Recently, one of Iran’s key turbaned bosses threatened that Azerbaijanis may soon take the noncommittally Muslim leader of neighboring Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev, “by the scuff of his neck and kick him out of his seat.” Now, Baku is again hearing an angry rumble from its hardcore Islamist neighbor over its attempts to keep Azerbaijan walking the straight and secular.
“We regret that the criminal, anti-Islamic work of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is part of [the] official policies of Baku,” opined scholars, clerics and students in a joint statement issued at a gathering in the Iranian city of Tabriz, which contains a large ethnic Azeri population.
Azerbaijan has just agreed to export gas to Iran and is also keen to talk business with its neighbor, but Baku and Tehran find it increasingly hard to hide their differences behind a neighborly veneer. Azerbaijan’s efforts to restrain Islam by allowing an informal ban on Muslim headdresses in public schools and restraining the publication of certain Islamic literature, have long had Iran’s spiritual leaders hot under their collars. Influential Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi recently even came close to threatening jihad on the Azerbaijani authorities.
“The day will come when they [the people of Azerbaijan]…will drag you down from your seats,” he said. “Learn the lessons from the events in the region,” Ayatollah said in reference to the Arab uprisings, which he apparently sees as signs of an Islamic revival. In an earlier fatwa, Shirazi said that he may declare a holy war on Azerbaijani officials if they continue closing down mosques.
And if Baku can make it there, it can make it anywhere . . . that's the tune Azerbaijani media are playing in an unabashed celebration of the country’s becoming a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council this week.
Azerbaijan’s debut on the council is “a victory for the Azerbaijani people,” declared Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. But more than a symbolic victory, the membership placed Baku in a better position to shape the international debate about its long-running conflict with Armenia and separatists over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ali Hasanov, a senior presidential administration official, indicated that Baku will use its new position to bring Nagorno-Karabakh-related issues to the UN floor. “Capitalizing on the [two]-year-long membership of the UN Security Council, Azerbaijan will demand restoring norms of international law,” he said, without elaboration, Regnum reported.
Mammadyarov said that Baku will seek support for such initiatives from the main international negotiators in the conflict -- the US, France and Russia, all permanent members of the Security Council.
Some Azerbaijani politicians could not help but gloat at sour faces in Armenia, Baku’s arch-rival in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. “Armenia is seriously upset,” asserted independent parliament member Rasim Musambekov.
It probably is, but the Armenians are trying not to show it. Yerevan did not make an official statement about Azerbaijan’s promotion, but one official claimed that the Security Council would not be swayed by Azerbaijan. The country’s membership, he reasoned, will only damage the council’s reputation.
Azerbaijan is hearing a diplomatic growl from across its southern border, which was recently violated by a lone Iranian border guard. The breach cost 20-year-old Akber Hasanpour his life and resulted in an exchange that once more laid bare the repressed antagonism between Baku and Tehran.
The Iranian authorities have fired a protest note to Baku and demanded an explanation from the Azerbaijani ambassador in Tehran. Iranian officials said that Azerbaijani border police violated international norms and agreements between the two countries by pursuing and shooting to death the unarmed Hasanpour.
After inadvertently crossing into Azerbaijani territory on October 19, the young man refused to surrender to Azerbaijani border guards, Azerbaijani news services reported. In a claim that Tehran finds hard to digest, the Azerbaijani side says that he then attacked a large detail of Azerbaijani border guards and was fired on in response. The Iranian died of his wounds in hospital. His body was handed over to Iran yesterday.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has given a high five to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for their support for Minsk amid growing European Union pressure for Belarus to clean up its human rights act. Both countries opposed a scathing declaration from the EU about harassment of political opposition and independent media in Belarus.
“They [the Europeans] thought that we would bang our heads against the door, that we would cry and beg… but no!,” Lukashenko said, after Belarus withdrew from a September 29-30 summit in Warsaw, where ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbors were discussed,
Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia also stopped short of supporting the EU statement, but Georgia and Azerbaijan received special thanks as the most avid Belarus supporters.
But this support is caused by very pragmatic considerations. Georgia views Belarus as the weak link in ex-Soviet countries’ support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the face of Russian pressure to recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Azerbaijan, a potential energy partner which also knows what it's like to be summoned to the international woodshed on human rights issues, obviously chose to avoid what could arguably be called a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In a conclusive message to the world, Lukashenko said his enemies will not take Belarus away from him and that he will live a long life to spite all ill-wishers.
“You're jealous because we are pretty, athletic and rich,” has essentially become Baku's way to smack back at the BBC after the broadcaster reported that Azerbaijan was alleged to have handed over $9 million to buy gold medals for its boxers at London's 2012 Olympics.
But Azerbaijan need not worry about securing medals, he continued. In Ahmedov's telling, the World Championships alone could get Azerbaijani boxers a ticket to the 2012 Olympics.“All of this obviously causes envy,” he concluded.
It may be doubtful whether such an argument could ever stand up in court, but, with investigation plans still pending, Azerbaijan is clearly making its move to punch the allegations into a knockout before the upcoming Olympic games.
Baku believes that Google’s choice of regional nomenclature is the result of alleged Armenian jiggery-pokery and has tasked the Azerbaijan State Committee on Land and Cartography to get Google to correct its word choice.
The Committee will be firing off an angry latter to Google’s California headquarters soon. Committee Chairman Rafig Huseinli noted that this is not the first time Google has violated Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and that Baku was able to negotiate changes to online listings in the past.
With the advent of online mapping tools and social networking, many of Azerbaijan and Armenia's territorial battles have gone virtual. In the past, Baku also wrangled with Microsoft over similar issues with MSN.com maps.
Now that the US debt ceiling drama has ended, can Washington start mulling the truly pressing economic question; i.e. how much money to dish out in aid to the Caucasus' legendary foes, Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Colossal foreign debt may be encouraging congressional parsimony, but one big Armenian Diaspora lobbyist, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), still hopes to cut as large a slice as possible for Armenia from a trimmed-down 2012 foreign aid package. The ANCA recently called on Armenian-Americans to lobby for approval of $60 million in economic aid instead of the recently approved $40 million and for “at least” $10 million in military assistance.
Rival Azerbaijan should get nada in economic aid, the organization argued, because, first off, it is rich anyway, spoilt by hydrocarbon wealth, and, secondly, because it (allegedly) threatens Armenia and the Armenia-dependent breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan, for its part, does not often display the Diaspora lobbying muscle which its rival enjoys (Azerbaijan's strategic location and energy resources tend to be active lobbyists by themselves), but it has praised a congressional panel for not including Nagorno Karabakh among the recipients of American foreign aid for the prospective 2012 foreign aid bill.
Iran and Turkey’s competing requests for visa-free access to Azerbaijan increasingly smack of a scene from a romance novel, where a beauty in period dress faces a choice between two debonaire wooers.
Enchanted by Azerbaijan's various strategic charms, both suitors have cancelled short-term visas for Azerbaijani visitors, but Azerbaijan is taking its time to reciprocate, trying to mete out its graces sparingly and equitably to the two fellow Muslim countries.
Baku, though, is increasingly pressured by both sides to make a decision between its attraction for longtime ally and cultural soul mate Turkey and its complicated relationship with Iran.
Azerbaijan even had to offer explanations today after the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, citing senior Azerbaijani presidential aide Ali Hasanov, reported that pressure from Iran is preventing Baku from proceeding with a visa-cancellation deal with Ankara.
The story claimed that Iran threatened to block Azerbaijan’s access to its exclave of Nakhchivan should Baku cancel its visa requirement for Turkey.
Hasanov, though, protested that “I only meant to say that canceling the visa regime with Turkey can only happen in sync with canceling the visa regime with Iran,” 1news.az reported.
“At this stage, the simultaneous cancellation of visa regimes with either country brings us to issues related to national security, immigration and other issues that we are not ready to deal with right now,” he elaborated.
Sound familiar? Quite plainly, Baku is just not ready to commit.
Azerbaijan has impounded mine removal equipment for Afghanistan supplied by the international mine clearance organization The HALO Trust. Baku has long had a spat with the UK-based charity for conducting mine clearance operations in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh without its imprimatur.
Azerbaijan, which provides a corridor for about a quarter of NATO's supplies for Afghanistan, has indicated in the past that its cooperation with the alliance is contingent on respect of its national interests. In Baku's eyes, The Halo Trust does not meet that requirement.
“[T]his organization should have ceased its work in the occupied territories [Nagorno-Karabakh] and should have offered apologies to Baku,” Nazim Ismailov, director of Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Actions, said on July 8, APA news agency reported. “But they have not done it.” Azerbaijan has dispatched the equipment to neighboring Georgia instead of to Afghanistan, he added.
The Halo Trust began work in Nagorno Karabakh right after Baku's bitter and protracted war over the region with Karabakh separatists and Armenia ended in 1994. The organization says that mines and unexploded ordinance are a persistent problem in the territory and that it could take up to five years of intense work to clear the area entirely.
Committed to bringing the territory back under its fold, Baku tries to make sure that all ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and the outside world go through Azerbaijan.