Azerbaijan is “bothersome” to the Mullahs and president of Iran given the fact that there live roughly 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Northern Iran, who look across the border to see their brethren living in a modern and Western nation. In Azerbaijan, most women do not cover themselves, the average person frequents restaurants and bars, and men and women walk hand in hand down the wide boulevards, squares and beach fronts of the capital, Baku, as well as throughout the nation…all anathema to the tenets and rule of the Mullahs and president of Iran.
In addition, Iran is crazed by the fact that two of Azerbaijan’s closest allies are the United States and Israel. Azerbaijan has close diplomatic, security, military and economic ties to both nations. The fact that Israel is Iran’s admitted mortal enemy exacerbates Iran’s ire.
Recently Azerbaijan purchased nearly $2 billion worth of arms from Israel, an act that Iran handled by recalling their ambassador and blasting Azerbaijan in its official media. The fact that last year they signed deals to build armored personnel carriers and advanced unmanned aerial vehicles caused such uproar from the Iranians that even the Azerbaijanis were surprised. This is not to mention the continued consternation and threats from Teheran each time there is a state visit from an Israeli official.
It is important to note that Azerbaijan does not buy and build these arms with the aim of attacking a much larger and militarily stronger Iran, but to protect itself from an Iranian ally, Armenia, which illegally occupies about 24% of internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory. This ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most dangerous frozen conflicts today.
To combat this perceived heresy, Iran has embarked on a wide ranging effort to attack Azerbaijan’s leaders personally, agitate Azerbaijani citizens in Iranian sponsored mosques, task their proxy Hezbollah to launch terror attacks and assassinations in Azerbaijan and generally meddle in Azerbaijani society, all for the express purpose of bringing Azerbaijan into the Iranian sphere.
Azerbaijan is necessarily hyper-vigilant in monitoring Iranian sponsored mosques; on occasion closing them when the rhetoric and recruitment of would be terrorists becomes too dangerous. It is interesting and quite tragic to note that the biggest critic of this policy is not Iran, but U.S. tax payer funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Go figure. In addition, Azerbaijani security forces have foiled plots by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah to blow up the embassies of Israel, the UK and the U.S., among other terrorist acts. This, while Iranian television and radio consistently beams anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric across the border with the aim of destabilizing the government and recruiting militants.
Azerbaijan’s star is on the rise. The nation is increasingly important to the energy security and diversity of global markets, as it builds more pipelines to pump their oil and gas to Western markets while importantly bypassing Russia. In fact, Azerbaijan and Turkey just inked an agreement to build the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, a major regional project to bring the Caspian natural gas closer to Europe. In addition, Azerbaijan’s importance has steadily increased, as transit routes in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan for American and NATO troops and material headed for Afghanistan are unreliable. Presently, roughly 40% of this material transits through Baku’s International Airport.
In a somewhat unexpected turn, Azerbaijan also hosted the “Eurovision” song contest, the world’s most-watched, non-sporting, event. The large numbers of European tourists along with scantily dressed pop stars next to Iran produced a violent reaction in Tehran. So much so that Iran tried to organize terrorist attacks during the event. What seems no less strange is the seemingly coordinated campaign in the European media bashing Azerbaijan for hosting the contest. Cheesy pop-music brings together strange bedfellows, it seems.
Perhaps most importantly, given what now seems like a deeply troubled Arab Spring, Azerbaijan is one of our few reliable, stable and normal Muslim friends and allies.
If I could offer my former colleagues in Congress some advice…remember that although you represent constituencies in your respective states, Congress has a dual role. Congress must also represent the best interests on the U.S. In other words pay more attention to Iran’s U.S. friendly neighbors and support them. It behooves us and is the right thing to do.
McMahon is a former Democratic member of Congress from New York who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, subcommittee on Europe. He is a noted lecturer on Turkey and the Caucuses. In October he will be presenting at the Baku Humanitarian Forum in Azerbaijan. He is currently co-chair of the public policy practice at the New York based law firm Herrick Feinstein.