- - Friday, May 25, 2012

BAKU, AzerbaijanAzerbaijan is experiencing an increasingly tense relationship with neighboring Iran, as the oil-rich capital of Baku basks in the glamor of the Eurovision Song Contest.

This week, Iran recalled its ambassador from Azerbaijan after protesters in Baku displayed posters of Iranian leaders dressed provocatively with homosexual overtones.

The protesters were demonstrating against an Iranian cleric who had denounced the multination singing pageant as a “gay parade.”

Meanwhile, Baku police have said that Iranians are distributing free CDs criticizing Eurovision as un-Islamic.

Analysts say these gestures of pique reveal a serious rift in regional relations.

“This is only the visible side of this tension,” says Azeri political commentator Zardhust Elizadeh. “The real reason is the very close connections between Azerbaijan with Israel and the West, and Iran feels uncomfortable of these close relations.”

Azerbaijan has a strong relationship with Israel through arms purchases from the Jewish state. What’s more, according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine quoting unnamed U.S. officials, Azerbaijan will cooperate with Israel if it launches strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

Senior leaders in Baku are unapologetic about relationships with Israel and the United States.

Iran wants Azerbaijan to become friends with its friends, and enemies with its enemies,” says Ali Hasanov, a senior official in President Ilham Aliyev’s administration. “We make our relations with other countries in the framework of Azerbaijan’s state interests.”

East-West crossroads

The geography and geology of this former Soviet republic make it globally strategic.

Its location on the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus has been the historic crossroads of global empires and, more recently, the site of petroleum discoveries that have transformed Baku into an ultra-modern city.

Some local analysts worry their country, which has few strategic allies, is being reckless with Iran.

Azerbaijan must be very cautious with Iran,” says Vafa Guluzade, a former adviser on foreign relations under three presidents in the 1990s. “Azerbaijan must not insult Iranian leaders. Azerbaijan must not give pretext to Iran to strike Azerbaijan or to take strong measures against Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan’s relations with the West are also complex.

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