Jun 5, 2023
Iranian Subversion in Azerbaijan Must Not Go Unchecked
BY JOSEPH EPSTEIN , ANALYST
With Armenia ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, the 30-year conflict between the two South Caucasian countries may finally be ending. Azerbaijan has won and will regain control over its territory and the greater region will see a rise in stability.
But peace and stability in the Caucasus is not in the interest of the empires sandwiching the region—Iran and Russia. Both countries, especially Iran, see a strong and stable Azerbaijan as a threat. Tehran is concerned with military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel, the strengthening of its regional competitor Turkey, and the potential of an Azerbaijani role in a secessionist movement of its own sizeable Azerbaijani minority. Moscow, for its part, fears losing influence in a region where it will have far less relevance once its "peacekeeping" role is no longer needed. Both Iran and Russia are opposed to an energy corridor through Azerbaijan that could see both countries bypassed as Caspian oil and gas are exported to Europe.
Iranian concern has been translated into action. Two weeks ago, while peace talks were being planned in Moscow between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Baku arrested an Iranian spy cell on its territory. The group was planning the assassination of prominent officials, plotting a coup, and disseminating "religious propaganda." This comes a mere month following the attempted assassination of an anti-Iranian Azerbaijani politician and four months after the storming of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Iran by an armed gunman. These are not isolated incidents. In the past several years, Tehran has sought to subvert Baku through the creation and support of the religious extremist Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan, the propagation of "radical-extremist religious ideas," and planned assassinations and terrorist attacks against Western, Israeli, and Jewish targets on Azerbaijani soil.
Iran's efforts at destabilizing the South Caucasus should not go unchecked. Azerbaijan's victory in the conflict against Armenia is not only a win for Baku, but for Iran's many adversaries as well. Azerbaijan has been a vital partner in checking Iranian aggression and in a military confrontation with Tehran, Baku could play a crucial role. While Azerbaijani officials have denied that it would allow Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities from its territory, reports citing Israeli officials have shown that Jerusalem has "permanently stationed" two F-35 fighter jets in Azerbaijan for exactly that purpose.
Baku's partnership with the West extends beyond combatting Iran. Unlike its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has not helped Russia evade Western sanctions despite the extreme profitability. In the case of Armenia, this has even included the procurement of chips used in Russian cruise missiles and other weapons systems and acting as a transit point for Iranian advanced attack drones to Russia.
Azerbaijan has taken the opposite approach. Last summer, Baku delivered precision-guided bombs that could be used by Ukrainian fighter jets, as well as 92-mm mortar rounds to Kyiv via Poland and Sudan. Additionally, Azerbaijan has been a major supplier of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and its state energy company SOCAR has provided free gas to Ukrainian ambulances and emergency vehicles.
The open shift against Russian policy has been made possible by two factors: decreased Russian capacity due to the war against Ukraine and a more stable position following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Historically, Russia—as well as the Soviet Union before it—has played both sides of ethnic conflicts in the region in order to keep both sides beholden to Moscow. However, by entangling itself in a Soviet-style war without Soviet capacity, Russia's ability to dictate policy to its neighbors has been greatly reduced.
But the greater nuisance to Russia is that Azerbaijan has served as an alternative to Russian energy exports, thus mitigating a key Russian bargaining chip used against the Europeans. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline bypasses Russia. Additionally, the prospective Trans-Caspian Pipeline that would go under the Caspian Sea and connect Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan would mean that Central Asian gas could be shipped to Europe circumventing both Russia and Iran.
Stuck between two major powers that see it as a threat, Azerbaijan must take steps to secure its own stability. A peaceful and civil integration of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh would go a long way in securing Western support and would be the first step towards true reconciliation with Armenia. If carried out successfully, it would mean that neither Russia nor Iran could use the conflict as a foreign policy tool to weaken Azerbaijan.
This prospect does not sit well with Tehran. Iran's goal is to overthrow the current secular government and replace it with an Islamist, anti-Western, anti-Israel regime. If Tehran should succeed, the United States, Europe, and Israel would lose a key energy supplier and partner in combatting Iranian extremism and checking Russian influence.
Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).