Tehran officially complained to the government of neighboring Azerbaijan this weekend, accusing the Azeris of turning a blind eye to Mossad agents operating in the country. Azerbaijan (a secular government) is pro-West in its politics, friendly with Israel, and cooperates in the quest to stop Iran from going nuclear. Baku and Tehran have for years had a tense relationship, made worse when the Azeris recently protested to Iran over an alleged plot to kill Israelis in Azerbaijan.
Iran has made it clear it will retaliate against anyone they perceive as helping Israel. Azerbaijan, though definitely not a vital ally of Israel, certainly falls in that group. Complicating matters is a large ethnic Azeri population in northern Iran: the largest minority in Iran, comprising about 16 percent of the population—about 12.5 million people.
As Israel and Iran’s war of subterfuge continues (or escalates) this year, Azerbaijan could find itself dragged into a conflict it does not need. Iran is well aware of Azeri nationalist aspirations and afraid, perhaps, of a repeat of a 2006 incident in which ethnic Azeris were discovered collaborating with American troops to foment instability in Iran. Tehran could make life difficult for ethnic Azeri Iranians.
As in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf, Iran can stir up ethnic and religious conflicts, if provoked.