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James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia and Iran battle it out in Azerbaijan

Oil rigs with Azerbaijan's flag at an oil field outside the capital, Baku [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 February, 2018

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Comment: Saudi Arabia and Iran are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East, into the Caucasus, writes James Dorsey.
It's the pot calling the kettle black. 

As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle it with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Qatar, the kingdom and the Islamic republic are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East into the Caucasus.

The two countries' latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran's northern border 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, that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, had enabled the Islamic republic 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 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 fuelled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top club in Tabriz - the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity - chanted Azeri nationalist slogans three years ago during protests against the government's environmental policy, and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer. 

Azar News leaked in 2015 a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar  Karimian, the club's former chairman, detailing how Tractor 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 (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time when Iraq was at war with Iran.

The letter said the groups were campaigning for a "study the mother tongue day". It suggested that the mother tongue referred to was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by at most a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and southern Azerbaijan. 

The letter implied that the groups General Karimian was concerned with included Azeri separatists.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in November that it had 'dismantled a terrorist team' in East Azerbaijan that was 'affiliated with global arrogance'
The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racist attitudes towards Azeris is something Tractor Sazi club knows a lot about.

"Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. 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," said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Discussing Azerbaijani policy towards Iran, 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 Iran".

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said  in November 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 that 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.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column for Al Arabiya, the television network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) in which the government reportedly obtained a majority share as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption.

In her article  entitled, "Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?", Ms al-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) Hussain's tomb, brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards".

In a media environment that appears to be preoccupied with supporting the government's often sectarian-tinted, anti-Iran policy rather than reporting facts, Ms al-Husseini suggested that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's recent attendance at a cultural festival in the kingdom at King Salman's invitation was part of an effort to resist Iranian encroachment.
Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties with Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran
Military delegations from the two countries earlier this month discussed closer military cooperation including holding joint military exercises "as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest," according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties with Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 international agreement that curtailed Iran's nuclear programme, using Azerbaijani airbases had it 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, 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 (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.

Mr Seifoddini was referring to Israel's policy of periphery that seeks to forge relations with those bordering on Israel's enemies.


This article was originally published on James Dorsey's blog.

Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East football blog and a just published book with the same title.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.



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