Tangle in the Caucasus

Iran and Israel Fight for Influence in Azerbaijan

A mosque and the city waterfront are reflected in a new building in Baku (David Mdzinarishvili / Courtesy Reuters)

As Iran’s progress on its nuclear program continues unabated, 2013 may well mark the climax of the long-standing impasse between the Islamic Republic and the West. Hopes for a diplomatic solution are fading, and an Israeli or a U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear program seems increasingly likely. The potential fallout from such an action for the United States, Europe, and the Middle East has been the object of frequent speculation; far less discussed, although no less pertinent, is what a violent confrontation would mean for the South Caucasus -- an area just north of Iran where the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West is already palpable in everyday life. Long considered a powder keg, the region, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, is once again on the brink.

At the center of the tensions in the region lies Azerbaijan, a country with firm historical and cultural connections to Iran but one whose interests have overlapped with those of Israel, the Islamic Republic’s mortal enemy. During his visit to Baku last October, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described his country’s relationship with Azerbaijan as “brotherly and very deep,” drawing on the two countries’ shared ethnic and religious heritage. (Ethnic Azeris populate much of the northwest region of Iran, which is also known as Azerbaijan, and both countries are predominantly Shia.) Ahmadinejad’s statement, however, blatantly misrepresented the current state of affairs; today, it is not historical affinity but rather intense suspicion and rivalry that shape ties between Baku and Tehran. The same month Ahmadinejad made the statement, a court in Baku gave lengthy prison sentences to 22 Azerbaijanis charged with spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and plotting to carry out attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, in December, Tehran kicked up a fuss after ethnic separatists from the northwest Iranian region

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