Vienna, October 4 – Growing tensions between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program, increasing instability across the Caucasus, and President Vladimir Putin’s own upcoming visit to Tehran for a Caspian Sea summit are prompting Moscow officials to focus on Southern Azerbaijan and its possible role in the event of a war.
Southern Azerbaijan is the historical term for the regions of northwestern Iran that are populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis who are closely related to the titular nationality of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the North even though some of its members are closely integrated into Iranian society.
Although there is no accurate census information on their numbers, Azerbaijanis are thought to form roughly a third of the Iranian population overall – some 30 million people – and to constitute a slightly greater share of the residents of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Over the last two centuries, the Russian state and the Iranian one have engaged in intense struggles for influence and control of this region, but during intervals between these struggles, both have preferred to speak and especially act as if the issue did not even exist.
(For a useful survey of this complicated and generally neglected issue and a bibliography of other works, see David Nissman’s The Soviet Union and Iranian Azerbaijan: The Use of Nationalism for Political Penetration, Boulder: Westview Press, 1987.)
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, not only Moscow and Tehran but also Baku, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, have generally continued this pattern at the official level, clearly having concluded that even talking about this “divided nation” could lead to instability and reprisals.
But now that calculation may be changing. On October 1, the Moscow weekly Profil’ published an article by Sergei Lopatnikov on the conflict between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the United States and Great Britain, on the other, over Southern Azerbaijan in 1946 (http://www.profil.ru/items/?item=24143).
During World War II, as Lopatnikov recounts, Britain and the Soviet Union jointly occupied Iran in order to prevent it from falling under German influence. As the war was approaching its end, the Soviets set up an Azerbaijani Peoples Republic in a bid to retain and extend Moscow’s influence toward the Persian Gulf.
Using this institution as leverage, the Soviet government forced the Iranian authorities to promise to supply the USSR with five million tons of oil a year, a flow that would then not go to the Western powers and thus something that constituted a major geopolitical as well as economic prize.
According to Lopatnikov, US President Harry Truman pressed by the British threatened Stalin with the possible use of nuclear weapons if the Soviet dictator did not withdraw from Iranian Azerbaijan and give up this concession. Truman’s threat worked, the Soviets pulled out, and the Iranians then refused to honor the Soviet-Iranian oil deal.
Lopatnikov says that all this constitutes “an instructive history” of what he says is a very dangerous reality: The United States and its allies, he says, were ready to begin “a world war” in order to ensure that they and not Moscow have access to five million tons of oil a year.
Obviously, he concludes, ”Oil is a [very] special elixir indeed.”
Undoubtedly, most people reading Lopatnikov’s article would likely consider it to be simply another example of a current Moscow theme:Washington is doing what it is in the Middle East simply because of oil and not for any broader or more politically defensible agenda.
But in a subsequent article in Baku’s Ekho newspaper, a leading Azerbaijani political commentator suggests that Lopatnikov’s article is far more important because it shows that Moscow officials are now thinking about Southern Azerbaijan and its possible impact in the event of a war (http://www.echo-az.com/politica05.shtml).
Nurani argues that Lopatkin’s essay is full of mistakes of both fact and interpretation. And he suggests two of the latter are especially serious and even indicative of how some Russian officials and Russian analysts may be thinking about an issue few of them have much knowledge about.
On the one hand, the Baku commentator writes, Lopatnikov fails to understand that the West took action in Iran not so much in order to gain access to the oil but rather as part of its emerging strategy of containing communism by preventing wherever possible Soviet expansionism.
And on the other, Nurani says, Lopatnikov simply ignores what how Stalin viewed the situation in Southern Azerbaijan at that time. “At the very least,” one should remember that in 1946, Moscow was “seriously frightened” by “ national resistance in [newly-annexed] Western Ukraine, Western Belorussia, and the Baltic countries.”
Consequently, Nurani continues, many of them and “not without foundation” were seriously concerned” that Moscow “united” Southern Azerbaijan with the Soviet Union, there was a genuine possibility that “both the Caucasus and Central Asia would ‘blow up.’”
Indeed, he suggests, such fears played an equally large role in Stalin’s decision-making as did any threat that Truman or other Western leaders may have made. And that kind of calculation, one not mentioned by Lopatkin but probably the reason his article was commissioned, provides a clue to how Moscow may proceed in the current crisis.
Beyond any doubt, Nurani says, the Profil’ article shows that Moscow once again is “seriously concerned about ‘the Southern Azerbaijani factor” – “or more precisely about that role which the national movement in Southern Azerbaijan could play” as the current crisis around Tehran’s nuclear program plays itself out.
And Nurani suggests that the Kremlin “is concerned that the Azerbaijanis in Iran could play the very same role that the Baltic peoples did in the USSR” and lead to the disintegration of Iran into its ethnic component parts, a development that would seriously limit Moscow’s ability to expand its influence in the Middle East..
But obviously Moscow has even greater fears: If the 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis of Iran should ever be linked to the eight million people living in the Republic of Azerbaijan, that would change the balance of power in a region much closer to Russia’s borders – and change it in ways that would not be in Russia’s favor.
Thus, Nurani concludes, Moscow has every reason to work to moderate the current crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, doing what it can to prevent a war lest that lead to the disintegration of Iran with all the consequences such a development would have for the Russian Federation.
Although Nurani makes no mention of this in his article, the next occasion where Russian influence is likely to be brought to bear on Tehran will be when Putin arrives in the Iranian capital later this month for a summit of the heads of the Caspian littoral states (see http://www.rosbalt.ru/2007/03/418844.html).
That meeting, which is supposed to focus on the delimitation of the seabed of that inland body of water, now takes on a more important dimension as the Russian president seeks to maintain his stance as a friend of the Muslim world while seeking a resolution of the crisis that could, via Southern Azerbaijan, lead to one of his worst nightmares.