by Eldar Mamedov
If there is one feature for which neoconservatives are well known, it is their reckless disregard for reality, no matter how many times and how badly their policies have backfired–especially in the Middle East.
This feature was on full display in Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) CEO Michael Makovsky’s piece of advice to the Trump administration on how to deal with Iran. The piece, dissected by Jim Lobe and Derek Davison, is full of praise for Ronald Reagan’s “resolve” in dealing with the Soviet Union–obligatory in the neoconservative canon–and repetitive references to Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. There is, however, another element which deserves more attention: Makovsky’s idea that the U.S. strategy to counter Iran should include Azerbaijan. This is actually not the first time he advocated for such an approach: already in January 2017 he urged the then-fresh Trump administration to integrate the Caspian nation in a regional effort, together with the Persian Gulf monarchies, to isolate Iran.
As Makovsky makes clear, Azerbaijan’s value in this context would be threefold: as a Shia nation, it would provide cover to the anti-Iran coalition’s evident anti-Shia bias; the Azerbaijani government’s alleged interest in closer ties with the U.S. would make it available for such an effort; and, perhaps most importantly, closer cooperation with Baku would galvanize the sizable Azeri minority in Iran, with the ultimate aim of destabilizing the Tehran regime.
The problem with Makovsky’s approach, however, is that it is based mostly on wishful thinking, not realities on the ground.
First, despite the fact that the majority of the population of Azerbaijan is indeed nominally Shia, the secular authoritarianism of the regime of the President Ilham Aliyev has effectively marginalized Shia identity. Many Shia activists were arrested, due to their alleged ties to extremist organizations in Iran and plans to establish an Islamist regime in Azerbaijan–although none of these charges were proven in a fair trial. The harsh crackdown on Shia activists contrasted with a more lenient attitude toward Salafi missionaries, due to the latter’s emphasis on obedience to the ruler–a key asset for Azerbaijan’s autocratic leader. Only when hundreds of Salafised Azerbaijani radicals joined the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) did authorities in Baku realize the dangers of Salafist proselytizing. Against this background, far from reassuring the world’s Shias, Washington’s embrace of Baku would send the message that it welcomes only those of them who are willing to minimize their Shia identity.
Second, although the Azerbaijani government is willing to have friendly relations with the U.S., it is only prepared to do so on its own terms. Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran, relations between Baku and Tehran have improved. While it is by no means free of mutual suspicion, both sides have decided to work pragmatically on political dialogue, trade, and security. A few weeks ago Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Baku for a regular trilateral meeting with his Azerbaijani and Turkish counterparts. Russia is an additional factor in Aliyev’s careful balancing act. Any improvement in ties between Baku and Washington would be resented by Moscow, which has multiple leverage points over Baku–above all the conflict between Azerbaijan and Russian ally Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Relations with Washington, on the other hand, have soured over the years over Baku’s (unfounded) suspicions regarding American plans to promote a “velvet revolution” in Azerbaijan and over what was perceived in Baku as Washington’s waning appetite to stand by its allies against powerful regional players. What was seen as a failure to resolutely support Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 convinced the Azerbaijani elite that it should tread cautiously in its relations with its powerful neighbors. Thus, even though Baku would welcome closer ties with the U.S., it is doubtful it would do so at the price of upsetting Russia and Iran.
Third, Makovsky’s hope that Baku could galvanize irredentist passions among Iranian Azeris and weaken Iran from within is too far-fetched. This idea has been popular in anti-Iranian circles since the emergence of the independent Azerbaijani state after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it never materialized, except on the marginal fringes of the Iranian Azerbaijani community. There is no reason to believe such a plan would fare any better now than it did 25 years ago, when a stridently pan-Turkist, anti-Iranian government was in power in Baku.
Azeris account for at least a quarter of the population of Iran and are prominent in political, economic, clerical, military and cultural elites. Most of them–even those critical of the Islamic Republic–identify with Iran, not the Republic of Azerbaijan. The secession of what Azerbaijani nationalists refer to as the “southern Azerbaijan”, i.e. Azeri-majority areas of Iran, is out of the question. Even an attempt by Baku to pursue the issue would invite a retaliation from Tehran, which could try to mobilize Shia Islamists in Azerbaijan, support the Iranian-speaking Talysh separatists in the country’s south or tilt even more explicitly toward Armenia, Azerbaijan’s bitter foe.
Makovsky doesn’t address any of these potential pitfalls. Neither does he explain why the Azerbaijani government would act against its own national interest only for the sake of isolating and destabilizing Iran. As experience shows, however, neither a proven track record of past failure nor the inconsistencies and delusions inherent in their latest offensive against Iran are likely to deter neoconservatives from trying the same policies once again.