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The Iran Conflict Comes To The Caucasus

  • Brian Whitmore

Mourners carry the coffin of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan during his funeral in Tehran on January 13. Roshan is the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated in two years. Iran accuses Azerbaijan of colluding with Israel in the killings.

Mourners carry the coffin of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan during his funeral in Tehran on January 13. Roshan is the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated in two years. Iran accuses Azerbaijan of colluding with Israel in the killings.

When police in Tbilisi discovered and defused a bomb on the car of an employee of the Israeli Embassy on February 13, it marked the second time in less than a month that the Jewish state's diplomats had become the target of an attack in the South Caucasus.

The other incident came in late January when Azerbaijani security officials said they had foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Israeli ambassador, a local rabbi, and other prominent Jews in that country. Police arrested two Azerbaijani nationals in connection with that plot.

In both cases, Iran has been named as the suspected mastermind. Israel publicly accused Tehran of being behind the aborted Tbilisi attack. And officials in Baku said the two Azerbaijani suspects arrested in January had collaborated on the alleged assassination plot with an Iranian citizen connected to that country's security services.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident. But analysts say the two cases illustrate how Georgia and Azerbaijan -- due to their proximity to Iran and their close relations with Israel and the United States -- risk being drawn deeper into the quickly escalating conflict between Tehran on one side and Israel and the West on the other.

"We think of Iran primarily through the lens of the Persian Gulf. But this is a reminder that it also functions as a Caspian and Caucasian power," says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

"Everyone is focused on Iran's ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz," he continued. "Well, it can cause problems in the Caucasus, as well, if it so chooses."

Asymmetrical Warfare

The foiled bomb plots in Georgia and Azerbaijan -- as well as recent attacks in India and Thailand -- came amid escalating tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear program, with talk of potential military strikes by the United States or Israel becoming increasingly frequent.

The talk of armed conflict has sparked fears of reprisal attacks in the Caucasus region.

Michael Lotem, Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan, was the target of an assassination plot, according to Azerbaijani officials.

Michael Lotem, Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan, was the target of an assassination plot, according to Azerbaijani officials.

Besik Aladashvili, a Tbilisi-based security analyst, said Georgia could be more vulnerable to attacks similar to the one that was thwarted this week if armed conflict breaks out.

"I do not rule out the possibility that should the United States and Israel launch a military operation against Iran, then Iran will retaliate. This will happen in countries around the world," Aladashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"If things escalate -- God forbid -- into an open confrontation, we cannot exclude the possibility of Georgia becoming part of the conflict and terrorist attacks occurring here."

Analysts say Iran is looking to raise the cost of confrontation by carrying out "asymmetrical" attacks on Israeli targets. Tehran is convinced that Israel's intelligence service, Mossad, is behind a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and is seeking to exact revenge.

Wayne Merry, a former U.S. State Department official who is now senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says due to Georgia and Azerbaijan's proximity to and visa-free-travel agreements with Iran, Israeli facilities in those countries in those countries are among "the most available targets" for Tehran.

"I think what we are looking at here is a low-level asymmetric conflict between intelligence services -- Iranian and Israeli -- in which the territory and sovereignty of other countries are not well-respected," Merry says.

Baku-Tehran Tensions

Moreover, the saber-rattling between Iran and the West come amid a festering -- albeit thus far low-intensity -- conflict between Tehran and Baku, making Azerbaijan additionally vulnerable.

Much of this stems from Baku's close relations with Tel Aviv, analysts say.

WATCH: Authorities in Georgia defuse an explosive device that was planted on an Israeli Embassy vehicle in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on February 13.
Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country that is home to approximately 9,000 Jews, has exceptionally warm relations with Israel. Azerbaijan provides Israel with the bulk of its oil, while Israel sells Azerbaijan weapons. The close relations have long been an irritant to Iran.

Tehran has also long believed that Azerbaijan is allowing the Mossad to operate freely on its territory.

"The Iranians perceive that Baku is being used by Israel as a base of intelligence operations -- whether electronic listening or sending in and out agents or whatever," Merry says. "In Iran, there is a perception that along its northern perimeter, Azerbaijan is a place that is being used by Israel in its broader rivalry with the Islamic republic."

Earlier this month, Iran summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador in Tehran and accused Baku of assisting Mossad in staging actions across the two countries' common border -- specifically, the recent wave of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan denied those allegations, calling them "absurd" and "slander."

Highlighting Western Ties

Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Turkey, said that in the event of armed conflict between Iran and the West measures will likely need to be taken to protect Azerbaijan from Iranian reprisals.

"As for the position that Azerbaijan finds itself in, I think that is a topic that our leaders -- at the appropriate point and I don't think we're there yet -- will have to have a conversation about," Wilson told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

"Azerbaijan will not be the only country, if it comes to this, that is in an extremely difficult situation and will need some help and reassurance."

For their part, Azerbaijani officials appear to be going out of their way to highlight their close relations with Israel and the United States.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 15. Aliyev also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on January 25 and with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month.

Azerbaijani officials have also hinted at territorial claims against Iran, where ethnic Azeris make up the largest minority, with some 16 percent of the population. Some legislators have even suggested changing the country's name to "North Azerbaijan," implying that the southern part of Azerbaijan is now an Iranian province.

Azerbaijan's neighbor and rival, Armenia, which has close relations with Iran, has managed to escape being drawn into the tensions thus far. And as Merry explains, this is no accident, due to Tehran's close relations with Yerevan.

"If you look at the three Caucasus states, Iran feels a good deal of bitterness towards Azerbaijan, a good deal of partnership and mutual interest with Armenia, and less so with Georgia," Merry says. "So in terms of choosing priorities for targets, I would suspect that those priorities are reflected."

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani and Georgian services contributed to this report

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