Real conflict about nothing
By Orkhan Sattarov, exclusively to VK
The relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran has always been a complicated one, but it is the first time such a prolonged crisis has happened in its history. And it is certainly the first time in the history of world diplomacy that such a minor incident has triggered such a major crisis. The pretext is virtually non-existent: Tehran recalled its ambassador to Baku for ‘consultations’ because of a gay-parade Azerbaijan was allegedly going to sanction. However, Baku never planned such an event.
The head of the social and political department of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, Ali Hassanov, commented on the Iranian allegations and said that Iran is one of the parties waging an information war against Azerbaijan on the eve of the ‘Eurovision-2012 contest’. “We have warned Iran against such misinformation many times. I’ve personally visited the country to state our position: we don’t interfere in their internal affairs and don’t want them interfering in ours. I really don’t know where they got that idea about a gay-parade.”
Hassanov also mentioned that Iran thinks that Azerbaijan is a Shiah state, while in fact Azerbaijan never discriminates for any confession. "Iran wants us to be its friend and the enemy of its enemies, but we have our own independent policy. It is not necessary for us to be the friends of Iran’s friends and enemies of Iran’s enemies, but we never took part in the western anti-Iranian campaign. Iran is a fellow-Muslim state, some 30 million of our fellow-Azerbaijanis live there," Hassanov is cited as saying by the APA agency.
The absurdity of the allegations that gave rise to the new stage of the Iranian-Azerbaijani faceoff clearly demonstrates that Iran is happy to use any pretext to criticize Azerbaijan. The ‘gay-parade’ card played by the Iranian spiritual leaders was supposed to make the Azeri government "return to Islamic values’ and actually turned their flag upside-down, putting the green stripe, signifying Islam, on top.
In order to better understand the most recent Iranian-Azerbaijani developments, we should show the events in their chronological order.
During the unceasing protest rallies in front of the Azeri consulate in Tabriz, the representatives of the pro-governmental ‘Bassidzh’ organization demand the cancellation of the Eurovision contest and the mythical gay-parade in Azerbaijan, as well as insulting top Azeri officials. Azeri civil society responded with protest actions in front of the Iranian Embassy in Azerbaijan. The Azeri diaspora in the USA, Sweden, Germany, GB and Denmark supported the protest. Some of the slogans that sounded during these rallies, like “Azerbaijan will be united and Tabriz will be its capital” or “No to mullahs-homosexuals” had the effect of a ‘red rag’ on Tehran. During one of the actions the protestors laid a black wreath near the Iranian Embassy, which should symbolize the upcoming fall of the Tehran regime. And of course the photo of Ahmadinejad and Armenian President Serge Sarksyan became the ‘hit’ of the protest posters. However, Iran decided to react to these street rallies on the official level and called on the Baku authorities to respond, thus attributing a whole new level to the conflict.
The Iranian Embassy’s official statement reads that ‘the insults against the Shiah leader hurt the feelings of each and every free Muslim’ and that they hope that the Islamic community of Azerbaijan would react accordingly. Then the Embassy demanded that the Azeri government finds and punishes the culprits immediately. Iran was also outraged by the lack of reaction from the Caucasian Muslim Administration to the incident.
The claim about the ‘Islamic community of Azerbaijan’ is particularly interesting: it is no secret that Iran supports radical Muslim movements in Azerbaijan, trying to use them to promote its own influence in the country. Constant heated discussions on religious topics in Azerbaijan play into the hands of Iran and its creation – the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan.
In this context it is interesting to note the incident that took place in Sumgait on May 22: the police confiscated a number of CDs containing speeches against the Eurovision contest and radical Islamic propaganda from the ‘Islam’ shop. 10 people were also arrested. According to APA, Iran might be behind the CD circulating in Baku and Sumgait.
However, just as Tehran uses the radicals in Azerbaijan, Baku also has certain leverage in its relationship with Tehran. The Iranian authorities can’t ignore the tens of millions of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in their country. This month the First Forums of South Azerbaijani Turks took place in Ankara, despite all the obstacles created by Iran. 237 delegates took part in it, including Azerbaijani MPs. On May 22 mass eco-protest rallies took place in the towns of Tabriz and Urmia: the activists demanded that the authorities pay more attention to the problem of Lake Urmia drying up. However, the protestors also demanded civic rights for the Azeri population of Iran, such as education in their native language. According to the media, more than 100 protestors were arrested and there were injuries.
On May 22 Iran recalled its ambassador from Baku, and right after that the Iranian border became closed to cargo transport travelling from Azerbaijan. According to the Azerbaijani foreign ministry's official representative, Iran hasn’t yet clarified its position about the recall of its ambassador. According to the Iranian Embassy, the ambassador was recalled because of sacrilege that happened in Azerbaijan. Commenting on this statement, the Azeri FM representative said that in this case Iran should recall its ambassador from Armenia as well, as there was a lot of sacrilege committed by the Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Baku often reproaches Iran for its friendship with Yerevan, even though Tehran itself always demands ‘Islamic solidarity’ from Baku.
Armenia’s cooperation with Iran gives it the opportunity to keep the Azerbaijani territories under occupation, as the economic benefits from this cooperation cover the damage caused by the closed border with Turkey. It is obvious that Iran doesn’t want a strong Turkic state near its border - and that’s exactly what it will get if Azerbaijan regains control over the occupied territories.
On the other hand, due to its position in the Azeri-Armenian conflict, Iran has lost almost all its influence over Azerbaijan, giving way to Turkey, which led to the consolidation of forces promoting Pan-Turkic ideology within Azerbaijan. The point of no return was reached in May 1992 when, after the ‘mediatory efforts’ of Iran, Armenian troops took the Karabakh capital, the city of Shusha. Therefore, Iran failed to deliver its guarantees of banning all military actions during the negotiations. Such ‘diplomatic surprises’ can’t be forgotten.
Today’s round of the Azeri-Iranian conflict coincided with the US Congress adopting a new package of anti-Iranian sanctions. According to Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, Russia is very concerned about the fact that many countries now agree to the possibility of a military solution to the ‘Iranian problem’. According to the US ambassador to Israel, Washington has a complete plan of a military incursion into Iran, so the general picture looks rather grim for Tehran.
It is possible that this is the reason for the excessive irritability of Tehran towards Azerbaijan, which has friendly relations with both the US and Israel. It is also possible that the row about the non-existent gay-parade was created to divert the Iranian public’s attention from the economic difficulties and the impending war. However, Azerbaijan is unlikely to bear such treatment lightly, and Tehran seems to have no ‘plan B’.