Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A No-Win U.S. Ally, Now More Isolated ; Azerbaijan, in Long Feud with Armenia, Angers Iran with Links to Israel

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A No-Win U.S. Ally, Now More Isolated ; Azerbaijan, in Long Feud with Armenia, Angers Iran with Links to Israel

Article excerpt

Traditionally tense relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are deteriorating because of Iranian unease at expanding military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The perennially tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran, wary neighbors on the Caspian Sea, has deteriorated in recent weeks amid deep unease in Tehran over expanding military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

A vital border crossing here has been shut for days at a time, stranding long lines of trucks. Not far away, Iranian warships maneuver in the Caspian Sea. Last week, a senior aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was refused entry at the airport in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Ambassadors on each side have returned home.

And a public relations war is raging as officials trade nasty barbs online and in the news media -- including an exchange in which the two predominantly Muslim countries each accused the other of being overly friendly to gay people.

In March, in perhaps the gravest sign of the strains, the authorities in Azerbaijan arrested 22 people they said were part of an Iranian-backed plot to kill American and Israeli diplomats and attack other targets in Baku, though the allegations are as yet unproved.

"Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have become very hot," said Elhan Shahinoglu, the director of Atlas, a foreign policy research organization in Baku.

Officially, Azerbaijan says it wants to remain neutral in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. But the government of President Ilham Aliyev has loudly defended its right to strengthen military ties with Israel, signaled most recently by Azerbaijan's purchase of $1.6 billion worth of Israeli-made weapons. However, both countries have denied reports that Azerbaijan has given Israel access to its military bases to keep watch over Iran.

The rising importance of Azerbaijan as a strategic ally of the West will be on full display Wednesday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lands in Baku on a diplomatic swing through the South Caucasus. With overland supply routes closed in Pakistan, NATO is relying heavily on airfields in Azerbaijan to move supplies to and from Afghanistan.

Ties to the West, however, are only one factor in the tensions with Iran. Azerbaijan has long chafed at Iran's support of Armenia, Azerbaijan's western neighbor and sworn enemy, in the long-running war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Even as the situation in and around Azerbaijan has grown increasingly volatile, American officials seem largely distracted by the conflict in Syria and by domestic politics.

State Department officials in Washington refused to respond to questions about the friction between Azerbaijan and Iran, the United States' relationship with Baku or the implications for American and international security. "We're not prepared to comment," Robert B. Hilton, a spokesman on European and Eurasian affairs, wrote in an e- mail message.

The United States has not had an ambassador in Baku since the departure in December of Matthew J. Bryza, a well-respected career diplomat and expert on the region, whose nomination was derailed in Congress because of opposition from Armenian-American interest groups.

President Barack Obama instead granted Mr. Bryza a temporary recess appointment in 2010.

Late last month, Mr. Obama nominated Richard L. Morningstar, a former ambassador to the European Union and currently the special envoy for Eurasian energy issues, to be the next ambassador in Baku. He is now awaiting confirmation by the Senate.

Ali M. Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Aliyev, said the lack of an ambassador was problematic. "We are missing the consultations with the American ambassador," he said in an interview at his office in Baku. "Americans cannot write off a country like Azerbaijan. …

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