While the United States has been preoccupied with North Korea’s confrontational rhetoric, Iran has stepped up threats in its region. It has long been the stated wish of Iran’s leadership to be rid of what it calls the “Little Satan”: Israel. Iran’s rivalry with Sunni allies of the United States in the Gulf is long-standing. But earlier this month, Iranian lawmakers opened up a new front, threatening another American ally: Azerbaijan, insinuating that it, like Israel, might be “wiped off the map” as an independent country.
It is not uncommon for Iranians, both within the country and in the diaspora, to speak of Iran’s northern neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia as historical Iranian territories, implying that the independence of states such as Azerbaijan, which lies between Iran and Russia on the shores of the Caspian Sea, is only possible due to Iran’s current geopolitical weakness. That said, until now, Iranian government officials have been careful not to impugn the sovereignty of internationally recognized neighboring countries. This is particularly the case with Azerbaijan because a sizable Turkic-speaking Azeri community lives in northern Iran. To threaten this particular neighbor, it would seem, would be to invite the wrath of millions of Iran’s own citizens.
This all changed two weeks ago, when Mansour Haqiqatpour, deputy chair of the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, said that “a movement has started for the annexation of seventeen cities” to Iran’s north, including Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. He claimed that ethnic Azeri Iranian citizens are ready to “take back the Iranian cities which were separated from Iran under the rule of Qajar dynasty.”
Haqiqatpour was referring to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, in which Russia and Persia agreed to a border between the territories they effectively controlled in the Caucasus. What is now Azerbaijan was in the Russian portion. Now a group of lawmakers is preparing a bill in the Iranian parliament to revise the treaty and incorporate Azerbaijan into Iranian territory. The bombastic Ahmedinejad has yet to weigh in on Tehran’s latest map revisionism. But Azerbaijani officials are sufficiently concerned, despite the fact that Iran also made noises about annexing newly independent Azerbaijan at the end of the Cold War.
The difference this time is that Azerbaijan has established itself as a dynamic regional player with independent policies such as a close relationship not only with the United States and NATO countries, but also Israel. Azerbaijan has both defense-procurement and defense-cooperation agreements with Iran’s archfoe. While it has never officially been mooted as such, American and Israeli policy wonks have discussed the idea of using Azerbaijani territory as a staging ground or refueling point should it come to a shooting war with Iran. The two countries also have a joint program under which Israeli-designed drones are manufactured in Azerbaijan.
It would be difficult to blame Azerbaijan for seeking allies from outside of its region. Not only have its former colonial masters in Moscow continually sought to bully its leaders since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but Iranian cabinet members have stated that Azerbaijan’s strategic energy infrastructure—namely the U.S.-backed oil pipeline that stretches from Baku to the Mediterranean—would be one of its first targets in the event of conflict with the West.
The realities of Iran’s aggressive behavior beyond Israel should serve as a lesson to U.S. policymakers when crafting strategies to counter Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only be an existential threat to Israel and set off a nuclear arms race across the Middle East. Iranian leaders would almost certainly brandish their nuclear capability to exact concessions from weaker neighbors, including Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain. Any U.S. strategy should attempt as much as possible to include these neighbors in its scope. It should be equally as unacceptable that Iranian leaders openly threaten to annex Azerbaijan as it is that they aim to attack Israel.
Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.
Image: Wikipedia/Siamax. CC BY-SA 3.0.