After Vladimir Putin's fleeting visit to Israel last week, many analysts concentrated on the fact that these talks were driven by events in Tehran. This is of course true. However, many missed the fact that a greater, long term game is being played out in the Caucuses, namely in Azerbaijan. In the west it may be best known for hosting this years Eurovision contest but it has evolved into a key strategic issue for not only Israel and Russia, but Iran, the UK, the USA, Turkey and even NATO. With these many players of such stature, we must look further at their converging interest.
There are two keys to this issue: geography and oil. Azerbaijan borders Russia to its north and Iran to its south, with Georgia to its west and its entire eastern border covered by the Caspian Sea. It is this location that has made it of great interest to many, most recently NATO, who see it as a increasingly valuable route for moving supplies to Afghanistan after the closure of the main artery via Pakistan. It is also an increasing military interest for Israel due to its border with Iran. This is in part due to the diminishing lack of Israeli allies in the area, which was already low due to religious differences and the collapse of relations with Turkey, another Iranian border state, after the flotilla raid in 2010. Iraq is not an option for obvious reasons.
This relationship between Baku and Tel Aviv began with an oil deal. This was in part to reduce trade with Iran and to provide insurance should relations with Istanbul threaten Turkish imports. To protect this deal, Israel had begun selling large amounts of weaponry to Baku, not only to secure their investments but also to be used as part of a larger balancing strategy to reduce Iran's influence in its region. Russia also sells Baku a large amount of arms and munitions, but for different reasons. Yes, it is not in Russia's interest to let Iran develop too much power in the region post Saddam as a fellow oil exporter, but unlike Israel, it is one of Tehran's major trading partners. It has made billions helping Iran develop a domestic nuclear program (It should be stressed, not a weapon program but instead to help Tehran move away from an oil intensive power infrastructure). It also does not want a major war so close to its border. Instead, many of Russia's arms sales are small arms, helping fuel a border dispute with Azerbaijan's historical enemies Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. By maintaining a "low intensity" conflict, it helps Russia destabilise oil distribution from the region and makes investment in the area unattractive. Conversely, the likes of Russia's Rosenef have a vested interest in building pipelines in the area, so wish to keep skirmishes to border disputes, lest they loose billions in contracts should the situation in Iran destabilise.
Likewise, Britain has a vested interest, being the primary owner (through BP) of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) bypassing Russia and coming to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. Should Iran descend into war, energy costs in Europe could skyrocket. This is also one of the myriad of reasons that the USA has a vested interest. As by far the world's biggest petroleum consumer, it relies on imports from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and several states in the Persian Gulf: a war in Iran would definitely disturb their supplies and thus push up oil prices markedly. Additionally, the USA is involved in wars on both sides of Iran, and is very active in Pakistan, also an Iranian border state. Lastly, the USA would seek to contain both growing Russian influence in the Middle East and to prevent it seeking further oil imports from Russia in the event of war and handing Moscow a very strong degree of control over their relations. A solution to this may be to strengthen imports from Columbia and Brazil, as two of its major importers, Venezuela and Nigeria, are both politically unstable.
However, Israel has moved forward in their development of military ties with Baku. It has long been suggested that Israeli forces have been based there and are running reconnaissance missions and drone flights to investigate possible targets in the event of a strike. Worryingly still, albeit unproven, is that Mossad and/or other special forces have been running assassination squads across the border targeting nuclear scientists in an attempt to slow Iran's progress. Their has even been rumours that Israel has either purchased or rented an airfield in Azerbaijan in preparation for military strikes, in much the same way the USA used neighbouring airfield prior to both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.
All this, alongside the confirmation that cyber-attacks (i.e. STUXNET and Flame) have been used, presents the image that a strike on Iran is not a case of if, but when? So whilst Putin's talks may have included topics such as Syria and the Middle East peace process, the first question on Putin's lips may well have been "What is going on in Baku?" I would not be surprised if that question is asked by a few more people in the coming months.