Iran crisis stirs tensions in ex-Soviet Union Caucasus

Saturday, March 3, 2012
By Matthew Collin ,AFP

TBILISI, Georgia -- Thwarted attacks on Israelis in Tbilisi and Baku. Friction between Azerbaijan and its giant neighbor Iran. Fears of a new war over the conflict-bloodied region of Nagorny Karabakh.

As warnings grow of a possible Israeli strike against Iran, the three small south Caucasus ex-Soviet states have become increasingly nervous that open conflict could throw their troubled region into even deeper turmoil.

“As always when relations between the greater powers around the Caucasus are in turmoil, the Caucasus is affected,” said Svante Cornell, research director at the Stockholm-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Georgian police in February said they defused a bomb near the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, part of a series of attack plots that Israel blamed on Iran.

Mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan has arrested several people over the past two months accused of plotting to attack Israelis in Baku on behalf of Iran and the Islamic radical group Hezbollah.

The alleged plots have provoked speculation in the region that Iran and Israel are acting out a covert conflict on the Islamic republic's borders, deploying spies and recruiting locals as proxies.

The south Caucasus had long been a battleground for influence between Iran, Russia and Turkey, but the fall of the Soviet Union enabled the U.S. and Europe to forge new allegiances where Moscow had dominated for decades.

Criticism of Tehran has escalated in Azerbaijan in recent months, with allegations that Iranians have commissioned bombers, sponsored Muslim extremists and staged cyber-attacks on state websites.

“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Iran has been trying to export Islamic revolution into Azerbaijan. Iran wants to get its hands on Azerbaijan,” Vafa Guluzade, a former Azerbaijani presidential foreign policy adviser, told AFP in Baku.

Tehran has in turn accused Baku — which maintains friendly ties with Israel — of collaborating with Israeli spy services and aiding assassins who have killed Iranian nuclear scientists.

Their relationship is complicated by the huge ethnic Azeri minority in Iran which far outnumbers the ex-Soviet state's own population of 9.2 million, sparking territorial claims on northern Iran by some nationalists.

“If the situation destabilizes (into conflict with Iran), Azerbaijan is worried about potential refugees because it already has a huge problem with internally displaced people,” said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group.

Adding to a potent regional brew, U.S.-backed Georgia has ambitions to join NATO and friendly ties with Israel, but has recently intensified links with Iran by introducing a visa-free regime to attract investment.

“War in Iran could disrupt major international economic projects which are vital for Georgia and could negatively affect Georgia's role as a strategic energy transit route from the Caspian to Western Europe,” said Soso Tsintsadze, rector of Georgia's Diplomatic Academy.

Concerns have also been raised in Tbilisi that enemy Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and maintains a large troop presence in two Georgian breakaway regions, could use a conflict to strengthen its position.

Armenia is predominantly Christian but has long kept warm ties with Iran, collaborating on energy and transport projects to help alleviate its economic isolation caused by closed borders with foes Azerbaijan and Turkey.

“If there is a change of regime in Iran, that could have unpredictable and possibly negative consequences for Armenia,” Sheets said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have never signed a final peace deal over Nagorny Karabakh, a region seized from Azerbaijan by Yerevan-backed Armenian separatists during a 1990s war that left some 30,000 dead.

Soldiers are frequently killed in skirmishes along the Karabakh frontline and Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to use its vast defense budget to retake the territory by force.

In a dramatic sign that public fervor over Karabakh still runs high, some 50,000 people marched in Baku last week to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the bloodiest clashes of the war which left hundreds of Azerbaijanis dead.

There are fears in each of the three small ex-Soviet states that their tangled web of friendships and enmities could be further complicated by a conflict between greater powers that could spin out of control.

Iran this week protested to Azerbaijan over its reported deal to buy arms worth US$1.5 billion from its Israeli foe, weapons that were reportedly bought to strengthen its position on Karabakh.

“Any serious escalation in Iran bears real risks for all the south Caucasus countries,” Tsintsadze said.

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