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Tense relations

June 7, 2012

Azerbaijan feels badgered by its Islamic-led neighbor. Iran's latest attempts to interfere in Azerbaijan were evident during last week's Eurovision Song Contest. But the conflict goes much deeper.

Demonstration in Iran against the Eurovision song contest
Image: MEHR

Observers in the region have noted a worsening of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran for months now. Yet Azerbaijanis are the largest minority group in Iran. There are more Azeri Turkic speakers there than in Azerbaijan with its population of ten million.

The good relations of the former Soviet republic to Israel and the United States are a thorn in the side of the Islamic leadership in Tehran. While the pressure of sanctions on Iran is increasing because of its controversial nuclear program, Israel is delivering highly modern defense goods to Baku.

In addition, recent reports surfaced of Israel's plans to use air bases in Azerbaijan for a possible preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Azerbaijani authorities arrested 22 people in March for allegedly planning attacks on Israeli and US targets by order of Iran.

Map of the caucasus region with Azerbaijan and Iran
There are more Azeris living in Iran than in Azerbaijan itselfImage: DW

Outrage over 'un-Islamic' music

Emotions ran high ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest. The flamboyant annual pageant of pop music from around Europe was held in Azerbaijan for the first time last month. Iran's entire state-run media exercised massive criticism of the allegedly un-Islamic and scandalous show in Baku.

In a similar manner, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, as well as the influential Ayatollahs from Tehran and Tabriz, Kazem Sedighi and Mojtahad Shabestari warned that harm was being done on Islamic ground. Iran's news agency IRNA reported that Tehran recalled its ambassador from Baku for consultations to protest what it described as the Azeri government's "insults to the sanctities" of Islam. Azerbaijan only reacted to the criticism a few days following Eurovision.

Protest in Iran opposed to the Eurovision song contest
Iran whipped up opposition to the Eurovision Song Contest in BakuImage: MEHR

"We are telling you Iranian clerics that you should be ashamed of yourselves," said presidential spokesman Ali Hasanov. "You pray to Allah every day and lie. We don't need clerics like this. The people of Azerbaijan will not work together with such clerics under any circumstances."

Iranian meddling

The Azerbaijani MP Rasim Musabekov told DW that Iranian attempts to intervene had been debated several times in parliament. "The Mullah regime wants to form our policies," he said.

This was confirmed by Ahmed Omid Yazdani, a Berlin-based expert on Azerbaijan. "The good relations between Azerbaijan to Israel, the US and other western countries unsettle Iran," Yazdani said. "Azerbaijan orientates itself towards the western world and culture, and Iran does not tolerate this."

Dr. Ahmad Omid Yazdani
Baku's good relations with the West annoy Tehran, says YazdaniImage: Iranische Quelle ohne internationales Copyright

Further cause for conflict exists in the good relations between Iran and Armenia, Yazdani said. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at odds for over two decades over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, an ethnic Armenian enclave that obtained de facto independence from Baku in 1994 - with Yerevan's support. One fifth of Azerbaijan's national territory is under Armenian control.

A signal for the West

Caucasus expert Stefan Meister from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin said Azerbaijan is trying to preserve its independence vis-à-vis its big southern neighbor.

"This is about Iran's influence on Azerbaijan's politics and about the existing fear of Islamization," Meister said. "Azerbaijan feels threatened and is sending signals that it wants to work together with the West and be an important partner for the West in the region."

Dr. Stefan Meister from the German Council on Foreign Relatons
Azeris feel threatend by Iran's theocracy, says MeisterImage: Stefan Meister

Hojat-ol-Islam Azimi Qadim, an ethnic Azerbaijani cleric from Qom, said he believed that the conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan will continue for a long time.

"Azerbaijan is a secular country and Iran in contrast is a theocracy," Qadim said. "Iran takes exception to the fact that the media in Azerbaijan can express themselves freely and openly against Iran. The Azerbaijan government is trying to normalize its relations to Tehran, but this will only succeed with great difficulty." The conflict will not be easy to solve, he said.

Stefan Meister said western nations should continue to support Azerbaijan but not interfere directly in its policies.

"The Americans have invested a lot in this country against the Russians and against Iran, and continue to do so. Azerbaijan is calling for support from the West." He warned western nations, however, from egging on Azerbaijan.

"There should be attempts to develop trust on other levels," Meister said. "There are areas such as the fight against drugs or economic relations where a lot can be done. The question is whether the governments are willing to do so."

Author: Taher Shir Mohammadi / sac
Editor: Gregg Benzow