By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Recently, there has been considerable tension between Azerbaijan – a former Soviet republic that is predominantly Muslim – and Iran. Political leaders on both sides of the border have hurled vitriolic accusations at each other, especially in regard to Iranian troop movement at the southern border of Azerbaijan. This tension has far-reaching significance, because it is a sign that Iran has several pressure points that can be utilized to revive the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna.
What Happened to Cause Tension Between Azerbaijan and Iran?
Iran has staged major military exercises near the border of Azerbaijan, which is not that unusual. But this time, the military movements were coupled with combative rhetoric that included a very clear accusation about the presence of Israeli intelligence in Azerbaijan.
In multiple news outlets, the message from Tehran was clear. In an October 1 interview with Lebanon’s Mayadeen TV, former Iranian diplomat Amir Mousavi stated, “Let us not forget that despite all the U.S. military bases surrounding Iran, the U.S. has been unable to curb Iran’s internal and regional capabilities.”
He also noted, “The Zionist entity is harassing [Iran]. It is trying to cause some sort of rift between the countries of the region. [Our] clear message to Azerbaijan is that it should not play with fire when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Azerbaijan should not be lured by the Zionists. The Zionists cannot even defend themselves, so how would they defend Azerbaijan if a problem arises? We hope that President Aliyev does not play the same role Saddam Hussein played, who had the support of the whole world in his war against Iran.”
However, this statement was only the tip of the iceberg. Iran quickly added more players to the game, such as Turkey.
On Iran’s Ofogh TV station two days later, Iranian international affairs expert Hamid-Reza Gholamzadeh accused Israel of creating an alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The aim of this alliance was apparently to interfere with the large Azeri minority in Iran, a minority with a common ethnic and linguistic heritage to the Turkish people.
Gholamzadeh said, “What Turkey and Azerbaijan want to do, and as I said, it appears that Israel is behind these plans…They want to take control of our border with Armenia and to create a road between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, so that Azerbaijan could use this road. This would erase our border with Armenia, such that we would [effectively] share a border with Azerbaijan.
“Such a change would be dangerous for us and it conflicts with our interests. It would effectively change our border. This is not something that can easily be done in international geography… The measures and countermeasures taking place in the area are reflective of rivalry when it comes to this issue. Iran responded in a very mild fashion and said that if this change takes place, and if there is a need, Iran will punish Azerbaijan and Turkey.”
Why Is Iran Worried?
The Iranians definitely have a reason to be worried. There are very strong military connections between Israel, Turkey and Azerbaijan. This relationship explains the Azeri victory in the war Azerbaijan had with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azeri military proved to be a force to be reckoned with; it was supplied with unmanned aircraft from Israel and strategic assistance from Turkey. The Israeli intelligence presence in Iran is well known, and it is a fair speculation that Azerbaijan is a comfortable base for an intelligence endeavor.
The Israeli intelligence presence in Iran is essential; U.S. intelligence operatives have defected to the Iranian regime in recent years. For instance, Air Force counterintelligence officer Monica Witt allegedly defected to Iran and is currently wanted by the FBI for espionage. The Israeli intelligence presence in Iran has enabled many operations to be conducted, some at the behest of the United States.
There is a large amount of political pressure that can be put on the Iranian regime from Israel, Turkey and Russia. Ultimately, Iran may find itself between a rock and a hard place.
As the nuclear talks continue to be stalled, Iran is coming closer to the position of enriching its uranium to weapons-grade level. The Biden administration has yet to solve the problem of Iran developing a nuclear bomb, which might have dramatic effects on oil-producing allies of the U.S. in the Middle East.
Recent Iraqi Elections Were a Significant Defeat to Pro-Iranian Political Parties
The election in Iraq this week saw a significant defeat to pro-Iranian parties. The biggest victory was to the Shiite party of Moqtada al-Sadr, which is both anti-Iranian and anti-American. This political victory shows that Iran will face significant challenges in becoming a regional leader, as it can’t even take control over the large Shiite community in neighboring Iraq.
All these developments in the Middle East are important considerations for the White House as it continues to negotiate with Iran. With the help of an international coalition that includes regional forces, the U.S. may be able to force the Iranian nuclear project to come to a halt.