waters that Azerbaijan considered its own, and according to US diplomatic cables, Azerbaijan government officials fretted that they did not have the naval capacity to respond. As a result of that perceived threat, Azerbaijan has been building up its naval capacity. Among the weapons in the $1.6bn Israeli purchase were anti-ship missiles. And in April, Azerbaijan’s navy exercised against a foe that closely resembled Iran’s navy.

Caspian strategy?

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Analysts in Baku agree that Iran is the most significant threat in the Caspian. “How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?” asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. “Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare ‘go and install that well over there’. The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it.”

It’s not entirely clear what Iran’s strategy is in the Caspian. Throughout history, it’s had relatively little presence on the sea, which has been largely controlled by Russia since Peter the Great expanded his empire to the sea in the 18th century. In both economic and strategic terms, the Persian Gulf is far more significant for Iran.  

Part of Iran’s concern is that its nemeses in the US and Europe appear to be trying to gain a foothold in the Caspian. Major Western companies are already cooperating with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to exploit the oil and gas in the sea, and the European Union, and to a lesser extent the US, are working with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian, leading to Europe.

Even more worrying, from Tehran’s perspective, is the US military moves in the sea. Although the moves are not especially ambitious by American standards, they nevertheless have made a splash on the closed Caspian. The US has donated some patrol boats and training for Azerbaijani naval special forces. As recently as 2009, the infamous private military company Blackwater was conducting some of that training, according to WikiLeaked diplomatic cables. And the cables also show the US repeatedly pushing Azerbaijan to strengthen its navy, in particular its ability to conduct surveillance in their part of the Caspian. The 2009 incident involving the Iranian drilling rig, too, illustrated the deep, if behind-the-scenes, cooperation between the US and Azerbaijan on Caspian naval security.

The US role in training and equipping Azerbaijan’s navy has spooked Iran, said one naval analyst in Baku who asked to remain anonymous: “Iranians think they are a besieged fortress… The US cooperation here is nothing special but they build conspiracy theories about it.”

And the plot is about to get thicker. Iran recently announced the discovery of a large oil and natural gas field, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said “will change the energy and political balance around the Caspian Sea”. Indeed it could: while Iran hasn’t yet announced the exact location of the deposit, what information it has given suggests it could be in waters that Baku considers to be Azerbaijan’s.

Nevertheless, for Azerbaijan, conflict with Iran can only harm them. Iran’s naval and air forces in the Caspian, while not particularly strong, can still easily outgun Azerbaijan’s. And in spite of recent moves by Azerbaijan to bolster their naval capacity, the source of Baku’s wealth in the Caspian is still vulnerable to Iran. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan remains focused on regaining Nagorno Karabakh, which adventurism in Iran would not help.

So as much as a weakened Iran would benefit Azerbaijan, in case of a war there, Azerbaijan’s main goal will to avoid becoming collateral damage, and to bide its time until it can defend itself from its larger southern neighbour.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet, US News and World Report and Slate.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshuakucera