Iran and Russia are trying to hamper Azerbaijan’s gas exploitation in the Caspian Sea which would lessen the West’s energy dependence on these authoritarian regimes. Hoping to secure access to Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas, Europe and the United States are tempted to intervene.
EurasiaNet reports that diplomatic cables from the American embassy in Baku, revealed by the whistleblowers’ website WikiLeaks, show that Azerbaijani officials appealed to the United States for support against Russia’s attempts to frustrate the small nation’s energy policy.
A senior Azerbaijani official told American diplomats in 2009 that both Iran and Russia were trying to take advantage “of the current poor state of Azerbaijani-Turkish relations and stalled gas transit discussions to kill the prospects for transit of Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas to international markets.”
The strategic picture that [he] painted was grim: the strategic encirclement of Azerbaijani and Central Asian energy resources by Russia and Iran, assisted, wittingly or unwittingly, by Turkey.
Azerbaijani-Turkish relations, otherwise strong, in part because they share a nemesis in Armenia and an interest in gas exports, were upset in 2009 due to a price dispute that was settled in 2010.
In their communication with the American embassy, the Azerbaijanis pointed out that they had not the ability to mount a significant military response if either Iran or Russia menaced them overtly.
Their impotence in this regard was evident in November 2009 when Iran moved its new Alborz oil rig into waters that are disputed between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Bilateral relations took a turn for the worse in September of this year when Azerbaijani authorities put the leader of an openly pro-Iranian opposition party on trial for suspected anti-government activity. The Iranian army chief subsequently predicted that Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, “will face a grim future” if he continued his supposedly anti-Iranian policy.
Baku doesn’t necessarily worry that Iran will make good on its threats but they are reflective of frustration in Tehran which is increasingly isolated in the region because of its nuclear weapons program and attempts at exporting the Iranian Revolution.
Azerbaijan, in fact, was once deemed the perfect target for Islamist propaganda but many decades of secular Soviet rule had undermined the religious sentiment in the country and the ayatollahs’ fanaticism never managed to take root there.
Azerbaijan is a largely homogenous nation with a 90 percent Muslim Shia population. Across the southern border in Iran live nearly sixteen million Azerbaijanis who comprise 24 percent of the population there, the largest minority in the Islamic Republic.
An historic Azerbaijani ambition has been to unite the peoples of what it regards as “northern” and “southern Azerbaijan.” Iran is extremely wary of these hopes which could challenge Persian hegemony in the multiethnic theocracy.
After the United States invaded two of Iran’s neighbors in the last decade and declared it a member of an “axis of evil,” Syria, the country’s only ally in the Middle East, now faces a popular uprising that could well topple the Ba’athist regime there to leave Iran without any friends. Azerbaijan fears that Iran could lash out against it in an effort to dissuade Western intervention its own backyard.
Russian meddling has less to do with geostrategy and far more with direct energy interests. A main supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe, Azerbaijan’s independent export ambitions are a potential threat to Moscow.
The Russians tried to prevent the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which became operational in May 2006 and can transport up to fifty million tons of crude oil from the Caspian to Turkey per year.
The South Caucasus Pipeline, which also stretches through the territory of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, delivers gas from the Shah Deniz field to Europe. A foreign consortium including BP, Norway’s Statoil and Eni is developing one trillion cubic meters of gas reserves off Azerbaijan’s Caspian coast.
The Trans Caspian and Nabucco gas pipelines will both be additional competitors to Russia’s South Stream which is supposed to traverse the Black Sea. If Europe can come together heated by Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas, it will diminish the Kremlin’s ability to play divide and conquer in Central and Eastern Europe where transit countries fear a Russian resurgence and wonder whether Germany won’t put its own energy security before the common European interest.