FPA Blogs: Baku Protests Foreign Policy’s Assertion of Airbase Access for Israel

It’s just so hard to launch an international bash these days. Everyone’s a critic. Just ask Azerbaijan.

Preparations for Eurovision, one of Europe’s biggest song contests to be held in May in Baku, are regularly sidetracked either by criticism of the country dismal human rights record, or allegations of the country’s silent involvement in Iran-Israeli nuclear crisis, though the government continues to deny any role.

Last week, Foreign Policy published an article by foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry that suggested Azerbaijan has expanded its military cooperation with Israel. The article quoted anonymous U.S. officials saying that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its airbases, or, as one of the author’s high-ranked sources phrased it: “The Israelis have bought an airfield, [...] called Azerbaijan.”


Azerbaijan-Iran Tensions Continue, Iranian Journalist Arrested

BAKU - Anar Bayramli, reporter for Iranian Sahar TV channel has been arrested on drug possession charges on Feb. 17 in Azerbaijan. On Feb. 20, court sentenced Bayramli for two months of pre-trial detention.

According to the news reports, police has found 0.387 of heroin in Bayramli’s jacket. The journalist denies allegations and claims that police officers planted the drugs. According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report, Binagady District Court sentenced Bayramli for two months. If convicted, he can be facing up to three years.

This is not the first case of journalist imprisonment in Azerbaijan. Within the last years a number of journalists, editors and bloggers have been arrested and served different detention terms. In its 2012 report Freedom House has ranked Azerbaijan ‘not free’ describing it as “the region’s most repressive regime.”

Bayramli’s case also occurs amidst increasing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijani authorities unveiled an allegedly Iran-backed terroristic group, which planned attacks on a number of Israeli officials. Soon after that, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Azeri ambassador to hand him a protest note against Azerbaijan providing ground for Mossad agents.

Sahar TV, Iranian broadcast channel that employs Bayramli, has been repeatedly accused of spreading pro-Iranian propaganda by Azerbaijani authorities.

Azerbaijan — A Scene For Israeli-Iranian Spy Games


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.

Iranian Dream

As any developing country Azerbaijan is a land of contrasts. There is Baku, with its street lights, numerous luxurious hotels and posh boutiques and there are regions. The video I saw today on Radio Liberty is a no-comment one. It shows Azerbaijani city on the border with Iran. And hundreds of people trying to get out of the country. Yes, you are seeing people who are looking for a better life... in Iran.

Watch the video here: