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.
What happens if European pop music and Islamic fundamentalism -- two equally powerful forces -- come head to head in Baku this week? Signs of a sequins-versus-turbans face-off already are emerging, as Azerbaijan, the host of the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, does battle with a steady stream of tongue-lashing from neighboring Iran.
Apparently, Tehran has put aside its earlier worries of a possible Western attack on its nuclear facilities to focus on the more pressing matter of a syncopated saturnalia with gay overtones erupting to Iran's north.
The words "Azerbaijan" and "gay pride" are not often seen together, but one senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official nonetheless felt the need to clarify matters for Iran.
“We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade,” bristled Ali Hasanov, head of the administration's political and public policy department and Azerbaijan's de-facto point-man for all Eurovision PR matters. “I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran.”
Recent naval exercises by Azerbaijan were conducted against a nominally "terrorist" enemy, but the details of the exercise suggested that Baku was in fact drilling for a naval engagement with another country. The exercises, called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines,” took place last month, as analyst Anar Valiyev recounts in an analysis for Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor. The exercises involved about 1,200 troops, 21 ships, 20 speedboats and eight helicopters, and the Azeri forces involved shot down a terrorist aircraft (?), boarded hostile ships, and most notably, "located and destroyed an enemy submarine":
[T]he nature of Azerbaijani military exercises suggested that actions are directed against an enemy possessing a helicopter, a ship and even a submarine. It is hard to imagine that certain terrorist group would be able to acquire such arms or equipment, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the Caspian Sea does not have direct access to open waters.
Valiyev concludes, reasonably, that the exercise enemy in fact represented Iran, an assumption backed up by the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel. This recalls the Caspian component last year's exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Russia and Kazakhstan practiced a scenario involving an attack from the south of the sea consisting of exactly the sorts of aircraft that Iran possesses.
Iranian media have reported that Azerbaijani tanks (made in Israel, naturally) have massed on the border with Iran, which Azerbaijan has called a "provocation." This comes as tensions between the two neighbors are high due to Azerbaijan's close relationship with Israel, which seems to be contemplating an attack on Iran.
Iranian television apparently started reporting the buildup of about 30 tanks in the middle of April, and residents of Imishli, on the Azerbaijan side of the border, started contacting media in Baku to see if the reports were true. One told Vesti.az, "We hear this news every day. This information has been repeated so often that we necessarily have to believe in it."
Vesti.az contacted the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu, who said it was a baseless provocation, and naturally brought Armenia into it:
"This is nonsense and stupidity. Naturally, the Armenian media immediately picked up the 'information' and raised such a howl, as if, Azerbaijan was 'going to war' not with Iran, but Armenia. They should worry that this day is not too far."
Now, the commander of the Iranian Army's Ground Forces, Brig. Gen Ahmad Reza Purdastan, has said that if there are Azerbaijani tanks on the border, they pose no threat to Iran, reports Mehr News (via BBC Monitoring):
In an interview with the agency, Purdastan noted that "I have no information about this issue. However, even if so, it is the usual thing and we do not have problems with our neighbours".
"We do not think that this move of the Republic of Azerbaijan poses threat to us," he said, adding that the movement of tanks was probably part of military drills.
So, that's settled. But as long as Israel is threatening war with Iran, we can probably expect regular attempts to drag Azerbaijan into it.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Azerbaijani minister of defense Safar Abiyev meets Iranian defense officials this month in Tehran.
Israel has gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, possibly so that Israeli aircraft could land there after attacking Iran, a new report in Foreign Policy magazine says:
[F]our senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners, I was told, must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf -- but one that could include the Caucasus.
A few weeks ago, when Azerbaijan's $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel was announced, this blog discounted the idea that Azerbaijan would get involved in a potential Israeli attack on Iran, arguing that the risks for Azerbaijan are too high and the potential gains unclear. The exception would be if Azerbaijan's influence were so discreet as to allow Baku some plausible deniability; then Iran probably wouldn't stand to gain from attacking Azerbaijan. According to the FP report, the most likely use for the Azerbaijan airfields would be so that Israeli aircraft could land there after an attack, obviating the need for mid-air refueling en route to Iran, which Israel isn't particularly experienced with and which would reduce the amount of weapons the planes could take on each sortie:
Amid increasing tension between Tehran and Baku, Azerbaijan's defense minister Safar Abiyev visited Iran on Monday and promised that his country would not be used as a platform from which to attack Iran. Press TV reports:
The relations between the two neighbors have been strained after Azerbaijan signed a USD 1.5 billion deal with Israel to purchase drones and anti-aircraft and missile systems.
Last month, Tehran summoned Azeri Ambassador Javanshir Akhundov to protest Baku’s agreement.
However, Azeri officials said that the weapons were being purchased to liberate 20 percent of the country’s occupied territories.
If there other, more important subjects that the two sides discussed, they weren't reported. So was the main purpose of the visit for Azerbaijan to reassure Iran about the Israeli weapons? It seems like Iran must have known better. Indeed, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahedi downplayed the significance of the Israeli weapons, according to News.az:
Azerbaijan-Israel arms deal is not new and this deal was signed some time ago. It has no connection with Iran-Azerbaijan relations. Iran is ready to assist Azerbaijan in the defense field and to organize joint trainings.
But it also would seem a strange time to start discussing joint military trainings and so on, as Iran and Azerbaijan don't have particularly close military relations. There have been other recent high-level discussions between the two countries: Last week, their foreign ministers (plus Turkey's) met in the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan.