Saudi Arabia and Iran Battle It out in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2017

by James M. Dorsey

It’s the pot calling the kettle black. As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle it with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Qatar, the kingdom and the Islamic republic are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East into the Caucasus.

The two countries’ latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself. Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’ s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country.

The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had enabled the Islamic republic to make inroads.

“Iran’s religious activities have become particularly successful,” said Azerbaijani journalist Kenan Rovshanoglu in a study of religious freedom in the country.

Published by Turan, an independent news agency, the study noted that 22 of Azerbaijan’s 150 madrassas or religious seminaries were controlled by Iran.

Iran and Azerbaijan have long tiptoed around each other with both countries concerned that the other could use its religious and/or ethnic affinities to stir trouble. Azeri speakers account for at least a quarter of Iran’s population.

Azerbaijan is, for its part, worried about Iran’s close ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked into a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Iranian concerns about Azeri nationalism were fuelled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top club in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity, chanted Azeri nationalist slogans three years ago during protests against the government’s environmental policy and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer .

Araz News, leaked in 2015 a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar  Karimian, the club’s former chairman, detailing how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”

Araz is operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time that Iraq was at war with Iran. A spokesman for NROA, Babek Chelebiyali, denied that his group had any association with the Mujahedeen and asserted that they were “opposite organizations.”

The letter said the groups were campaigning for a “study the mother tongue day.” It suggested that the mother tongue referred to was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by at most a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and southern Azerbaijan. The letter implied that the groups General Karimian was concerned included Azeri separatists.

The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racial attitudes towards Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Discussing Azerbaijani policy towards Iran, Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the Center for Applied Politics at Baku’s Western Caspian University, noted that Azerbaijan had no intention of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, but could not “disregard the future of the Azeris who reside in Iran.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp said in November that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” in East Azerbaijan that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the United States, and its allies, including Saudi Arabia. The announcement came weeks after Iran said that it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan that borders on Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is home to Azeris as well as Kurds.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column on Al Arabiya, the television network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) in which the government reportedly obtained a majority share as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption.

In an article entitled ‘Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?’, Ms. Al-Husseini, quoting an anti-Iranian Iraqi author, Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi, asserted that Azerbaijan feared that it would follow in the footsteps of Iraq where Iran allegedly had destroyed the Iraqi military and turned Iraqis into slaves who had been convinced “that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit (Imam) Hussain’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards.”

In a media environment that appears to be pre-occupied with supporting the government’s often sectarian-tinted, anti-Iran policy rather than reporting facts, Ms. Al-Husseini suggested that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s recent attendance of a cultural festival in the kingdom at King Salman’s invitation was part of an effort to resist Iranian encroachment.

Military delegations from the two countries earlier this month discussed closer military cooperation including holding joint military exercises “as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest,” according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties to Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 international agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, using Azerbaijani airbases had it opted for taking out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The agreement put an end to talk about a military strike.

The bottom line is that if Iran is seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to encircle Iran. The mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s belief that Iraq is Iran’s model for Azerbaijan is an Iranian suggestion that Lebanon is Israel’s model.

“Tel Aviv wants to Lebanonize (Azerbaijan) under a ‘new periphery doctrine.’ This means that Tel Aviv intends to create a new periphery region and encircle Iran through its presence in the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Region and Azerbaijan,” said Iranian analyst Salar Seifoddini. Seifoddini was referring to Israel’s policy of periphery that seeks to forge relations with those bordering on Israel’s enemies.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom. Reprinted, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. Photo: Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

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  1. I have visited Baku (Azerbaijan) and I have a slightly different take on a few things.

    1) The Aliev regime is British backed, so (BTW) are the Mullahs in Iran, I don’t see them as fundamentally undermining each other with shared political backing (its tacit and not overt).

    2) I saw a lot of trade between the countries and a lot of tourism in BOTH directions – again I see mutual economic interests. There was an Iranian products trade show there at the time. (Well attended). Lots of Iranian tourists. Iranians were spending money there (more money than Israelis or Saudis).

    3) Yes, the Saudis and Israelis are in there too, but largely to offset Iranian overtures – but there is NO long-term strategic value here for either backer. If the mullahs disappear, so do the Israelis and Saudis. So the Azeris are ‘using’ them; and milking them but don’t bring much value back to them. Iran’s mullahs would be shrewd to let this go on, because fundamentally its a bleeding of Israeli and Saudi resources (whereas Iranian involvement in Lebanon, has led to Shia linkages, and creation of a proxy force – directly in support of Iranian regional agenda i.e. a cheap extension of its military at much lower cost). An Azeri proxy for the Israeli/Saudi’s is nothing like a Lebanese proxy for Iran. Hezbollah is much more lethal.

    4) What I saw, was a Shia-based Azeri nation, with fundamental historical and cultural linkage to Iran – food, poetry etc. This will endure. But also means, in real terms rank-and-file Azeris have strong (deep) Iranian lineage and linkages. Iran has a capability to establish deep influence at much lower cost than Israelis and Saudis, and probably has proxies that are invisible, and very lethal. And since Aliev is hated (as a dictator), and Israelis and Saudis are working with his regime; Iran has an opportunity to develop deeper influence via rank-and-file Azeris, with much greater consequence (check our Iran’s strategy in Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in charge).

    5) I saw strong, Shia religious veins underneath the “western” veneer – which to me says that both Israeli and Saudi overtures are fundamentally undermined at its roots. Mosques and Friday prayers were well attended. Islamic connections with the Palestinian cause for example will Trump Israel’s influence among rank-and-file Azeris. Put another way, its more than Iran at play here.

    Bottom-line, contrary to some of the analysis of the article, I see Iranian influence as overwhelming, and enduring. The Azeri economy is faltering, oil and gas production are down. Azeri elite will dance to anyone’s tune if there is money on the table right now. But, I don’t see Azerbaijan’s Mama Merya, letting her son Reza die in a war with Iran’s Mullahs. Won’t happen. I do see Mama Merya, letting her son Reza die to oust Aliev’s regime!

    And, much like the (US, Israeli and Saudi support for) Kurds; nothing can be accomplished without Turkey. Turkey is a factor here too. Turkey could cut Azerbaijan’s oil and gas exports in a heartbeat. And remember, Turkey is helping Qatar ward off Saudi aggression. Turkey has all the cards. Lets not forget there was an attempted coup against Erdogan … we know who was behind it.

    At the end of the day, let the Israeli’s and Saudi’s spend their money for influence, it won’t add up to much. In a war situation, Iran could consume Azerbaijan in a day – Baku is what 100 miles from Iran’s border? And neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia would be able to do a damn thing about it? Their planes would have to fly around Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey … Georgia … to even get to Baku!! Its an all round idiotic strategic concept. Circling Iran via Azerbaijan is a dumb idea, much like Kurdish independence.

    One final comment, based on my observations, I see Aliev as an eventual dead cow. His days are numbered, and he knows it. He is not popular. Iranians could, if they wished to, create a ground swell to oust his regime. Which is why his family is buying assets in London and Dubai. The underlying economic situation has a poor long-term prognosis – the wells are running dry. To survive, Azerbaijan needs Iran more than Iran needs Azerbaijan i.e. for trade. Which is why Aliev will dance with everyone, but not fundamentally undermine relations with Iran or provide a platform for splintering Iran. I don’t see it.

    Last, but not least, putting aside football stand chanting, Azeri’s are the most patriotic Iranians.

  2. Good piece. But I can`t agree with you while calling #Azerbaijan “an authoritarian”. Because the country is free for any kind of political, media and multicultural activity.

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