Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 6

Azerbaijan is Caught Between Russia and Iran

by David Nissman

The public debate over the status of the Caspian Sea is aboutmore than oil: it reflects a deeper struggle between Moscow andTehran for dominance over Azerbaijan. Evidence for that conclusionis to be found in the agreement last week among Armenia, Iran,and Turkmenistan to allow Turkmen gas to flow to Armenia via Iran.Armenia is the first beneficiary of this arrangement, but bothIran and Russia gain as well. Iran gains a new lever of influencein the Caucasus; and Moscow tightens its hold over Armenia, whereit now has several military bases.

The big loser in this play is Azerbaijan. Even if it wins itslegal argument on the status of the Caspian Sea, Baku can be subjectedto blackmail by its neighbors–even to the point of an economicblockade. The most paranoid fears of the country’s most paranoidpolitical observers have become a reality: Azerbaijan is surroundedby enemies, with Armenia enjoying both Russian and Iranian backingand able to seize even more of Azerbaijan’s territory.

Iran’s relationship to Azerbaijan has always been ambiguous.Until the early nineteenth century, the northern portion of Azerbaijanwas an Iranian province, and the majority of its population Shi’iteMuslims. The links between Azeris and Iranians are cultural: Azerisare Turks, not Armenians, and Farsi and Azeri Turkic are not related.When Azerbaijan was absorbed by the Russian empire, northern Azerbaijanbegan to evolve in a different direction than did Southern Azerbaijanor Iran itself. The discovery of oil in the mid-nineteenth centurymade Baku the first industrialized city of the Middle East, andit drew workers from the South. That pattern of interaction changedafter the Bolshevik takeover in Azerbaijan in 1920. After thattime, the two Azerbaijans followed distinct paths, and duringthe second world war, Baku even served as an agent for Moscowin the Soviet Union’s efforts to export a national liberationmovement into Iran.

Under the shah, Tehran pursued an anti-Azeri policy. After thewithdrawal of the Red Army in 1946, the Iranian government bannedthe teaching of Azeri in Iran, and advocates of Southern Azerbaijaniautonomy were persecuted. But in Soviet Azerbaijan, the liberationof the South became both a cause and a movement. Activists inAzerbaijan effectively co-opted Moscow’s national liberation policyand pushed it beyond where Moscow really wanted to go. By thetime the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Azerbaijan People’sFront, by then the major political force in Azerbaijan, had madethe Southern cause a central part of its own. That made the developmentof relations between independent Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republicof Iran very difficult.

Azerbaijani political figures have been sharply critical of Iran’sapproach to Azerbaijan. A conference in Baku in October 1994 denouncedthe convergence of Russian and Iranian interests in Azerbaijan,particularly concerning the exploitation of the oil fields underthe Caspian Sea. Other Azerbaijanis attacked Iran for seekingto export "Islamism," and for claiming that Azerbaijanis simply the 26th province of Iran. Kanimet Zahidov, a leaderof the Peoples Liberation Party which supports the Southern Azerbaijancause, made even more serious charges. He suggested that Iranhad provided assistance to Armenia during the war and that Iranianofficials had met with Suret Huseinov, the architect of the coupwhich deposed President Abulfaz Elcibey and brought Heydar Aliyevto power.

For Moscow, Azerbaijan is more than just another part of its"near abroad." Azerbaijan is the largest country inthe Transcaucasus, a natural link between Asia and Europe anda gateway to three seas. Its oil reserves are large and well-known.And since it first arrived in the area at the beginning of thenineteenth century, Russia has sought to dominate Azerbaijan lessby promoting stability than by maintaining an unstable situationto keep not only Baku but outsiders off balance.

Russia has always enjoyed a special relationship with Armeniathat Moscow can use against Azerbaijan. Recently, it has gainedseveral additional footholds in this relationship: a militarybasing agreement, the staffing of Armenia’s nuclear power stationwhich some Azerbaijanis believe could be the transshipment pointfor plutonium from Russia to Iran. And Russia also has used severalnew levers to destabilize Azerbaijan: the promotion of activismby Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities, and probable involvement inseveral anti-Baku coups.

As a result, Azerbaijanis see both Russia and Iran as alliedin putting pressure on Baku. The last straw for many was the Russianblockade imposed on Azerbaijan as a result of the war in Chechnya.Moscow closed the country’s northern border, and many in Bakufeared that Iran would blockade Azerbaijan from the south. Fortunately,the blockade in the north did not last long; and the blockadein the south was never imposed. But Azerbaijan finds itself caughtbetween two powers interested in its weakness. To try to escapefrom this trap, Baku has looked to the West, to Turkey and tothe Turkic states in Central Asia for help. Unfortunately forAzerbaijan, its hopes for assistance from these quarters havenot yet proved out.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.


Sailing Back From The Past: the Launching of the "MirzaKuchuk Khan"

by David Nissman

The Iranian news agency carried a brief report last week concerningthe launching of a new freighter on the Caspian Sea. Named the"Mirza Kuchuk Khan," the ship is based in the Iranianport of Enzeli. One can only hope that the new ship will havea happier fate than the man for whom it is named–the founderof the Jangal movement which led to the founding of the short-livedGilan Soviet Republic in northern Iran.

Kuchuk Khan launched the Jangal movement in northern Iran in1916 to drive out British and Russian troops from the area. Itsideology was an ill-defined mix of social democratic principlesand Muslim precepts. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Bakuin 1918, Kuchuk Khan sought their aid, but Bolshevik power inAzerbaijan fell before any could be sent. Two years later, whenthe Bolsheviks were advancing in the Transcaucasus, the Sovietauthorities sent a ship to Enzeli, and Kuchuk Khan again askedfor assistance.

His talks with the Soviet delegation led to the declaration ofthe Gilan Soviet Republic–but this state was "soviet"in a very special way. Given the religious conservatism of theregion, the Soviet officials followed Kuchuk Khan’s lead and avoidedany communist propaganda that might offend the believers. WhenTrotsky learned about this contact, he proposed that Moscow providemilitary support to the new government and dispatch ships to Enzeliunder the Azerbaijani flag.

Very quickly, however, the Soviet authorities betrayed KuchukKhan, who was overthrown by a coup on June 30, 1920, and replacedby a narrow and more orthodox Communist Party regime. A year later,the signing of the Soviet-Iranian treaty put an end to Bolshevikadventures in northern Iran, and the Iranian army was able tocrush the Gilan Republic’s leaders. Kuchuk Khan fled north intothe mountains after Tehran put a price on his head. In 1922, thatpiece of his anatomy was returned to Tehran by a Talysh chieftainand the bounty was collected.

What does all this have to do with the good ship "MirzaKuchuk Khan"? More than a first glance might suggest.

To begin with, the ship may not be what the Iranian news serviceclaims. Rather it may be being used by smugglers of Iranian antiquities.Smuggling such antiquities is a serious crime in Iran. In a letterpublished in the April 4 Ana Dili in Cologne, the writer refersto the Supra company and a Caspian Sea freighter alleged usedfor these purposes. Whether the "Kuchuk Khan" is thatship is uncertain, but it would stand to reason: Kuchuk Khan wasthe head of a government that pushed Russian influence to thesouth and the owner of the Supra shipping company is also a headof state interested in pushing Iranian influence to the north–namelyPresident Rafsanjani of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.