News you might have missed: Iran considers annexing Azerbaijan (again)

Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran's fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country's south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed. 

On Tuesday, Iran's Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 -- "The most frustrating chapter in the history class!" Fars laments -- when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means "the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century."

For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to "bring it" -- diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.

While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here's the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:

Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era

Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, "MP wants to 'annex Azeri territory to Iran.'"

On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country's name to "Northern Azerbaijan," implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.  

Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, "Baku has grown both considerably richer -- thanks to revenues from energy exports -- and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy."

This boldness -- which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border -- has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don't be surprised if we see this headline crop up again ... and again and again.

Wikimedia Commons


North Korea can mount nuclear warheads on missiles? Where have we heard that before?

Today, the front page of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post announced that North Korea has learned how to make nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Here's the LA Times version:

Now tell me if you can tell the difference between this report and a 2005 story in the New York Times:

If you're having difficulty, that's because the two are nearly identical. Both articles come from the same source: the Pentagon's intelligence arm. Both articles cite the same intelligence fear: North Korea has mastered the technology to make nuclear-tipped missiles.

So what gives?

First off, the assessment that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles is not the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, the nation's top intelligence official James Clapper hung the DIA out to dry a few hours after its report leaked. "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," he said in a statement.

Secondly, a few things have changed since the DIA first aired warnings of miniature nukes back in 2005 -- changes that would make it possible for the threat to be real this time. So the fact that the country's biggest newspapers are treating the DIA announcement as major news is not a complete boondoggle. Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group specializing in North Korea, highlighted these changes in an e-mail discussion this morning.

"Not much has changed, except North Korea conducted another test and they've had more time to work on their program," he told FP. "The big wild card is we don't know the extent of foreign technical assistance."

This intelligence gap is key to understanding the North Korean threat. As Pinkston reasoned, even though the DIA is apparently alone in its assessment, it's not a very far-fetched idea that a foreign country helped North Korea in the last eight years.

"It wouldn't surprise me if North Korea received significant foreign technical assistance on warhead design and development," Pinkston said. "Libya received the CHIC-4 bomb design from Pakistan, which got it from China. If Libya got it, why wouldn't the North Koreans have it and possibly more?"

For everyone's sake, let's just hope Pinkston's hunch -- and the "moderate confidence" of the DIA -- is wrong.