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

A Rock and a Hard Place

Azerbaijan's Precarious Foreign Policy Position

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 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.

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