When Foreign Policy magazine reported this spring that Israel was in talks with Azerbaijan over the use of the latter's airfields in order to carry out an attack on Iran, the bombshell report was vociferously denied by officials in Baku and derided by regional analysts. Azerbaijan would seem to not have any interest in such cooperation, and the Foreign Policy report was correctly described as "Washington-centric."
But now Reuters has come out with the same story, but their sources are Azerbaijani and Russian:
[T]wo Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:
"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Musabayov told Reuters.
"I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks to military leaders in the Caspian city Nowshahr
While the U.S. leads countermine naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, Iran is practicing laying mines in the Caspian Sea, state media reports. Via Reuters:
[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei visited the northern coastal city of Nowshahr on Tuesday to watch naval cadets practice planting mines, freeing hijacked ships, destroying enemy vessels and jumping from helicopters, his official website said.
“The armed forces must reach capabilities such that no one can attack the strong fence of the country and the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei told army commanders, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Iran has been building up its navy in the Caspian, but it's conducted a lot of training on the sea for a long time, even though almost all of its strategic interests are in the Persian Gulf. Since none of the countries around the Caspian want anything to do with an attack in Iran, the Caspian is unlikely to play much of a role in a potential war there -- except, perhaps, as a practice ground.
To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, Iran is no place for spies. In particular, for Azerbaijani poets accused of being spies. After spending about four months in an Iranian prison and causing more tension in the less-than-harmonious ties between the two Shi'a Muslim neighbors, a pair of Azerbaijani poets finally marched home yesterday.
Azerbaijani television carried footage of friends and relatives embracing Shakhriyar Hajizade and Farrid Huseyn at the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. The two were paroled before a court in Tabriz was scheduled to land a verdict in their case on September 10.
The Iranian side said that the poets have “Islamic mercy” to thank for their release, though the poets themselves said they were indebted to the Azerbaijani government.
The release came as an apparent peace-offering to Baku and was timed with Iranian Vice-President for Cultural Affairs Hasan Mousavi's visit to Azerbaijan. The enemies may plot all they want, but “friendly and fraternal relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have always been strong and will be so in the future,” Mousavi said in Baku.
But, no doubt, Tehran is looking to Azerbaijan to release alleged Iranian spies/terrorists of its own to make this sonnet to friendship and brotherhood complete.
Iran has announced that it will deploy "light" submarines to the Caspian Sea, yet another step in the ongoing militarization of the oil- and gas-rich sea.
The deputy commander of Iran's navy made the announcement (in late June, while The Bug Pit was on hiatus) but gave no details. Some Azerbaijani officials believed (or at least were telling reporters) that Iran already had submarines in the sea, and that a semi-famous photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad getting into a sub was taken on the Caspian. Given that Iran is a lot more likely to overstate its capabilities than understate them, that latter claim probably wasn't true, and we should take this new claim with a grain of salt, as well.
Nevertheless, if Iran's newest oil and gas discovery, in waters also claimed by Azerbaijan, turns out to be for real, it would be natural for Iran to beef up its defenses around the sea.
The antenna confiscation spree is part of an across-the-board campaign against the supposed corrupting power of Western satellite channels. In Tehran's telling, the satellite dishes radiate evil. And evil can take many forms such as the BBC, Voice of America, Nickelodeon . . . .
“The satellite channels… have one objective only – to attack Islam, our Islamic government and [the] great people of Iran,” one cleric is shown preaching in a BBC report on the launch of the anti-satellite-dish campaign. Instead, Tehran aims to keep viewers' channels resolutely turned to the broadcasts of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
There is an extra dimension to the campaign in northwestern Iran, an area allegedly susceptible to irredentism by that nettlesome neighbor, Azerbaijan. Baku has many bones to pick with Tehran, ranging from terrorism allegations to meddling in domestic affairs and the recent arrest of Azerbaijani poets. Iranian officials keep telling their angered counterparts in Baku that the poets committed a crime, but have not specified its exact nature.
A map showing the approximate location of Iran's new oil discovery in the Caspian
Iran recently announced that it has discovered a substantial oil deposit -- about 10 billion barrels -- in the Caspian Sea. That would be about seven percent of Iran's total reserves, and the country's first discovery in the Caspian in over a century. That in itself is pretty remarkable; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it will "change the energy and political balance of the region."
But the situation could get a lot more complicated, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson. In a recent presentation, which he provided to The Bug Pit, Jackson noted that the discovery appears to actually be in waters claimed by Azerbaijan. Iran hasn't provided a precise location, but has said it is 188km north of Roudsar in Gilan province and 250 km northwest of Neka. See the map here, from Jackson's presentation, where the white dotted line is what Azerbaijan considers to be the southern boundary of its waters, while the brown dotted line represents what Iran considers to be the northen extent of its waters. And right in the middle of that is this new discovery (actually two separate, though connected, fields, called Sardar Jangal and Sardar Milli). In addition to the 10 billion barrels of oil, it also holds 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Iran.
The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."
An Azerbaijani Coast Guard ship patrols this week in Baku's harbor
As Baku got ready for the highest-profile event in its recent history, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been a conspicuous presence in the city's Caspian Sea port: two Coast Guard vessels, part of Azerbaijan's heightened security measures as Europe's pop music fans have flocked to the city.
Government officials aren't saying what threat they might be protecting against, and, as close to the water as the Eurovision venue might be, of course an attack from the sea is exceedingly unlikely. Still, Eurovision is taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension with Iran -- which also happens to be the most significant threat that Azerbaijan's growing naval force is intended to protect against.
Azerbaijan has perhaps been the most secretive of all of the Caspian littoral states about its navy, but the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel suggests an intention to get more serious about its naval security.
The analysts I spoke to in Baku said that the wakeup call for Azerbaijan's navy was when Iran threatened a BP prospecting ship in 2001. There have been other episodes when Iranian oil rigs entered sea space that Azerbaijan claimed, and that threat is still present. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare 'go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.