Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev speaks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Baku, August 2013.
Ria Novosti / Courtesy Reuters

Few countries in Asia are in a more precarious foreign policy position than the Republic of Azerbaijan. On the western shore of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan lies between two larger, stronger, and unfriendly countries -- Iran and Russia -- and Azerbaijan’s pro-Western bent has done little to endear the country to its neighbors. How Azerbaijan chooses to conduct its foreign policy will have implications not only for its own national sovereignty, but also for the geopolitical order of the region. In this, the country faces two choices: to scale back its support for the Western-led liberal order, thereby cozying up to Iran and Russia; or to fully embrace the West and risk regional backlash. 

IRRITATING IRAN

That 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s nine million citizens identify themselves as Shia Muslim suggests that the country should have a natural bond with Iran, where the Shia vastly outnumber the Sunnis. In fact, Azerbaijan boasts a strong tradition of secularism and progressive thought, and the vibe of its capital city, Baku, is more London or Paris than Tehran. For this reason, the United States and the European Union have long sought the country as a strategic partner -- and, for now, Azerbaijan has been willing to cooperate, most crucially on matters of security and defense. For example, since 9/11, it has been an indispensable military partner to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, notably granting them overflight rights and helping forces to refuel. In addition, to enhance its military partnership with the West, the Border Guard of Azerbaijan, a federal law enforcement agency, has held a series of joint high-level seminars with NATO since 2011.

Baku’s cooperation with the West has challenged its dealings with Tehran. In particular, Iran distrusts Azerbaijan’s increasingly close relationship with Israel. In February 2012, Azerbaijan agreed to purchase $1.6 billion of sophisticated weapons from Israel, the single largest arms purchase in Azerbaijani history. Reports surfaced that Azerbaijan would allow Israel to use its air bases to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, an allegation Azerbaijan denied. In May 2012, Iran recalled its ambassador from Baku, citing religious insult. And in April 2013, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, visited Israel, sparking a new wave of tensions.

Still, Azerbaijan has realized that antagonizing Iran comes with risks. For one thing, Iran is home to 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis, and it has occasionally lashed out against them by suppressing their language and culture. Should Tehran wish to express its dissatisfaction with its neighbor’s foreign policy, the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Iran serves as the perfect scapegoat. For another, Tehran has the ability to sponsor radical Islamist terrorist networks within Azerbaijan. In March 2012, for example, Azerbaijani authorities detained 22 Iranians who had been sent by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard to infiltrate the country and carry out acts of terrorism. The closer Azerbaijan grows to the West and Israel, the more threatening Iran will become. 

RILING RUSSIA

Azerbaijan has an equally prickly relationship with its northern neighbor, Russia. Azerbaijan has expressed concern that it could be Russia’s next target; Azerbaijan, a smaller and weaker country than Russia, has seven billion barrels of crude oil reserves and roughly four trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, making it an easy target for imperial adventurism. Noting these fears, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, said in March that countries’ territorial integrity cannot be changed “without their consent.” 

In a turn of events that has alienated Moscow, the West’s sanctions on Russia have led the European Union to Azerbaijan as an alternative source of oil and gas. The country already serves as a significant energy supplier to several EU countries, including Italy, Germany, and France, and has appeared eager to increase its production to fill Russia’s void. Indeed, by 2018, Azerbaijan plans to deliver an additional 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year from its Shah Deniz gas field to European markets. This, on top of the nine billion cubic meters of gas Azerbaijan already delivers to Europe each year, would significantly enhance the continent’s energy security, especially given that it currently relies on Russia for 25 percent of its natural gas supplies.

Moscow, like Tehran, is unlikely to remain passive as Azerbaijan moves closer to the West. In fact, Russia has the potential to harm Azerbaijan substantially in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of land hotly contested by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russia, which supports Armenia, already keeps 4,000 soldiers near the territory, and both Russia and Armenia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance that considers an attack on one of its members an attack on all. Given that Azerbaijan is not a member of the alliance, Russia -- if provoked -- could stir up conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh as a pretext to intervene militarily on behalf of Armenia. In fact, in a 2013 interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, the commander of Russia’s 102nd military base in Armenia said that if Azerbaijan employed force in Nagorno-Karabakh, his base could “join the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the CSTO.” A Russian intervention would scare away regional investors, thereby dealing a major blow to the lifeblood of Azerbaijan’s economy: its energy sector. 

In light of Azerbaijan’s fraught relationships with Russia and Iran, the country may have no choice but to scale back its support of the West so as to mollify its neighbors. This should not mean, however, that it has to abandon the West completely. Instead, Azerbaijan must pursue a skillful balancing act: strengthening Western ties in areas where it is practical and non-controversial to do so, such as in education, climate change, refugee resettlement, and international peacekeeping, while assuring Iran and Russia that their interests will not be affected adversely. Of course, this balancing act is easier said than done. In reality, no matter how earnestly Azerbaijan attempts to chart this “middle course,” its unfriendly neighbors will likely continue to regard it with suspicion.

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  • JAMES YAN is President of the International Relations Society at University College London.
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