Now That’s What I Call Misleading
There is a rather odd article about Azerbaijan in the Washington Post today, heralding its role in defying Iran through courting Western attention and Jennifer Lopez. No, really:
BAKU, Azerbaijan — The latest weapon in this country’s ideological war with Iran arrived late last month in an armada of jets from California, accompanied by a private security force, dazzling pyrotechnics and a wardrobe that consisted of sequins and not much else.
A crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered to watch as the leader of this mini-invasion pranced onto a stage built on the edge of the Caspian Sea. With a shout of “Hello, lovers!” Jennifer Lopez wiggled out of her skirt and launched into a throbbing disco anthem, delighting her Azerbaijani fans and — it was hoped — infuriating the turbaned ayatollahs who live just across the water.
“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.”
Let it develop. They’re going somewhere with this, I swear.
“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.”
There’s just a few minor hiccups.
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.
It should not surprise anyone that the Western world is willing to overlook a certain amount of, well, blatantly undemocratic and illiberal conduct in exchange for an indulgent environment for foreign investment and, more importantly, a favorable stance on foreign policy. Azerbaijan, and by this I mean the Aliyev regime which rules it, is quite sensible to take the stance it does. When all you have to do is make yourself look better than an oppressive quasi-theocracy that is violently opposed to the Western world and its allies in the region, there is very little in your foreign relations portfolio that security cooperation, open markets and a demonstration of cultural progressivism and globalized pop appeal cannot fix.
It is not at all uncommon for authoritarian regimes which present potential Western partners to play up these attributes to attract patronage, particularly within the former Soviet Union. The Post’s reception and many officials depiction of Azerbaijan’s pop culture campaign, though, is rather bizarre. Azerbaijan is historically independent or opposed to Iranian policy on security issues, yet it offers no extremely pressing value to the West on that front (except in the case of a war the U.S. and Azerbaijan both would rather avoid). As a locale of foreign investment, there’s appeal to Azerbaijan but it does not really affect the power political or security balance vis-a-vis Iran. Now, to sweeten both of these sorts of deals, authoritarian regimes frequently court celebrities and pop icons to demonstrate their pro-Western bona fides for governments, investors, and tourists alike.
What is bizarre is the notion that Azerbaijan deserves credit, especially with regards to U.S. policy on Iran, for hosting J Lo. Merely saying Azerbaijan isn’t a “perfect model” is not really enough. How a regime treats mega-celebrity musicians is, frankly, an irrelevant barometer, to well, anything that even needs to be mentioned in the same article, let alone breath, as Iran policy. If the goal of putting lipstick on a pig is making the pig look nicer, then what we have here is an entire Washington Post article about how great the pig’s lipstick is, and then portraying the lipstick as some sort of secret weapon against other rival pigs (daily newspaper op-ed columnist editors, yes, I can maul metaphors twice a week. Call me).
Even the notional strategy of pop cultural cold war does not seem to make much sense. It certainly does not weaken the Mullahs. Despite the Islamic Revolution, Iran has long had a strong undercurrent of liberal and relatively secular thinkers and a freewheeling youth culture. But these folks do not go out into the street and protest the regime or work against it because they like J. Lo. In both 1999 and 2009, liberals and reformists protested because their favored political candidates, acting within the constitutional framework of Iran, faced censorship, disenfranchisement and suppression from hostile regime power centers. Not because of sequins or booty-wriggling. Nor should we expect Azeri pop culture to win over Iranians sitting on the fence, such as working-class conservatives. Indeed, the idea of trading a theocracy for a nakedly oligarchic single-party state with more popular sex appeal may not be very appealing to Iranians generally. But we see no real investigation as to how Iranian people perceive this apparent “pop power” offensive.
Of all the challenges to the Iranian regime’s legitimacy – its eroding constitution, its violent clampdowns, its harsh and unfair justice system, its suppression of political debate, its collapsing, sanctioned economy – Azerbaijan simply existing as a fun country to live in does not seem particularly concerning, even from an ultraconservative Mullah’s perspective. The critique of the “Westoxified” authoritarian state was part of the revolution against the Shah in the first place.
Deepening ties with Azerbaijan could make sense for any number of reasons, but being nice to J Lo simply isn’t one of them. Devoting the majority of an article on the country to its pop music developments is one thing, framing it as part of Western-Iranian relations is simply inexcusable. Azerbaijan’s concerts are irrelevant to its value or lack thereof as an ally, but playing them up does wonders for promoting favorable perceptions of Azerbaijan as a partner and locale for tourism and investment. In other words, while it makes perfect sense for the Azeri regime and its associated beneficiaries to play up such news, it is about time we stop elevating the importance of superficial celebrity courtship in determining the degree or value of a country’s pro-Western leanings. Having an article which relegates Azerbaijan’s considerable human rights, corruption, and foreign policy issues to a secondary role to an anti-Iranian stance and cultural appeal simply brings us to another situation where informed Western observers will understand little about a country’s internal problems until some supposedly magnanimous celebrity decides to bring them to light.
Azerbaijan’s outreach to Iran’s adversaries serves above all to protect the interests of the Aliyev regime, and very often to protect interests that have little or nothing to do with Iran. Take, as Joshua Kucera points out, Azerbaijan’s hypothetical cooperation in a hypothetical Israeli attack on Iran. The probability that Azerbaijan will have to exercise these risky duties is quite low. However, in exchange, Azerbaijan has made massive defense contracts with Israeli suppliers. Yet all this hardware is going to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the associated confrontation with Armenia. The notion that we are seeing a meaningful dramatic realignment of Azerbaijan’s caution toward Iran is false, but perpetuating this belief among anti-Tehran sets in Washington and elsewhere is extremely lucrative for Azerbaijan. If the U.S. does not want to get duped by another “hardly perfect” client state, it ought to ignore the sound and fury to get an accurate assessment of its partner and what it is actually willing to do to advance U.S. interests. Azerbaijan’s public relations offensive is probably not doing much to hurt Tehran, but maybe it will have better luck eroding the better judgment of future international patrons.