“It’s not so much that we have changed, it’s that others have come to understand who we are,” said Mikayil Jabbarov, director of the country’s historical and architectural preservation agency. “We had girls’ schools 100 years ago, and we were the first Muslim country to give women the vote. The mentality was shaped back then.”
Song contest crisis
Only more recently have these traditions become a problem for Azerbaijan’s neighbors, government officials say. Iran’s irritation with Western-leaning Azerbaijan turned to resentment and then hostility in the wake of published reports last year that Azerbaijan supplied assassins for an Israeli effort to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists — an allegation that Azerbaijan vehemently denies.
Then, in February, Azerbaijani authorities disrupted what they said was an Iranian plot to kill Israeli diplomats and Jewish schoolteachers in Baku. An investigation would later implicate 22 Iranian operatives in a series of alleged schemes to target Western embassies and businesses, including the U.S. diplomatic mission in Baku.
Relations between the two capitals cratered. But the worst crisis was yet to come, and it was over a cultural event: Azerbaijan’s election to become the host of this year’s televised and highly popular Eurovision Song Contest. The contest was Azerbaijan’s chance to shine, and the country spent billions of dollars building an arena and sprucing up its central avenues for the expected onslaught of tourists. Iran, however, attacked the event as an anti-Islamic “gay parade” and withdrew its ambassador in protest.
The harsh reaction left Azerbaijanis shaking their heads. “I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran,” Ali Hasanov, head of the administration’s public and political issues department, told reporters at the time. “We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade.”
But by then, Azerbaijanis had acquired a taste for Hollywood-style glamour, and their government was enjoying the international attention as well as an awareness of Iran’s extreme discomfort. Tickets for the Jennifer Lopez concert went on sale the following month and sold out quickly — delighting the city’s concert promoters and winning new admirers for a country that appears to have sided firmly with musicians over mullahs, with implications that extend far beyond its borders.
“It’s easy to make fun, but this is part of their foreign policy strategy, and it’s actually smart,” a second Western diplomat said of Azerbaijan’s canny embrace of pop. “On one level, it says to the world, ‘We’re a real country, and we can attract world-class entertainment.’ On another level, it drives the Iranians to distraction.”