Iran Watch: You can stop worrying about Azerbaijan

February was not a good month for Azeri-Iranian relations. Iran accused Azerbaijan (mapped on right) of helping Israeli spies who were targeting Iranian scientists, while Azerbaijan raised hackles in Tehran by reportedly buying $1.6 billion worth of drones and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems from Israel. Earlier in the month, some Azeri lawmakers even suggested changing the country's name to Northern Azerbaijan to highlight the fact that the Azeri nation is divided between an independent state and a province in northern Iran.

So it's surprising to see reports in the Iranian press today of Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev's warm reception in Tehran. Most notably, Abiyev promised to prevent any country from using Azerbaijan as a launching pad for an attack on neighboring Iran, according to Iran's Fars News Agency:

"The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country," he underscored.


Iran meter: Is an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities now less likely, with Azerbaijan out of play? Not exactly. True, Azerbaijan may be a theater in a larger Israeli-Iranian shadow conflict (in February, Azerbaijan claimed to have broken up an Iranian plot against Israeli targets in the capital, Baku). But Azerbaijan doesn't figure into discussions of how Israel might strike Iran.

As the Associated Press notes this week, Israel is probably weighing three risky flight paths to Iran through Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey (for some great graphics on these scenarios, see here and here):

The shortest, most direct flight would be to cross over neighboring Jordan and through Iraq.

Neither country has the capability to stop Israeli warplanes from crossing through its airspace. But this would deeply embarrass them.

Such an operation would raise the likelihood of a diplomatic spat with Jordan, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world, and potentially expose it to Iranian retaliation. Jordanian officials refused to comment on how the government would react if Israel uses its airspace.

A second route would be to fly south and through Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have no relations with Israel, and while they feel deeply threatened by a nuclear Iran, any signs of cooperation with the Jewish state would unleash fierce criticism throughout the Arab world. The Saudis would also be an easy target for an Iranian counter-strike.

The last possibility would be crossing through Turkey, as Israel illicitly did in the 2007 airstrike in Syria. But Turkey is believed to have upgraded its radar systems since then, and Israel's relations with Turkey, once a close ally, have deteriorated.

A Turkish official said it was "out of the question" for Israel to use Turkish airspace. He said the jets would be "brought down" if Israel attempted to use the airspace without permission. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

In sum, the Azeri defense minister's statements do more to patch up relations with Tehran than change the calculus about an Israeli strike.

For added reassurance, see Britain's decision to join the United States in discouraging  war talk and these op-eds today on why U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be bluffing with their tough rhetoric on Iran. For now, the war dial is staying exactly where it is.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images


Will Romney play in Pago Pago?

The AP reports on today's Caucus in American Samoa:

What do you get when 50 or so Republicans gather in a restaurant-bar? In American Samoa, you get a presidential caucus.

The U.S. territory, located about 2,300 miles south of Hawaii, gets its chance Tuesday to choose delegates to the Republican National Convention and vote on a presidential candidate. It’s a decidedly local affair.

Republicans will meet at Toa Bar & Grill.

The six delegates picked at the caucus will join three American Samoa “superdelegates” at the convention.

So roughly one delegate for every 5 voters -- not too shabby. (For what it's worth, Washington D.C.'s 30,000 registered Republicans have to make do with 19 delegates.)

Mitt Romney is likely to win today among Samoa's few registered Republicans. (For one thing 25 percent of Samoans are Mormon.)

The territorial contests are a weird quirk of the U.S. primary system. Residents of these territories don't get to vote in November's presidential election, but both parties allow them to vote in primaries.

The territorial contests generally don't get much attention unless the primary is close, as it was four years ago when both Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned in Puerto Rico. The "island caucus" as a whole, as David Cohen points out,  is worth 59 delegates, more than Virginia or Missouri.

Romney appears likely to sweep the contests this year, even dispatching his son Matt to campaign in Northern Mariana and Guam.  (Delegate hungry Rick Santorum may have forgotten about Guam's 9 votes when joked about exiling liberal judges there.) Romney took both those territories as well as most of the delegates from the U.S. Virgin Islands, despite the fact that Ron Paul got more votes there. (It's complicated.)

Puerto Rico, where Romney is also favored, votes this Sunday. 

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