The bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is going on a trip outside the Middle East.
It’s the pot calling the kettle black. As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle the kingdom with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and its backing of Qatar, Riyadh and Tehran are extending their rivalry into the Caucasus. The latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, Shia Muslim-majority country on Iran’s northern border. Azerbaijan is a secular former Soviet republic with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself.
Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country. The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran — which had been imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State — had enabled the Iranians to make inroads. “Iran’s religious activities have become particularly successful,” said Azerbaijani journalist Kenan Rovshanoglu in a study of religious freedom in the country. Published by Turan, an independent news agency, the study noted that 22 of Azerbaijan’s 150 madrassas or religious seminaries were controlled by Iran.
Iran and Azerbaijan have long tiptoed around each other, with both countries concerned that the other could use its religious and/or ethnic affinities to stir trouble. Azeri speakers account for at least a quarter of Iran’s population.
Azerbaijan is, for its part, worried about Iran’s close ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked into a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
Iranian concerns about Azeri nationalism were fueled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top soccer club in Tabriz — the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan — that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity, chanted Azeri nationalist slogans in 2015 during protests against the government’s environmental policy and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer. In the same year, Azar News leaked a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar Karimian, the club’s former chairman. The letter detailed how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”
Azar is operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan, a coalition of opposition forces dominated by Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian militant group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time when Saddam Hussein was at war with the Iranians.
The letter said the groups were campaigning for a “study-the-mother-tongue day.” It suggested that this mother tongue was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by almost a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and southern Azerbaijan. The letter implied that the groups which General Karimian was concerned about included Azeri separatists.
The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combating widespread racist attitudes toward Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racism toward Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about. “Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer. “They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager.”
Discussing Azerbaijani policy toward Tehran, Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the Center for Applied Politics at Baku’s Western Caspian University, noted that Azerbaijan had no intention of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, but could not “disregard the future of the Azeris who reside” in that country.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp said in November 2017 that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” in East Azerbaijan that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the United States and its allies, including Saudi Arabia. The announcement came weeks after Iran said it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan that borders Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is home to Azeris as well as Kurds.
Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan
Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column on Al Arabiya, the TV network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC). The Saudi government reportedly obtained a majority share in MBC as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption. In an article entitled “Will Iran Turn Azerbaijan into Another Iraq?” Husseini, quoting an anti-Iranian Iraqi author, Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi, asserted that Azerbaijan feared it would follow in the footsteps of Iraq, where Iran allegedly had destroyed the Iraqi military and turned Iraqis into slaves who had been convinced “that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit [Imam] Husayn’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards.”
In early February, military delegations from Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan discussed closer military cooperation, including holding joint military exercises “as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest,” according to Azerbaijani media.
Over the years, Azerbaijan has also built close military ties to Israel, which, like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, using Azerbaijani airbases if Tel Aviv had opted for taking out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The agreement put an end to talk about a military strike.
The bottom line is that if Iran is seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia, then Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to encircle Iran. The mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s belief that Iraq is Iran’s model for Azerbaijan is an Iranian suggestion that Lebanon is Israel’s model.
“Tel Aviv wants to Lebanonize it [Azerbaijan] under a ‘new periphery doctrine.’ This means that Tel Aviv intends to create a new periphery region and encircle Iran through its presence in the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Region and Azerbaijan,” said Iranian analyst Salar Seifoddini. Seifoddini was referring to the Israeli policy of periphery, which seeks to forge relations with those bordering Israel’s enemies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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