Recent Arms Purchases by Azerbaijan a Hedge Against Armenia, Not Iran

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

This year has witnessed a rapid escalation of tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. In February, Baku agreed to buy $1.6 billion of arms from Israel. The order included drones, anti-aircraft missile defense systems, and various other weapons. Shortly thereafter, Azerbaijan reported that Iranian oil rigs had entered contested Azerbaijani waters in the Caspian Sea. A standoff over lucrative offshore petro rights seems imminent. In March, Azerbaijani police arrested 22 people they claimed were planning an Iranian-backed plot to assassinate U.S. and Israeli diplomats. Frequent closings of the Iranian-Azerbaijani border—apparently by Iran—have cut off the supply route to Nakhichevan, a truncated Azerbaijani enclave landlocked between Iran and Armenia. Two weeks ago, Baku refused entry to a senior aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Both countries withdrew their ambassadors in the ensuing diplomatic standoff. Most recently, an Azerbaijani court sentenced an Iranian reporter to two years in prison for drug possession, a move widely suspected as being politically motivated.

Azerbaijan prides itself on its secularism and is discomfited by what it sees as Iran’s attempts to spread Islamic influence in the region. Many Azerbaijani politicians publically refer to their nation as “North Azerbaijan,” insinuating that Azeri-speaking areas of Northern Iran are rightfully part of the Azerbaijani Republic. Azerbaijan’s “bunker mentality” is unsurprising given its history and precarious geopolitical location. A former Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia—who helped Azerbaijan’s western neighbor, Armenia, expel ethnic Azeris from Nagorno-Karabakh during the early 1990s—and Iran, Azerbaijan is a small nation inhabiting a volatile region it experiences as increasingly hostile.

Iran, for its part, sees the existence of a neighboring secular Shia state as a threat to the very integrity of the Islamic Republic. This fear may not be as ludicrous as it sounds. An estimated 20 percent of Iran’s population is Azeri, and they share close cultural and linguistic ties with Turkey, one of Iran’s main regional rivals. Azerbaijan and Israel are also on chummy terms. The secular Shia state is the second leading supplier of oil to Israel. Moreover, since 2001, the United States has frequently used Azerbaijani airspace to access Afghanistan. Iran suspects that the United States is using Azerbaijani intelligence to keep tabs on the region and increasingly fears that Azerbaijan could be the staging ground for an attack by Israel or the United States.

Speaking in Baku last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing growing tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, said that “there is a danger that it could escalate into a much broader conflict that would be very tragic for everyone concerned.” Conflict would likely draw other nations—such as Armenia, Russia, and/or Turkey, into the fray. Still, Azerbaijan will not likely agree to allow Israel or the United States to use its airstrips to attack Iran. Even with its newly acquired weapons, Azerbaijan is dreadfully ill-prepared to face off against its southern neighbor. One only needs to compare the military budgets of Azerbaijan and Iran: $2.8 billion to $7.5 billion, respectively, to see how perilous it would be for Azerbaijan to provoke Iran directly by military action or indirectly by allowing Israel or the U.S. to use its bases as a staging ground for an attack. Moreover, Iran’s active army is ten times larger than that of Azerbaijan. As a small country bordering Russia, a nation closely allied with the Islamic Republic, Azerbaijan has much more to lose than it does to gain should conflict ensue.

Azerbaijan’s recent weapons purchases should be seen as an attempt to aggrandize itself militarily vis-à-vis neighboring Armenia. Last fall, Armenia reportedly purchased 60 tons of used weapons from Moldova, a move that the Azerbaijani administration decried as having “destabilizing” effects in the region. But even with its most recent arms purchase, Armenia’s military pales in comparison to that of Azerbaijan. Armenia spends approximately $400 million a year on its military, or one-seventh as much as Azerbaijan. Armenia’s army is also substantially smaller.

Azerbaijan’s recent arms purchases are self-defeating. Due to the arguably solid alliance of Iran, Russia, and Armenia, conflict in the region would be dangerous at best—and perilous at worst—for Azerbaijan. Moreover, in addition to being limited geographically and militarily, Azerbaijan lacks allies among its closest neighbors. Even though Azerbaijan wants Armenia out of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is a mistake to think that this outcome—or any outcome desired by Azerbaijan—could be brought about by arms purchases that prepare the nation for a conflict from which it could not benefit.

Gabriel I. Rossman is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.