15/10/2009: TEHRAN-BAKU TENSIONS HEAT UP
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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 BAKU 000818
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/14/2019 TAGS: PREL, PTER, SNAR, ECON, AJ, IR SUBJECT: TEHRAN-BAKU TENSIONS HEAT UP
REF: A. BAKU 806 B. BAKU 139 C. BAKU 132 D. 2008 BAKU 1018 E. BAKU 175 F. BAKU 439 G. BAKU 282
Classified By: [TEXT REMOVED BY AFTENPOSTEN ], FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) and (D)
1. (S) Azerbaijan´s arms-length, frozen-smile political relationship with Iran has combines firmness on issues of sovereignty, avoidance of public confrontations, and reluctance to engage Iran directly on certain "international" (and some bilateral) issues. While concerned and even alarmed about these issues, the GOAJ is reluctant to engage Iran on its nuclear program, support for terrorism, Middle East troublemaking, etc., because it sees the exercise as pointless ("they don´t care what we think"), and perhaps leading to further strains in the bilateral relationship, with potentially nasty repercussions. Azerbaijan´s long standing foreign policy is to maintain balanced and cordial regional relations, not choosing sides or creating waves among neighbors.
2. (S) The GOAJ is basically fatalistic about broader international issues involving Iran, and looks to the West and Russia to deal with them. It is more assertive with Iran on bilateral issues, but even there its tendency is to respond to all but the most egregious perceived pressures quietly, and without public confrontation. Nonetheless, the GOAJ acts forcefully when it feels necessary, e.g., in rolling up massive Iranian influence-building networks in the 1990´s, resisting Iranian pressure over its relations with Israel, and intermittent highly publicized crackdowns on purportedly "Iran-directed" gangs and plots. This cable outlines recent bilateral flare-ups in the context of submerged bilateral tension (Caspian delimitation and energy aspects are discussed separately, see ref a). End Summary.
GOAJ-Iran October Shocks ------------------------
3. (C) Bilateral GOAJ-Iran tensions, never far from the surface, flared anew in early October 2009, after a series of unusually harsh attacks on the GOAJ by pro-regime Iranian media. The attacks appeared immediately after public claims by the GOAJ that a recently-convicted group of terrorists were working for Iran, and international speculation about possible future USG use (with Russia) of the Qabala radar station to monitor Iran. The spat arose in the aftermath of increasing Azerbaijani cooperation with Israel, reflected in the Spring 2009 visit to Baku of Israeli President Peres, and rumored weapons deals. The Iranian media attacks, which included claims that the GOAJ is working to break up Iran, depiction of the Azerbaijani flag upside down and with a star of David in the center, resulted in a strong GOAJ diplomatic protest. Whether these incidents signify a new chapter in relations, or just another passing storm, remains to be seen.
4. (SBU) Iran made a major economic and political influence-building effort in Azerbaijan in the early 1990´s. These included subsidizing a pro-Iranian Islamist movement, active pro-Iran proselytizing by Iranian religious bodies and NGO fronts, and similar aggressive outreach activities (ref c). Most Iranian NGOs were expelled and Iranian networks mopped up in the 1990´s by former President Heidar Aliyev, and Tehran now pursues a lower-profile, longer-term influence building strategy targeting rural notables and Shiite villages (see paragraph #). Since the late 1990´s bilateral relations have generally gravitated between mildly surly to smilingly correct (which is basically the current state). Azerbaijan´s relatively cool, arms-length posture towards Iran contrasts with its much closer relations with Russia and
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(at least until very recently) Turkey, with whom it frequently exchanges high-level official visits.
5. (C) Following the return to power of Haidar Aliyev in the early 1990´s, the GOAJ and pro-government media dropped all previous Pan-Azeri and Pan-Turkish rhetoric. In public, the GOAJ has virtually ignored the recent domestic turmoil in Iran and quickly recognized the election of Ahmedinejad to a new term, and congratulated him. GOAJ comments and criticism have been limited In private, in Baku to private conversations, spoken to Embassy personnel and official visitors at MFA meetings.
6. (C) Despite some recent Iranian media claims, the GOAJ displays little interest in Iranian Azerbaijani cultural aspirations and issues (although these are still covered by Baku opposition media). However, Azerbaijan currently provides refuge to a small number of largely inactive Iranian regime opponents, including monarchists and Iranian-Azerbaijani pan-Turks, autonomists, and separatists (far more ethnic Azeris live in Iran than Azerbaijan). While allowing these individuals residency, the GOAJ does not tolerate overt anti-Iranian activities by them. In addition, about 2,000 Iranian students are currently studying in Baku, most from Iranian Azerbaijan. Unlike students in Armenia and many other countries, these students are not entitled to GOI loans or subsidies, and some reportedly experience considerable harassment and red tape when they return to Iran. Many Iranian students come from well heeled regime-connected families. Ability to study in the Azeri language, freer life style, and relatively easy cash-based admissions policies at many Azerbaijani universities are cited by Iranian students as key reasons for studying here.
Iran´s Influence-Building Efforts... ---------------------------------
7. (S) Iranian influence-building activities inside Azerbaijan rest on a tripod of "social engagement" organizations, including an "Iran Assistance Society" that networks with rural notables and grants micro-loans to their nominees; the Baku-based Iranian Culture House and its affiliates, which proselytize and build clerical networks; and the Iranian Red Crescent society, based in "Iranian Clinics" in Baku and elsewhere. Important satellite institutions, such as charitable foundations administered by Iranians with Revolutionary Guard ties and Iranian-funded mosques (one led by a son-in-law of the late hard-line head of the Council of Experts, Ayatollah Meshkini), exist as de facto sub-sets under these three categories (see refs (b) and (c) for details).
8. (S) Iranian government and semi-official foundations (some of which operate businesses in Azerbaijan) provide material support to some Farsi language schools, and offers selected village and lower-income Azerbaijani children with all-expenses paid Iran study scholarships (some reportedly including stipends for their families), and organize free pilgrimages to Mashad. Several Iranians with allegedly close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian Intelligence, and/or other regime organizations also run businesses or maintain investments here (see ref (e) and septels on Iranian business activities and actors).
...And Propaganda Broadcasts ----------------------------
9. (C) In addition to these efforts, a nominally private, pro-regime Iranian television station tied to the Revolutionary Guard continues to make propagandistic Azeri language TV broadcasts into the south of Azerbaijan. The programs include a widely watched Azeri language current events show that includes gossip and stories embarrassing to the GOAJ, and often challenges the secular policies of the government. What to do about these broadcasts is a matter of debate within the GOAJ: the Ministry of Telecommunications and other GOAJ elements downplay the issue, while security personnel reportedly believe that some tangible counteraction is necessary. Despite grumbling and periodically rumored GOAJ acquisition of blocking equipment, the Iranian broadcasts continue. Iran also allegedly uses financial
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inducements to attract/corrupt key GOAJ officials and other influential Azerbaijanis, and this may be a compounding factor (ref d).
Baku Visit of President Peres -----------------------------
10. (SBU) The GOAJ and Azerbaijani political figures and organizations from across the spectrum expressed deep resentment over heavy-handed Iranian government efforts to force the GOAJ to rescind its April, 2009 invitation to Israeli President Peres to visit Baku (ref (e)). Public anger was focused on a strong public condemnation of the GOAJ invitation and implied threats by the Iranian Army Chief of Staff, which was widely reported in the Iranian and local press. The Iranian general´s implicit threats were followed by a furious series of demarches, during which the Iranian Ambassador reportedly threatened the GOAJ with "very, very grave consequences" if the invitation was not rescinded.
11. (S) In the end, the visit went forward smoothly, and some modest cooperation agreements were signed. The strong Iranian reaction may have mitigated against a decision to open an Azerbaijani Embassy in Tel Aviv (an action long sought by the Israelis), but has not otherwise deterred warming Israeli-Azerbaijan relations. In a new development likely to anger Iran, an Israeli firm known for manufacturing aircraft drones opened a Baku branch on October 6, amidst speculation that joint Azerbaijan-Israeli drone production is planned.
Harsh Iranian Press Attacks ---------------------------
12. (C) In early October 2009, after a closed trial, an Azerbaijani court sentenced the group of alleged terrorists arrested the previous spring, and supposedly connected to Lebanese Hezbollah plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Baku AND the Qabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan. (FYI: This was the first time the radar station (and not just the Embassy) had been publicly named as an intended target of the gang. The Qabala radar station is currently being used by Russia to monitor the greater Middle East and Indian Ocean region, and has been raised by Russia for consideration by the USG or others as a possible missile defense post. End FYI). In a public statement the state prosecutor repeated earlier claims that the entire plot was an operation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
13. (C) In another development likely to anger Iran, on October 4 an Israeli military equipment company opened a branch office in Baku, amidst speculation that joint Azerbaijani-Israeli aircraft drone production may soon begin. The opening occurred in the midst of a spate of recent harsh Iranian press attacks on Azerbaijan, including claims by an Iranian Press TV journalist that the GOAJ wants to annex Iranian Azerbaijan, and a depiction by Iranian Sahar TV (nominally private) of the Azerbaijani flag upside down, and emblazoned with a star of David.
...Evokes GOAJ Protest ----------------------
14. (C) The Iranian media attacks led to a highly unusual publicized protest by the GOAJ to the Iranian Ambassador and Foreign Ministry on October 7, in which the GOAJ complained about "the insulting of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani flag." Comment: The long term significance of the Iranian press offensive against the GOAJ remains unclear. The recent press attacks have not yet been echoed by Iranian officials, and it remains to be seen if these tensions over Israel and other issues will be papered over by the two sides, or mark the beginnings of increased tension in relations, in which Iranian sensitivity over possible USG-Russian use of the Qabala radar station, and increased GOAJ cooperation with Israel, are new elements. End Comment.
GOAJ Accusations on Heroin Smuggling ------------------------------------
15. (S) Though relatively unpublicized compared to the above
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issues, GOAJ concern over the skyrocketing of Iranian-processed heroin and other narcotics in Azerbaijan is also a potential source of tension. Several senior GOAJ officials have even privately accused the Iranian government and/or security services of deliberately "flooding" Azerbaijan with narcotics in order to undermine its stability. During a meeting with Ambassador (ref g), Deputy Foreign Minister Khalafov also asserted that:
-- The Iranian government has repeatedly released convicted Iranian drug smugglers handed over by the GOAJ under the terms of a treaty allowing respective nationals to serve out their terms in their home nation´s jails: "in several cases we have even caught again Iranian drug smugglers that we had previously handed over to them."
-- Senior Afghan government authorities have told the GOAJ that Iranian security forces are actively collaborating with selected groups of Afghan drug smugglers;
-- Interrogations of Iranian smugglers arrested in Azerbaijan over the past year have elicited claims of active Iranian security personnel collaboration in transit traffic and in the operation of heroin processing laboratories in Tabriz and elsewhere in Iran.
16. (S) GOAJ leaders, from President Aliyev on down, have made it very clear that they consider Iran a major source of potential instability, and are deeply concerned by its nuclear program, promotion of terrorism, and similar issues. At the same time, the GOAJ is highly cognizant of the fact that Azerbaijan is a small and vulnerable player in a very tough neighborhood. For this reason, the GOAJ is highly risk averse when it comes to confrontations with neighbors, even on many bilateral issues. As a practical matter, this translates into a desire to stay out of the picture on many sensitive multilateral issues, while privately encouraging others to do the heavy lifting. Although the longer implications of the latest bilateral contretemps with Iran are unclear, its likely impact in the short term will be to reinforce this attitude. End Comment.