Political analysts in Baku are debating the reasons for an unannounced late September trip to Azerbaijan by Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden. US diplomats remain tight-lipped about the visit. Many local experts, however, contend that Hayden's talks with Azerbaijani leaders likely concerned Iran, Azerbaijan's neighbor to the south.
Gen. Hayden's one-day visit on September 28, which included a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Minister of National Security Eldar Makhmudov, was not publicized in advance, and few details have since been provided. According to informed sources, the CIA director arrived in Baku late on the night of September 27. The Turan news agency has cited "unofficial sources" as saying Hayden stayed in a private downtown hotel at which special security measures were taken. He left Baku in the early evening on September 28.
US Embassy spokesperson Jonathan Henick told EurasiaNet that Hayden's visit was part of a trip to several countries in the region. Henick would confirm only that Hayden discussed issues related to regional security and international terrorism with President Aliyev and National Security Minister Makhmudov. Azerbaijani officials likewise declined to elaborate on the nature or specifics of the discussions.
Some Azerbaijani analysts, however, see "the Iranian issue" as the most pressing reason for the CIA director's trip. The trip came five days before an October 3 statement by US President George W. Bush that Washington was prepared, under certain conditions, to negotiate with Tehran on the nuclear issue.
"This is a leader who has made very provocative statements, and we have made it clear, however, in spite of that we are willing to sit down with him so long as he suspends his program, his nuclear weapons program," President Bush said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "In other words, it's his choice not mine any more."
"It is obvious that the CIA director would not travel to Baku without a serious reason for discussions," commented expert Rasim Musabekov. "It is clear most likely Iranian issues were discussed."
Political columnist Rauf Mirkadirov of Baku's Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily seconds that view. "[The] CIA director would hardly visit Azerbaijan just for meeting with the president and the national security minister and discussing general issues," he argued. "Most likely, a complex of problems [was] discussed . . . The major issue is no doubt Iran and the potential development of the situation around its nuclear program," Mirkadirov said. Relations between Azerbaijan and Russia and the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline could also have been raised, he added. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ilgar Mammadov, an independent Baku-based analyst, drew attention to the fact that Hayden's visit occurred shortly before the scheduled start of a trial of a pro-Iranian extremist group charged with trying to create a Shar'ia-based religious state in Azerbaijan.
A preliminary hearing for the government's case against the 15-member group, named after its leader, Said Dadashbeyli, took place at the end of September in Baku, the Turan news agency reported on October 1. Group members are also charged with high treason, illegal arms possession, illegal contact with foreign intelligence services, robbery and other crimes.
The Ministry of National Security alleges that Dadashbeyli, an Azerbaijani citizen, worked with radical Islamic organizations as yet not publicly named and Iranian intelligence agents to set up a state with Shar'ia laws. A military group, dubbed the Northern Army of Mehdi, was allegedly formed by several of the defendants, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors also claim that one of the group's members, Jeihun Aliyev, traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he was offered money by Iranian agents. The money was to be used to mount a propaganda campaign designed to undermine Western and Israeli influence in Azerbaijan.
According to the investigation, group members received training in Iran. In Baku, they carried out physical training routines at the Interior Ministry's Dinamo sports center and held religious discussions at the Karabakh War Invalids Society, according to media reports. Mob-related contract "hit jobs" were allegedly carried out by Dadashbeyli to raise money for the group's activities, authorities allege.
Neither the group, nor Tehran is known to have commented on the charges. The group's trial is scheduled to begin on October 8 in Baku behind closed doors.
"Usually, such issues [security, fighting extremists and terrorist groups] are being discussed at the highest level. Therefore, it is possible that Hayden's visit is somehow linked with this trial," Mammadov said. "It is possible that Iran has intensified subversive activity against Azerbaijan and the CIA director discussed this issue." An exchange of intelligence information on extremists groups' activity in the region, he added, is another possibility. [Ilgar Mammadov is a board member of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project].
Azerbaijani media and political analysts have long contended that Azerbaijan could be used by US forces as a base for potential military operation against Iran. The US government, however, has repeatedly denied such a possibility. Azerbaijani officials have also stressed that they have no interest in being part of a military campaign against Iran, a country with which Azerbaijan, also a majority Shi'ite society, shares strong cultural and religious ties. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The denials, however, have not convinced all analysts. Musabekov did not exclude that Hayden traveled to Baku "to familiarize the Azerbaijani leadership with some additional intelligence data that may change Baku's position over the issue of military operation against Iran."
Columnist Mirkadirov takes issue with the claim that Hayden's trip was part of a larger regional tour. "There was no information that Michael Hayden traveled to any other place in the region except Baku," he said. "I believe it was a targeted visit to Baku and after that he [Hayden] returned to the United States."
Some pro-government political analysts, however, prefer to steer clear of commentary. Political analyst Aydin Mirzazade, a parliamentarian for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, commented that he does not want to get lost in guesswork. "The US Embassy provided some information [on the visit] and I have nothing to add," he said.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.