Baku's latest showdown with Iran, touched off when Azeri oil ships met Iranian military resistance in the Caspian Sea, is affecting the government's domestic image and perhaps its control over public opinion. The media and political opposition have pounced on the state's slow response to Tehran's posture. News reports have painted Azeri airspace as the victim of systematic violations by Iranian jets and painted the Defense Ministry as foolishly inactive. In a representative barb, the newspaper Yen Muscat declared that "The institution which is supposed to defend our borders is doing nothing."
Such browbeating eventually influenced the government. After some initial confusion, military officials issued a warning to Iran and promised in the future to prevent the illegal entry of Iranian planes into Azerbaijan. Clearly, oil rights the source of both countries' interest in Caspian borders- become more secure when the state claiming them threatens violence. While Azerbaijan's strong language has calmed the public somewhat, it also raises an important question. Does the state have the military capacity to back up its tough talk?
Azad Isazade, a military expert in Baku, thinks so technically, at least. He notes that, along with an air force, the country boasts considerable military equipment, and an anti-aircraft defense system, which the Soviet Union left behind. "This system practically covers all of Azerbaijan's territory and is in fairly good condition," Isazade says. But technology does not wage campaigns by itself, and Isazade has criticized the Defense Ministry for responding inadequately to Iran's actions. "Of course," he notes, "the decision to shoot down aircraft or to force it to land is a political one."
Many observers doubt that Baku will respond to Iran militarily. Indeed, the moment for such a response may have passed. Iranian Foreign Minister Khamal Kharrazi has spoken in the past week of the need to avoid the "militarization" of the Caspian. Last week the United States praised Azerbaijan's restraint, labeling Iranian actions in the Caspian a "provocation." Phillip Reeker, Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, stated that the U.S. "firmly supports Azerbaijan and other littoral states which choose a peaceful resolution, not confrontation, to resolve Caspian Sea boundary disputes." One month after the seaborne standoff, forbearance has become a sign of diplomatic skill.
So Baku may not have to prove its military mettle. Still, it would help Azerbaijan's standing to make a credible threat, because Tehran remains strident. Hamid-Rza Asefi, spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, rejected the U.S. criticism and told state media Wednesday the flights in question were routine patrols over Iranian territory and should not be interpreted as threats to other countries. Indeed, Mr. Asefi placed peacekeeping responsibility in Baku, urging the government to resist outside actors who might try to exploit current tensions. The Iranian diplomat repeated Tehran's desire to resolve disputes over Caspian resources without third-country involvement.
Yet Iran should not make such statements blithely, warns Vafa Guluzade, former foreign policy advisor to President Aliyev. "So far, Azerbaijan is showing restraint. But Tehran must understand that if it continues its aggressive policy toward Azerbaijan, Baku will defend its sovereignty by any means. And if it must, it will shoot down Iranian aircraft." To be sure, Guluzade currently working as an independent analyst doesn't expect a military event. He urges the two sides to resolve the situation through dialogue, and claimed that Azerbaijan can expect Western support in any discussions. So Baku needs to show that it could strike while also showing that it doesn't need to.
Though this peaceful stance may annoy newspapers and opposition politicians, it appears to be prevailing for now. Azeri officials report that President Aliyev plans to visit Iran next month. A spokesman for Mr. Aliyev says the president will use the visit to discuss the dispute, as well as other issues. Already, the opposition is searching for other vices. Some are probing the Tehran-Baku relationship for marks of corruption. Etibar Mamedov, the leader of the National Independence Party, speculated that the government's weak response is the result of the illegal oil trade between the two countries. According to him, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, a notoriously corrupt organization, is using Iranian territory to conduct illegal operations. To date, the government has failed to refute such allegations. Even as Baku wavers on displaying its strength to neighbors, its trickiest campaigns may lie within its own borders.
Kenan Aliev is a journalist based in Washington, DC.