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October 04, 2012, Thursday

The battle over red lines and deadlines

“The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the general debate of the 67th Session of the General Assembly of the UN, demanding that the international community take concrete action in response to the growing nuclear threat from Tehran.

As discussions about the Iranian nuclear program continue in the media, it is becoming clear that some experts are trying to locate the fuse to this ticking “bomb” in the South Caucasus region, notably Azerbaijan, which they believe may have plans to assist Israel in its military intervention.

It is clear that Israel's present strategy on Iran is to tell other states what they should feel threatened by and what policies they should implement to counter that threat. After international media speculation restarted over Azerbaijan having promised to let Israel use its territory, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry reiterated that Baku “will not allow its territory to be used by third countries.”

Over the past month, the situation in the South Caucasus has become more complicated: The lines for peace are weakening, becoming red lines of hostility. The controversial release of convicted army lieutenant Ramil Safarov (jailed in Hungary for killing an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training course and given a hero's welcome upon his return to Baku) demonstrates once again that when deadlines for peace are unreasonably postponed, hostilities may simmer for years. Such conditions make conflicting parties more likely to accept third-party perceptions of threats as their own, rendering them more open to playing “threat perception” games with one another on the international stage.

Within the complex and complicated dynamics of the South Caucasus, experts and politicians have sometimes misunderstood the dual risks of “red lines” and “deadlines.” The actors and factors may be unchanging, but threat perception compels players to re-examine the conditions of the game.

First of all, it is not Israeli rhetoric but the facts of Iranian foreign policy that cause Azerbaijan to be wary of Tehran's regional policy, which sometimes manifests as angry enmity. Clearly, Azerbaijan's closeness to Israel angers Iran, which since the Iranian Revolution has identified the Jewish state as “Little Satan.” The moniker of “Great Satan” is assigned to the US, and Iran identifies Azerbaijan as “a friend of the Satans.” Additionally, Iran's support for the fundamental Islamist movement in Azerbaijan, along with several attempted terrorist attacks, have weakened trust in Tehran.

But, on the other hand, Iran's close cooperation with Armenia has troubled bilateral relations since the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, however, Azerbaijan had largely accepted this situation. But because there is no economic benefit or logic to the deepening Iranian-Armenian ties in the energy sector, the mutual benefits of this cooperation raise questions. Even though Iran's main gas reserves are concentrated in the south of the country, the northern part is more industrially developed because, due to sanctions, it cannot develop infrastructure (due to a lack of technology and capacity). Thus, Iran cannot meet its domestic natural gas demands; however, it can buy natural gas from Azerbaijan without any additional investment and supply it to its northern regions rather than invest in infrastructure that would also transport a limited volume of natural gas to Armenia. In this sense, Azerbaijan is gradually turning away from Iran, but not by allowing Israel to use its territory in a possible military intervention; rather, it is doing so by demanding the rights of the more than 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis who live in northern Iran. This was Iran's fear in the 1990s, and now this red line is rapidly heating up.

Azerbaijan's calculations about Iran, and its attendant political positions, are aligning it increasingly with the US. In July, US Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the United States to back freedom for ethnic Azeris in Iran, and, on Sept. 12, the congressman presented a draft text stating that the Azeri people, currently divided between Azerbaijan and Iran, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country if they so choose. Given that Congressman Rohrabacher supported the Armenian genocide resolution in 2010 and is one of the members of the Friends of Israel in Congress, this move cannot be dismissed out of hand as non-objective.

Israel's intentions are also clear; Netanyahu is increasingly diverging from the US's current stance on Iran and is therefore unilaterally developing Israel's alliance profile in the South Caucasus. Israel long ago presented itself as the security guarantor of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the absence of the US in the region, warning that the Obama administration will not see the Caucasus as a priority. There may also be hope on the part of some Israelis that Iranian-Azerbaijani tensions could provide its casus belli if Iran -- openly or “accidentally” -- uses military force against Azerbaijan. This thinking may not be shared by many experts and officials in Azerbaijan and Israel, but both sides are aware that in the event of any possible military intervention in Iran, Tehran will likely attack Azerbaijan's main energy fields.

In such circumstances, Iran's misguided policy on Azerbaijan has inflamed the lines of conflict and made the Azerbaijani public more eager to defend the rights of Azerbaijanis living in Iran; in the meantime, the deadlines for conflict resolution have passed. Countries in the Caucasus are suspended by a “balance of threat” perception.

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