on the silk road


Russia, the West and Azerbaijan
April 22, 2008, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

BAKU (Stratfor)–News broke in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan on April 21 that on March 29 Azerbaijani authorities had halted a shipment of Russian equipment destined for Iran’s nuclear facility at Bushehr. The Azerbaijanis say the shipment was detained because the equipment may be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions restricting international assistance in Iran’s nuclear program.

Details about the incident remain sketchy — everything from the nature of the equipment to the reason for the media blackout of the past 20 days remains unclear — but against the broader backdrop of geopolitical events, a few pieces of this puzzle reveal a pattern. The only question in Stratfor’s mind is this: What pattern has been highlighted by this revelation?

Russia is in the process of attempting to push back against steadily encroaching Western pressure across the length and breadth of its periphery. One of its most efficient means of doing this is contributing to instability in the Middle East as a means of occupying Western — and especially American — attention. And there are few means more effective at doing this than assisting Tehran with anything that involves the word “nuclear.”

But it is not as if the West sits idly by waiting for the Russians to produce a particularly well-crafted monkey wrench — and it is certainly not as if the West does not have its own options. This particular instance all comes down to Azerbaijan. Separated from NATO members by the politically unstable geography of the Caucasus, Baku is well aware that its very existence depends on its ability to tack between the winds of Russian assertiveness and Western power.

In the past, Baku has sought to engage the West — obliquely seeking membership in both the European Union and NATO — but it has also been willing to backtrack whenever it hears a growl from Moscow. Azerbaijan taking a firm stance against what has become a core Russian policy is tantamount to announcing to the world that it is applying to the United States for statehood — and that would not be done without some firm assurances out of NATO. As for potential Russian reactions, while Russia theoretically could still ship materials to Iran across the Caspian Sea or via an air bridge, putting Azerbaijan in the Western camp largely severs direct Russian influence into the Middle East.

The Bushehr events meld well into these processes. It is a very Russian move to play the Iranian nuclear card in the days leading up to NATO’s April 2-4 summit. It would similarly be a very Western move to use Western influence — Western companies are almost wholly responsible for the development of the Azerbaijani energy industry — to arrange for a stoppage of that shipment. And it would be very Azerbaijani to seek the strongest benefit from both sides for cooperation.

And there is yet another angle to this dance. Iran knows full well that the United States — not to mention Israel — would never allow Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon, and that crossing the red line risks turning Tehran into a crater. For Tehran, the nuclear card is just that — an asset to be traded away for something Iran wants and needs more: an Iraq that will never again seek to invade it. Only one power — the United States — holds the key to that desire, and playing poker with a country as powerful and as unpredictable as the United States tends to be a bit nerve-wracking. Ergo the nuclear “card.”

It is not clear if all this is about Russia, NATO, Azerbaijan, Iran or Iraq. It fits very neatly into all scenarios. But on one thing there is clarity: On an event like this, the world itself can turn.

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