Iran, Azerbaijan, And Turkey: Zero Problems? Zero Chance
By Robert Tait,
It hardly looked like the embodiment of a
quiet-neighborhood policy. First Iran's top military commander warned
Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, in language that brooked no diplomacy that
he faced a "grim fate" for betraying "Islamic principles."
Major General Hasan Firuzabadi, the chief of the armed forces general staff,
claimed he'd been misquoted.
Then the head of an influential committee in Iran's parliament
announced that the de facto head of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),
Murat Karayilan -- a man sought by Turkey for "terrorist" activities -- had been
captured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Kandil Mountains.
Unsurprisingly, each story created a stir in the countries next door -- before
promptly being denied by Iran.
Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of Iran's general staff, had not in fact
declared that "the people's awakening cannot be suppressed" or accused Aliyev's
government of "giv[ing] freedom to the Zionist regime [Israel] to meddle in
[his] country's affairs," according to a statement issued by the Iranian Embassy
in Baku. Nor had he accused Aliyev of giving "command to bar Islamic rules."
Such quotes -- despite their wide attribution -- were the result of a "media
misunderstanding," the statement said.
So too, it seems, were reports carried by Iranian news agencies of Alaeddin
Borujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament's Foreign Affairs and Security
Committee, announcing the arrest of Karayilan, widely seen as the PKK's No. 2
figure behind Abdullah Ocalan, currently serving a life sentence in Turkey.
With the Turkish media in a frenzy and Turkey's foreign
minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, calling his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi for
clarification, Iran again backtracked. Borujerdi told Turkey's ambassador to
Tehran that he had been misquoted and had actually said that "it would be better
had [Karayilan] been captured," according to the Istanbul newspaper "Today's
A Warning Shot?
Azerbaijan's official nervousness led to the arrest earlier this
year of the AIP's leader, Movsum Samadov, who vehemently criticized the ban and
then called on his website for Aliyev to be toppled.
So was it all just an unfortunate communication breakdown?
Not in the view of many Azerbaijani and Turkish observers, who believe it
followed a well-trodden path of Iran's Islamic regime playing diplomatic
hardball. Nor did it wash with Azerbaijan's government, whose relations with
Tehran have long been tense.
Firuzabadi's purported remarks prompted the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry to
deliver an official protest to the Iranian Embassy in Baku.
Then Azerbaijani police arrested three members of the banned Islamic Party of
Azerbaijan (AIP), a radical group that Baku claims is funded by Tehran with the
aim of creating instability.
The three -- party Deputy Chairman Arif Qaniyev, Ramin Bayramov, the editor of
an Islamist news site, and party member Abgul Suleymanov -- were initially
charged with illegal possession of weapons and drugs.
But in fact the arrests -- and Firuzabadi's comments -- had a wider context. A
joint statement from the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry and
Prosecutor-General's Office said they were also suspected of "hostile activity
against Azerbaijan" -- apparent code language for being in the pay of Iran.
Iran's Islamist Front
Accusations by Azerbaijan of Iranian interference, voiced periodically since the
Azeris' independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, have intensified recently.
Baku has accused Tehran of being behind an increasing number of protests against
Aliyev's secular, Western-backed regime. These include demonstrations organized
on Facebook in March and a rally staged outside the Education Ministry in
December 2010 in response to the Azerbaijani ban on Islamic hijab in schools.
Azerbaijani political analyst Arastun Orujlu says the latest arrests, unlike
Samadov's, are directly related to Iran's actions and aimed at sending a signal
to Tehran. While the Azerbaijani authorities "cannot arrest Firuzabadi," they
can arrest "those whom they consider to have close ties with Iran. By this way
they also send a message to Iran."
Vafa Gulzade, president of the Baku-based Caspian Policy Studies Foundation and
a former Azerbaijani national-security adviser, believes Iran yearns for an
Islamic republic to be established in Azerbaijan.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran immediately began an aggressive
policy against Azerbaijan," Gulzade says. "First, it was an attempt to export
the Islamic religion, Hizballah-style, to Azerbaijan. A lot of Iranians came to
Azerbaijan and spent a lot of money and arranged cells of Hizballah in the whole
territory of Azerbaijan. Iran is continuing this job, to create in Azerbaijan
cells and to support groups of Azerbaijanis for Iranian groups."
Baku's suspicions are fueled by the strong ethnic, religious, and cultural links
between Azerbaijan and Iran. The modern Azerbaijani state was once part of Iran
before being annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Nearly nine out of 10 Azeris
share Iran's official Shi'ite Islamic faith. And most tellingly, Azeri -- a
language close to Turkish -- is spoken by around a quarter of Iran's population,
mainly in the northern provinces bordering Azerbaijan.
Yet these common bonds mean the suspicion cuts both ways. Iran feels threatened
by Azerbaijan's close alliance with Tehran's two arch-enemies, the United States
and Israel, and with NATO. Azerbaijan provides around 20 percent of Israel's oil
supplies while Baku recently purchased Israeli weapons worth an estimated $300
For Tehran, such links provide its Western foes with the perfect launching pad
to foment division within its own population.
As the Texas-based think tank Stratfor noted in March: "Tehran...is concerned
about Baku's use of its links to certain parts of Iran's ethnic Azerbaijani
population to sow discord within Iran and serve as a launching point for the
West into Iran. Tehran most recently accused Baku of such actions in the Green
Movement's failed attempt at revolution in 2009. Geopolitically, the two
countries' strategic interests often clash. Iran has strong ties with Armenia
(Azerbaijan's foe), while Azerbaijan has good relations with the West, and
political and military ties to Israel -- both of which are uncomfortable for
The idea that Israel could use the Azerbaijanis as a potential
fifth column against Iran echoes a similar suspicion voiced in the past about
Israeli infiltration of the Kurdish populations in Iran and Iraq. Indeed, senior
officials with Israel's foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, have spoken openly
of having a presence in Iran's Kurdish areas.
Israel's Shimon Peres visits Baku -- and makes Tehran nervous
The truth of this, according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political
commentator with Israeli citizenship, is hard to establish. "According to
reports in the Israeli press, Israeli military training and communication
companies were active in Kurdistan a number of years ago but whether they or the
Mossad continue to be there is unclear," he told RFE/RL in an e-mail.
"Iraq as a whole is an area of interest for the state of Israel, because of its
importance to the Arab world, Iran, and the United States. It would be natural
and logical for Israel to want to have influence there," Javedanfar continued.
"Whether it can is another question. With Israel's increasing diplomatic
isolation, more countries in the Middle East are moving away than toward Israel
under [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu."
Iran: 'The Kurds For Syria'
But according to Sadraddin Soltan, a Baku-based analyst on Iranian affairs,
Tehran is pressuring Azerbaijan to send a signal to Baku's more powerful ally,
Turkey, over one of Iran's key foreign-policy preoccupations, Syria. The Turkish
government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, along with the United States, bitterly
criticized the brutal suppression by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- Iran's
close friend -- of mass protests against his rule.
"Tehran is irritated by all these developments. Iran is closely following
NATO-Azerbaijan, U.S.-Azerbaijani ties," Soltan says. "Through Firuzabadi's
statements, Iran is exerting pressure on Turkey and the U.S. [and sending the
message] that it can create obstacles to their ally Azerbaijan, just as they
[the Turks] press the Syrian regime."
The same belief has gained ground in Turkey to explain Iran's recent behavior
over the recent phantom PKK arrest. The claim followed reports of recent Iranian
incursions into Iraq to root out members of the Party for a Free Life in
Kurdistan (PJAK), a militant Iranian-Kurdish group (allied to the PKK) that had
been mounting an effective sabotage campaign.
Even more pertinently, according to Turkish commentators, is that it preceded an
anticipated offensive by Turkey in the coming weeks against PKK strongholds.
Intelligence cooperation against Kurdish militants has been part of a general
rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran in recent years. Knowing Turkish
intentions to act against the PKK, some believe, Iran saw its chance to indulge
in some underhand diplomacy.
"Iran is sending a message to Turkey," wrote Markar Esayan in "Today's Zaman."
"A message saying it is willing to take action against the PKK in return for
concessions by Turkey regarding the Syrian issue. To Turkey [the message is] you
have a dominant role in the uprisings in Syria, which is an indispensible ally
to us in the region. If you give up on Syria, we will deal with the PKK
together; otherwise, we will become allies with the PKK."
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this
report from Baku
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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