“You could almost feel the Iranians seething,” said an Azerbaijani official who attended the U.S. pop star’s first concert in this predominantly Shiite Muslim country of 9 million. “This stuff makes them crazy.”
The effect on Iran’s leaders is real enough, and it is at least partly by design. Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor and longtime rival, is coming to relish its role as the region’s anti-Iran, a secular, Western-leaning country that is working mightily to become everything that Iran is not.
As Iran sinks ever deeper into isolation and economic distress, its northern neighbor is sprinting in the opposite direction, building political and cultural ties to the West along with new pipelines connecting energy-hungry Europe with the country’s rich petroleum fields on the Caspian Sea. Where Iran is repressive and theocratic, Azerbaijan is socially and religiously tolerant, offering itself as a model of a nonsectarian, Muslim-majority society that champions women’s athletics and embraces Western music and entertainers.
It also enthusiastically pursues diplomatic and business ties with Israel, the Jewish state that Iranian officials have threatened to destroy.
Azerbaijan’s leaders insist that such policies have nothing to do with Iran, and they point to a record of mostly cordial relations with the vastly larger, notoriously peevish republic to the south. Yet, with each stride toward modernity — and with every Western diva who arrives to croon and titillate on Baku’s expanding international stage — Azerbaijan chips away at the legitimacy of Iran’s government and fuels discontent among ordinary Iranians, say Western officials who study the region.
“It is one of the most serious threats to the long-term viability of the Iranian regime,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan who now works as a private consultant. “Every day that Azerbaijan grows stronger economically and more connected to the Euro-Atlantic community — that’s another day in which the Iranian regime grows weaker.”
It is hardly a perfect role model. The government in Baku is dominated by a single political party, and it has frequently come under criticism by independent watchdogs for its human rights record and alleged corruption. Azerbaijan also is mired in a nearly two-decade-old conflict with another of its neighbors, Armenia, over control of the disputed enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh.