Neoconservative Delusions on Azerbaijan

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.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia effectively makes strong US-Aserbaijan relations impossible. The very strong Armenian lobby in the US hinders a strong relationship between Azerbaijan and the US.

  2. The Soviet Union clearly was fast approaching collapse during the second Reagan administration, yet foolish squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars on unnecessary weapons, by the US, proceeded unabated.

  3. Some people like Mike Makovsky are born stupid! Iran is made up many tribes like Turks or Azeris, Lor, Bluch and many others! These tribes with a common Farsi language and mostly Shias but different dialects are the most patriotic Persians that MF Stalin and imperialist Churchill couldn’t breakup their provinces from the mother country! Now this bozo Makovsky is trying to split Iran by using the US proxies like Azerbaijan! Something that people bigger than them haven’t been able to do for centuries!

  4. Eldar Mamedov is spot on. Not only Iran/Azerbaijan relations have improved, but they have reached a strategic dimension;Tehran no longer supports tiny Armenia on the Karabagh dispute and has officially rather approved Baku’s position. Reason why: Iran needs to consolidate its north flank, and needs Azerbaijan’s benevolence for the critical negociations on the future legal status of the Caspian Sea. A highly sensitive issue in Iran, as we see through domestic debates within the regime : conservatives oppose any capitulation, the government seeks a settlement with its neighbours in order to allow exploration and production of gas reserves. Moreover, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey are working hard for building consensus on sharing oil and gas exports and transportation in a way which is kept safe from american pressures. Something which is irritating Washington. In the mean time, however , clever Azeri president keeps a very astute balance in order to maintain his relations and active cooperation with Israel. He did not follow Ankara in its dispute on Gaza and carefully avoided any involvement

  5. Iranian leverage on Azerbaijan is far less influential than it wish or confidently believes it has. And the primary reason is that the modern Iranian statehood cannot accommodate the real extension of the ethnic diversity of its population. Simply look at the comments of the so called “Iranians” on this site. They refer to “tribes” living in Iran. For centuries the states in these lands were ruled by Turkish dynasties, maintaining ethnic balance. Modern Iran does not display such a potential.
    The Russians failed to deliver justice by maintaining balance in Caucasus, throughout the entire term of their presence .

    The EldarMamedovs and the likes may write whatever their masters tell them to write. 40 million people strong Azerbaijani Turks strive for Justice and the first power to offer just treatment will win its friendship. So far, none of the big powers offered even remotely just conditions.

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