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Azerbaijan Faces Iran Dilemma

Baku uncomfortable as its major ally confronts its southern neighbour.
By Kenan Guluzade
As tension grows between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear programme, agonised debate has begun in Azerbaijan about what stance the country should take if the crisis escalates and it is called on to join an anti-Iranian coalition.

Should it come to military action, many observers assume that the United States would want to use Azerbaijani territory for its troops. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter was quoted by the Azerbaijani information agency APA as saying that Azerbaijan would be a likely base from which the US would launch military strikes.

The US government has already paid for a radar station to be built in the south of the country, on the border with Iran.

However, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev has explicitly ruled out joining any anti-Iranian coalition. Speaking on an official visit to Washington on April 26, Aliev said, “Azerbaijan, of course, will not be engaged in any kind of potential operations against Iran, and our officials [have] made it very clear, including myself in the past… it’s time to stop speculating on this issue.

“We have a bilateral agreement with Iran which clearly says that the territories of our countries cannot be used for any danger towards each other.”

The non-aggression pact between Iran and Azerbaijan was signed two years ago in Tehran by the defence ministers of the two countries. During a visit to Azerbaijan by Iranian defence minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar in April, the two sides discussed implementing the agreement. The Iranian minister said a second agreement covering military cooperation could be signed if necessary.

Many Azerbaijani experts warning that the risks entailed in getting involved in any operation against Iran would be high.

Political analyst Zardusht Alizade says it could mean Baku losing all hope of regaining Nagorny Karabakh. “We have always called for a solution to the Karabakh problem which is within the framework of international law,” he said. “If we take part in an anti-Iran coalition, we will lose Karabakh. The US flouts international law and wants other countries to support it in doing so.”

Noting that Azerbaijan has no serious quarrels with Iran and obtains some of its electricity from that country, Alizade asked, “On what grounds would we join some mythical anti-Iran coalition?”

Hikmet Hajizade, a former Azerbaijani ambassador to Moscow who is now a political analyst with the opposition party Musavat, said Azerbaijan would be hit hard by any imposition of sanctions against Iran and trade would suffer. According to the Iranian embassy, trade between the two countries came in at an estimated 450 million dollars last year. Trading with Iran is the main source of income for people in the south of the country.

Hajizade pointed out that if the crisis escalates, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, an exclave cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan and whose border with Armenia is sealed, would be in particularly deep trouble, as it gets all its gas and electricity from Iran.

He said that if it came to war, Azerbaijan would have to deal with an influx of refugees from Iran - particularly ethnic Azerbaijanis - and would itself be vulnerable to attack.

“It would not be at all hard to break the backbone of the economy: all that would be required are several torpedoes… and two or three medium-range missiles,” Hajizade said, speculating that offshore oil platforms and the Sangachal terminal that supplies oil to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline would be targeted.

Most Azerbaijanis, like the Iranian state, are Shia Muslims, and a rise in tension could provoke an angry backlash from them. “There are too few pro-Iranian Islamists in Azerbaijan to destabilise the country, but there are enough of them to carry out various terrorist and diversionary acts,” said Hajizade.

However, some experts argue that it would be dangerous for Azerbaijan if Iran were to produce nuclear weapons, as the country - which currently has better relations with Armenia - would become even more powerful.

Parliamentary deputy Igbal Agazade argues that by supporting Washington, Azerbaijan will be choosing the lesser of two evils, and that it would be better to avert the Iranian threat and reap the political rewards. Agazade said that as a result, Baku might receive US support over the dispute over Karabakh and adjoining Armenian-held regions close to Iran.

“Membership of the coalition will mean greater defence for Azerbaijan against an Iranian threat, and will help in solving a potential humanitarian crisis,” argued Agazade.

During a two-day visit to Baku, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refrained from expressing an opinion on the position Azerbaijan should take in the current crisis, saying only that Iran is a peace-loving state and that Baku and Tehran are friends.

Visits to Azerbaijan by Iranian officials and President Aliev’s trip to the US give the impression that some serious horse-trading is going on over the Iran crisis.

Azerbaijan’s position can be compared with that of Turkey, which is similarly hesitant about strong action against Iran but reluctant to offend the United States. Turkey saw its relations with Washington deteriorate after it failed to offer support for the war in Iraq. As the crisis over Iran develops, the Baku authorities will be mindful of this experience.

Kenan Guluzade is deputy editor of Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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