Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 43

On February 22, Azerbaijani media outlets reported that Iranian helicopters had violated the air space of Azerbaijan and by flying over the southern town of Astara for over 20 minutes. Reportedly, the flight took place right over the city administration building and caused considerable panic among the local residents.

Elchin Guliyev, the commander of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan, confirmed the news reports, noting that the Azerbaijani Embassy in Iran had been immediately notified of the violation of the country’s air space and that a note had been sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan to follow up with the problem. Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalaf Khalafov is currently visiting Iran to discuss this issue. Guliyev added that the incident had taken place while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was visiting northern Iran. Azerbaijanis commonly refer to this area as “South Azerbaijan,” because the Turkmanchay Treaty of 1828, between Tsarist Russia and Persia, effectively divided Azerbaijan along the Arax River, thus leaving the southern part of it within contemporary Iran. The area is a home to more than 25 million ethnic Azeris.

This high concentration of ethnic Azeris in northern Iran is the main reason that Iranian-Azerbaijani relations have been at odds for much of the 1990s. Iran, fearing a secessionist movement among ethnic Azeris, has prohibited education in the Azerbaijani language and limited human rights. The recent warming of bilateral relations has been largely a consequence of the efforts of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to build peaceful relations with all of his neighbors. Yet, the constant insecurity of the Iranian political leadership regarding a possible U.S. military strike against Iran — and possible Azerbaijani support for such an action — leads to occasional provocations, such as the case with the Iranian helicopters.

Local analysts in Baku believe that the incident did not happen by accident. On the contrary, it is a clear warning to official Baku to stay out of the U.S.-led campaign against Iran’s nuclear program and not to support — either politically or logistically — any possible military action against Tehran. Azerbaijan, with its shared border with Iran, would serve as a perfect staging ground for anti-Iranian actions.

Last month U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman visited Baku and held negotiations with the Azerbaijani political leadership about the pace of bilateral military cooperation. Concurrently, Americans are finishing up the construction of two radar bases in Azerbaijan, which Iranians regard as a threat to their national security. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has issued a statement condemning Iran’s policy towards ethnic Azerbaijanis for violating their human rights.

The incident with the helicopters, as well as the sudden termination of the duties of the Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Suleymani, has led the local pundits to believe that something has gone off track in Azerbaijani-Iranian relations due to the growing insecurity on Tehran’s part.

It is not the first time that Iran has bullied Azerbaijan with the help of its military machine. In the summer of 2001, Iranian war ships pushed back an Azerbaijan-owned, BP-rented exploratory vessel from the South of the Caspian sea, followed by repeated flights of the Iranian jet fighters over Azerbaijani territory. It was reported at that time that the Azerbaijani political leadership was very concerned by the incident and had asked Ankara and Washington for political support.

President Aliyev has re-affirmed his country’s policy of supporting peace in the region, and he was quoted by the local mass media as saying, “Iran has rights to develop its nuclear program, just like any other country, but for peaceful purposes.” Such strong support for Iran might be the result of the Iranian threats, but it is also clear that, as reports about possible U.S. strikes against Iran intensify, Aliyev wants to send signals to Washington that the war in the region might cause major political, economic, and humanitarian problems for Baku, and that it is not a desirable course of action for official Baku.

Day.az, Echo, Zerkalo, Xalq Qazeti (February 21-28)