This week, there was an article on Lobelog.com, that suggested that Israel and Saudi Arabia may be successful in undermining Iran’s relationship with Azerbaijan. And, suggesting that it may lead to a splintering of Iran, with Iran’s Azeris feeling marginalized and supported by the their relatives to the north in Baku. But, I have a different take on things. I have visited Baku (Azerbaijan) and here are some of my observations.
1) The Aliev regime is British backed, so (BTW) are the Mullahs in Iran, I don’t see them as fundamentally undermining each other with shared political backing (its tacit and not overt).
2) I saw a lot of trade between the countries and a lot of tourism in BOTH directions – again I see mutual economic interests. There was an Iranian products trade show there at the time. (Well attended). Lots of Iranian tourists. Iranians were spending money there (more money than Israelis or Saudis).
3) Yes, the Saudis and Israelis are in there too, but largely to offset Iranian overtures – but there is NO long-term strategic value here for either backer. If the mullahs disappear, so do the Israelis and Saudis. So, the Azeris are ‘using’ them; and milking them but don’t bring much value back to them. Iran’s mullahs would be shrewd to let this go on, because fundamentally its a bleeding of Israeli and Saudi resources (whereas Iranian involvement in Lebanon, has led to Shia linkages, and creation of a proxy force – directly in support of Iranian regional agenda i.e. a cheap extension of its military at much lower cost). An Azeri proxy for the Israeli/Saudi’s is nothing like a Lebanese proxy for Iran. Hezbollah is much more lethal.
4) What I saw, was a Shia-based Azeri nation, with fundamental historical and cultural linkage to Iran – food, poetry etc. This will endure. But also means, in real terms rank-and-file Azeris have strong (deep) Iranian lineage and linkages. Iran has a capability to establish deep influence at much lower cost than Israelis and Saudis, and probably has proxies that are invisible, and very lethal. And since Aliev is hated (as a dictator), and Israelis and Saudis are working with his regime; Iran has an opportunity to develop deeper influence via rank-and-file Azeris, with much greater consequence (check our Iran’s strategy in Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in charge).
5) I saw strong, Shia religious veins underneath the “western” veneer – which to me says that both Israeli and Saudi overtures are fundamentally undermined at its roots. Mosques and Friday prayers were well attended. Islamic connections with the Palestinian cause for example will Trump Israel’s influence among rank-and-file Azeris. Put another way, its more than Iran at play here.
Bottom-line, contrary to some of the analysis of the article, I see Iranian influence as overwhelming, and enduring. The Azeri economy is faltering, oil and gas production are down. Azeri elite will dance to anyone’s tune if there is money on the table right now. But, I don’t see Azerbaijan’s Mama Merya, letting her son Reza die in a war with Iran’s Mullahs. Won’t happen. I do see Mama Merya, letting her son Reza die to oust Aliev’s regime!
And, much like the (US, Israeli and Saudi support for) Kurds; nothing can be accomplished without Turkey. Turkey is a factor here too. Turkey could cut Azerbaijan’s oil and gas exports in a heartbeat. And remember, Turkey is helping Qatar ward off Saudi aggression. Turkey has all the cards. Lets not forget there was an attempted coup against Erdogan … we know who was behind it.
At the end of the day, let the Israeli’s and Saudi’s spend their money for influence, it won’t add up to much. In a war situation, Iran could consume Azerbaijan in a day – Baku is what 100 miles from Iran’s border? And neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia would be able to do a damn thing about it? Their planes would have to fly around Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey … Georgia … to even get to Baku!! Its an all round idiotic strategic concept. Circling Iran via Azerbaijan is a dumb idea, much like Kurdish independence.
One final comment, based on my observations, I see Aliev as an eventual dead cow. His days are numbered, and he knows it. He is not popular. Iranians could, if they wished to, create a ground swell to oust his regime. Which is why his family is buying assets in London and Dubai. The underlying economic situation has a poor long-term prognosis – the wells are running dry. To survive, Azerbaijan needs Iran more than Iran needs Azerbaijan i.e. for trade. Which is why Aliev will dance with everyone, but not fundamentally undermine relations with Iran or provide a platform for splintering Iran. I don’t see it.
Last, but not least, putting aside football stand chanting, Azeri’s are the most patriotic Iranians.