It’s just so hard to launch an international bash these days. Everyone’s a critic. Just ask Azerbaijan.
Preparations for Eurovision, one of Europe’s biggest song contests to be held in May in Baku, are regularly sidetracked either by criticism of the country dismal human rights record, or allegations of the country’s silent involvement in Iran-Israeli nuclear crisis, though the government continues to deny any role.
Last week, Foreign Policy published an article by foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry that suggested Azerbaijan has expanded its military cooperation with Israel. The article quoted anonymous U.S. officials saying that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its airbases, or, as one of the author’s high-ranked sources phrased it: “The Israelis have bought an airfield, [...] called Azerbaijan.”
The article also quoted a retired American diplomat who suggested that even though this is most likely a verbal deal, Israel will have no trouble landing its jets in Azerbaijan. According to Perry, the deal might be the same cooperation Israel’s retired Brig. Gen. Oded Tira talked about in December 2006, calling for Israel to “coordinate with Azerbaijan the use of airbases in its territory.” According to a former CIA analyst interviewed for the article, the airbases will probably not be used to launch Israeli attacks on Iran, but for “follow-on or recovery operations.” Either way, the relationship will put Azerbaijanis in harm’s way..
And, either way, Azerbaijan reacted immediately. The publication of the article was followed by a triple renunciation the next day. Defense ministry spokesman Teymur Abdullayev denied the assumptions, calling the information “absurd and groundless.” Ali Hasanov, Presidential Administration official said the claims are aimed at “damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.” And Arye Gut, spokesman for the International Association “Israel-Azerbaijan” (Aziz) described Azerbaijan’s official position as to never be used against neighboring countries.
On Tuesday, April 3, the Azerbaijani embassy in the U.S. sent a protest note to Foreign Policy, saying the article by Perry is a provocation, according to Radio Liberty.
The official U.S. position on the topic was also clear. During a daily press briefing in Washington, D.C on Monday, Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that she doesn’t possess any information “to indicate that the reports that are out there have any basis in fact.”
Prominent Azerbaijani political analyst Zardusht Alizadeh called Azerbaijan’s possible involvement in an Israeli-Iranian conflict “a brainless decision.” According to Alizadeh, it can put the country at increased risk, since it will take Iranian army only 12 hours to cross the border
The news broke only a month after Israel announced a $1.6 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan. According to the agreement, Azerbaijan is to buy drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems from the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries. The deal came as no surprise given the strong economic ties between two countries. One-fifth of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan, which makes the Jewish state one of Azerbaijan’s five biggest economic partners in a few short years.
At the same time, relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have gone down the hill since the beginning of the year.
In January, Azerbaijan’s national security forces foiled a two-man terrorist group that supposedly planned attacks on the country’s prominent Jews for $150,000 from Iranian intelligence. During the following month, authorities arrested 22 people suspected in espionage for Iran. However, human rights groups highly doubt the connection of some of the cases to Iranian conspiracy. One of them is the case of Anar Bayramli, a reporter for Iranian Sahar TV channel, which was repeatedly accused of spreading pro-Iranian propaganda by Azerbaijani authorities, who has been sentenced for two months of pre-trial detention on drug possession charges.
The mutual hostility increased in February when Iran’s authorities summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador and presented him a protest note following a Times of London’s report. The article quoted an anonymous, Baku-based Mossad agent saying that Israeli intelligence has increased its presence in Azerbaijan in recent years to be closer to Iran.
It seems like Azerbaijan has a lot on its plate these days. Pretty soon the country will be welcoming tens of thousands of tourists coming to see their favorite singers, eat some delicious local food, take pictures in the Old Town and root for their countries. It will be a fun time for both Azerbaijanis and their guests.
However, those who believe, that Azerbaijani government is playing a dangerous game of hostility with its southern neighbor doubt that the country will be able to maintain necessary security. Especially in extreme situations such as Eurovision.