The unraveling of Iraq may have some interesting, even alarming implications for the Caspian Basin state of Azerbaijan.
Unlike other Arab states in turmoil, including Libya and Syria, Iraq has a religious and cultural profile that somewhat mimics Azerbaijan’s. For one, both countries have Shia Islamic majorities with large Sunni minorities. In addition, both have lengthy experience with coercive, top-down secularism. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party promoted secularism during the three-and-a-half decades it held power in the country. In Azerbaijan, the secular tradition dates back to the Bolsheviks’ arrival in power in the 1920s and extends to the present day.
There are two significant ways in which the disintegration of Iraq might pose security challenges to Azerbaijan. The first and most obvious is connected with the rise in Iraq of a Sunni jihadist movement, known as ISIS. This development, over time, could stoke sectarian tension in Azerbaijan, a country where, even though secularism remains a powerful force in society, religion is making a strong comeback.
For Shias worldwide, including those in Azerbaijan, opposing the violently anti-Shia ISIS movement is an existential issue. For now, Shia leaders in Azerbaijan have urged sectarian restraint. Even so, there has already been an incident in the southern Azerbaijani town of Sabirabad, where local Shia residents attacked a man who followed the tenets of Salafi Islam. Such incidents are still rare in a secular Azerbaijan where the numbers of passionate believers, Shia and Sunni alike, are still relatively low. Even so, secularism in Azerbaijan appears to rest on shaky ground, and a rapidly rising number of citizens are using faith to help define their identities.
Where older generation of Azerbaijanis saw themselves as Muslims mostly in a cultural sense, often with a blurred distinction between Shiasm and Sunnism, new believers are very conscious of their identities, and globalist in their outlook. When the wider community of believers is perceived to be threatened in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere, young Azerbaijanis are more prone to be galvanized into action against perceived enemies.
Among Azerbaijani Sunnis, the consolidation and expansion of the territorial foothold of ISIS in Iraq could act as a magnet, attracting the discontented to the jihadist banner. This phenomenon has already occurred in Syria, where some Azerbaijanis, such as a prominent An-Nusra fighter, Hattab al-Azeri, have taken up arms against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with an eye toward gaining experience that could be used one day against Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Baku. ISIS’ gains in Iraq, then, would seem to significantly increase the opportunities for and capabilities of Azerbaijani jihadists one day to launch terror and propaganda campaigns in Azerbaijan.
A second set of challenges is linked to the prospect of Iraq´s disintegration along ethnic lines. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has announced plans to prepare a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. While a vote is not imminent, there is little doubt that if and when it took place, the pro-independence stance would win easily. This would encourage Kurds in Turkey and Iran to want to join their brothers in a new Kurdish state. And while no state other than Israel has so far expressed clear support for an independent Kurdistan, an expectation that a Kurdish state might be pro-Western in orientation could conceivably lead to a subtle change in the position of the West. Indeed, the idea of remapping the Middle East along more homogenous sectarian and ethnic lines, once a purely mental exercise, is now being taken more seriously in Western policy-making discussions.
The problem for Azerbaijan is that there is considerable overlap between the Kurdish and Azeri populations in the western Iran. A Kurdish attempt to neatly separate, then, could easily spark tension in Iran, Azerbaijan’s neighbor. That, in turn, could ignite a nationalistic backlash among Iranian Azeris, placing the government in Baku in a difficult position. On the one hand, Baku would feel pressure to show solidarity with "southern Azerbaijanis," as Iranian Azeris are known in Azerbaijan proper; on the other hand, Azerbaijani leaders need to maintain a good working relationship with the Iranian government in Tehran. While the Aliyev administration has been careful not to antagonize Tehran on nationality issues, the idea of a 'greater Azerbaijan' might gain more traction if regional borders start being re-drawn, and if the West and Iran fail to reach a mutually acceptable nuclear deal, thus causing new Western efforts to economically and diplomatically isolate Tehran. A potential 'greater Azerbaijan' would be as likely to be as pro-Western and Israel-friendly as an "independent Kurdistan.”
But it would be folly to expect that any process of re-drawing the maps of Iraq and Iran could go as smoothly as the velvet divorce between Czechs and Slovaks in 1990s. It would be an inevitably brutal and bloody affair, and it is highly unlikely that the Republic of Azerbaijan would be left unscathed by such a process.
Azerbaijan has little or no ability to influence events in Iraq and Iran. Under the present circumstances, the Aliyev administration can best prepare to contend with forces that it can’t control by taking steps to unite Azerbaijani society behind it, rather than divide it. A good way to start such a unification process would be to stop jailing dissidents, human rights and civil society activists, and release those already in prison.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.