With the prospect of an Israeli-American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Azerbaijan appears to be dragged in the conflict by becoming a scene for Israeli-Iranian spy games. According to recent news, the post-Soviet country is hosting dozens of Mossad agents and has arrested alleged Iranian terrorists suspected of attacks on the Israeli figures. Although Azerbaijani authorities haven’t openly taken sides in the possible conflict, their position is becoming more obvious with increased tensions with Tehran.
Azerbaijan and Iran have a long history of mutual hostility. The two countries used to be part of the Safavi Empire. Later Russo-Persian Wars divided them, leaving 9 million Azeris in modern-day Azerbaijan and an estimated 20 million in northern Iran, which Azerbaijanis call southern Azerbaijan. However, ethnic kinship between Azerbaijani population in Iran and in Azerbaijan is seen as a risk by Iranian authorities.
Today, the Azerbaijanis of Iran are often subject to oppression and human rights violations. They’re not allowed to study in their native language. Their activists are detained and executed on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani authorities always voted against UN’s resolutions to stop ethnic minority oppressions in Iran.
Another point that adds to already difficult relations is Iran’s partnership with Armenia – Azerbaijan’s biggest enemy. The country, which occupied Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, is in close economic cooperation with Tehran.
Iran is also seen as a potential Islamic influence by Azerbaijan’s secular government.
In November 2011, Rafig Tagi, an Azerbaijani writer who published an anti-Islamic article in 2006 and was known for his anti-Iranian views, has been stabbed on his way home in Baku. He later died in the hospital. Azerbaijani media sources quickly reminded the public about the fatwa (proclamation) issued by senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Lankarani six years earlier. Although official Tehran denied any connection, the cleric’s son released a statement congratulating the Muslim world for the writer’s death.
None of these events seemed to bother official Baku as much as they should have… at least not until war loomed on the horizon.
Tension between the neighboring countries increased within the last couple of years with Azerbaijan’s crackdown on religious and pro-Iranian groups. The incident was openly condemned by Iranian clerics.
It continued to grow in 2012 when last month Azerbaijani and Iranian hacker groups exchanged attacks on a handful of official sites in each other’s country.
On Jan. 24 Azerbaijan’s National Security forces had foiled a two-man terrorist group that planned attacks on country’s prominent Jews for alleged reward of $150,000 from Iranian intelligence. According to the reports, two Azerbaijani citizens have been arrested on connection to alleged killings. Even though Tehran has denied any connection to this incident, it was more than enough to infuriate Azerbaijan.
On Feb. 1 a 15-minute video report on ATV, Azerbaijani’s state-controlled channel, reminded the public about the long, difficult history of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. The narrative underlined Iran’s “political jealousy” toward its neighbor and the “dirty ways” of the “Mullah regime.”
In addition, a group of Azerbaijani lawmakers proposed to rename the country as Northern Azerbaijan the following day—a clear message meant to annoy Iran.
On the other side there is warm Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship. Despite the fact that Organization of Islamic Conference doesn’t recognize Israel as a country and thus restricts Azerbaijan from having a diplomatic presence there, one-fifth of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan. This strong economic cooperation has boosted Israel to one of Azerbaijan’s five biggest partners in only 10 years and is also often criticized by Iranian authorities.
When the London Times published an article on Feb. 11 about an anonymous Mossad agent nicknamed Shimon Iran reacted quickly. According to the agent, Mossad has increased its presence in Azerbaijan in recent years so it would be closer to Iran.
The next day, Iran summoned the Azeri ambassador and gave him a protest note, which angered official Baku. The country’s foreign ministry called Iran’s allegations a “slander” and an “absurd reaction.”
Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has always announced impartiality in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, this time it seems to be dragged in it nevertheless.
It is still not clear whether Azerbaijan will allow the allies to use its military bases, which the U.S. has been using for its Afghanistan mission or whether it will openly admit its involvement in a military operation against its powerful neighbor anytime soon. However, one of the factors Azerbaijan will need to take into consideration is safety of its people on both sides of the border.