RELATIONS BETWEEN IRAN AND AZERBAIJAN TODAY AND IN THE NEAREST FUTURE
Islam Nazarov, Head, Department of Sociopolitical Studies, Political Technologies Center (Baku, Azerbaijan)
The Recent Past
In June 1989 in Moscow, which was still capital of the Soviet Union, an Iranian delegation headed by Ayatollah Amoli met the first (and last) Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and handed him a message from the leader of the Islamic revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Khomeini. The document said, in part, that “from this time on communism will be found only in museums of political history,”1 and pointed out that Gorbachev “has acquired the great honor to be the man who will remove from the pages of world history the last traces of the rotting communist world that existed for 70 years.”2
The prediction came true two years later. Azan, which resounded loudly from the minarets of all mosques in the former Soviet republics that became independent states, re-awakened national self-awareness. Today the Republic of Azerbaijan is a sovereign state free from the shatters of any ideology. It is trying to build up its relationships with the world around it and with the neighbors independently. Iran is one of such neighbors.
The recent history of relationships between the two countries started on 31 December, 1989 when the people living in the Nakhichevan republic removed the barbed wire obstacle along the Soviet-Iranian border. Today no one can tell whether this was a spontaneous act of protest or a provocation needed to use the army against the civilian population of Baku. What followed is known in the recent history of our country as “black January.”
In the post-Soviet era when Azerbaijan became independent on 18 October, 1991 the relations between the two countries acquired a new status. The Iranian consulate in Baku was transformed into an embassy, while Azerbaijan opened its embassy in Tehran. Several months after the U.N. had recognized Azerbaijan as an independent state (this happened on 3 March, 1992) its first president Aiaz Mutalibov was deposed in the course of political struggle.
Abulfaz Aliev (Elchibei), who replaced him, immediately announced that the country’s independence was threatened by Russia and Iran and declared an orientation toward Turkey and the West. A year later, in June 1993, Heydar Aliev came to power and is still at the helm. The kaleidoscopic change of presidents was going on against the backdrop of military defeats in the Karabakh conflict and the lost control over part of the territory.
In this period the country could not maintain normal and successful relations with other states, yet its international ties today have a history that goes a decade back. This allows certain conclusions about the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. A scope of an article is too small to embrace the entire range of their relationships, therefore I shall concentrate on certain aspects of political and sociocultural ties, avoid too sensitive aspects, and try not to ignore problems.
Relationships at the State Level
Disintegration of the Soviet Union introduced a new stage into Iran’s foreign policy: the country was confronted with new geopolitical realities. On the eve of this historic event, in November 1991, the then Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akbar Velayati visited Moscow and Azerbaijan.3 Since that time the states have been maintaining permanent contacts, and their officials meet regularly. The last of such meetings, that of deputy foreign ministers, took place in Tehran early in July 2002. Nearly at the same time Baku was receiving a delegation headed by the chief administrator of the Western Azerbaijan province; a month before that, on 11 June, Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Kh. Khalafov received in Baku Mehdi Safari, a special representative of the President of Iran.
Today, the relations between the two countries at the state level are stable and marked by mutual understanding. To my mind, however, the relations between the neighboring and, to a certain extent, kindred states should be closer and friendlier. This was discussed during the visit of President of Azerbaijan Aliev to Tehran that finally took place last May.
During Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997) Iran maintained good-neighborly relations with the young Republic of Azerbaijan and helped it join the U.N. and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.4 Iran also helped the Central Asian states of the CIS and Azerbaijan join the Economic Cooperation Organization and also directly participated in setting up an Organization of the Caspian States. An understanding about this was reached in 1997 in Ashghabad where the foreign ministers of the Caspian states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) agreed that any changes of the old legal regime of the Caspian or creating a new one required a common consent of all five states.5
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected Iranian president. Since his first day and during his second term as president he has been carrying out a policy of a dialog of civilizations and détente while doing his best to preserve balanced relations with all political entities in the region, including the U.S. and Turkey. Along with Tbilisi, Washington and Ankara are Baku’s two strategic allies. This is another subject and a different political line aptly called “pipeline policy,” a reference to the main export oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan.
In the last 10 years there were numerous official and unofficial visits of state figures, including the presidents of both countries, dozens of negotiations, meetings and talks have been conducted, hundreds of contracts and agreements have been concluded. Still, the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran today can hardly be called cloudless. There is a number of objective and subjective factors that brake down or even worsen the relations between them. Let’s discuss some of these factors.
Strange as it may seem the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan improved after the sad incident that had taken place on 23 July, 2001. On that day Iranian military aircraft appeared over the Azerbaijanian geophysical vessel Geofizik-3 that was exploring the oil-bearing structure Alov while a coast watch ship forced it to leave the area until the two countries drew a borderline across the sea.
Shortly before that Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran Hasan Ruhani had visited Azerbaijan, while on 18 July in Tehran Chief of the Border Guard Administration of Azerbaijan Elchin Guliev signed an Azerbaijanian-Iranian agreement on cooperation in the security sphere.6 Despite a lot of commotion deliberately fanned by the media, the reaction from the government and the public of Azerbaijan was fairly balanced because of a visit to Baku of Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Huseyin Kivrikoglu and demonstration flights of Turkish military aircraft over the Azerbaijanian capital. President Aliev issued a decree that created a new composition of the State Commission for Cooperation with Iran in the Economic, Trade, and Humanitarian Spheres under Farkhad Aliev, minister of the newly established Ministry of Economic Development.7
The visit of Mehdi Safari, special representative of the president of Iran, to Baku, which took place in the first decade of January 2002, was expected to clarify the question of a visit of President Aliev to Iran that had been postponed several times since summer 2001. It was first planned for February 2002. The visit was also expected to find common points in the both countries’ stand on the legal status of the Caspian.
During President Aliev’s visit the sides signed over 10 new agreements. In the course of his visit president of Azerbaijan met spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah-uzma Ali Khamenei; direct talks between two presidents took place. President Aliev also met several Iranian ministers. There were no breakthroughs on the Caspian issue, yet the sides defined their positions and agreed to continue bilateral talks on the expert level.
The main problems that cloud bilateral relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are of an international nature. Nagorny Karabakh and the occupied territories are the main problem of Azerbaijan. Over 20 percent of its territory (part of it is adjacent to Iran—120 km of the frontier) is controlled by the opposing side. The Karabakh conflict and the military actions it started deprived about 1 million of their homes. They became refugees and forced migrants with all concomitant economic, cultural and everyday results.
Russia’s weaker positions in the Caucasus and stronger Western presence did not terminate regional conflicts. They have created great obstacles for smooth economic and political development of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia and still further aggravated the situation in the region that had never been simple because of its geographic location and strategic importance as well as its closeness to Iran.
From the very beginning of the Karabakh conflict the Islamic Republic of Iran has been supporting the just position of Azerbaijan, it is insisting on its territorial integrity and a speedy settlement of the conflict. This position was repeatedly stated in numerous statements and declarations. Finally, after many years of discussions and giving Iran’s role and importance in the region its due, the world community, at least within the Minsk OSCE Group, recognized that the Islamic Republic of Iran should be given a role in the negotiation process.8 Even before the ceasefire in Karabakh that was reached in May 1994 and formation of the OSCE Minsk Group Iranian diplomats had been intermediaries several times. They negotiated ceasefire and tried to bring the problem to a just conclusion. Naturally enough, Iran is developing its relations with Armenia, its other neighbor, which incurs displeasure of the Azerbaijanian side. Iran, in its turn, does not like Azerbaijan’s cooperation with Israel.
The present leaders of Azerbaijan, who are openly pro-Western and want to join NATO some time in future, justify their actions by a desire to settle the conflict by peaceful means. The war ended long ago, there are no active military activities (at least nothing like what is going on in Chechnia), yet the problem exploited by the geopolitical entities in the Caucasus and the Caspian region is still here.
The Caucasus is an arena on which interests of many states (the U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the first place) clash. The United States is trying to prevent Moscow and Tehran from drawing closer while Iran cannot feel absolutely secure in connection with NATO’s eastward movement. Its insecurity was increased when the NATO-Russia council was formed and Azerbaijan expressed its readiness to deploy an alliance military base on its territory. This is strange because there is already one base on our territory. I have in mind a unique military strategic object of Russia (the Gabala radar station) with no analogies in the Southern Hemisphere. Moscow rented it for the term of 20 years.
The situation in Central Asia was aggravated by the U.S. antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan. This can be described as a political earthquake, which did not make security stronger and created a new balance of forces in our region. Russia’s hegemony in Central Asia ended when American military stationed themselves on airfields of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Today, Moscow will do its best to preserve its domination in the Caspian and the Caucasus. Iran agrees with this intention while Azerbaijan is dead set against it.
There is another important issue that complicates the relationships of the two states. I have in mind the still unresolved problem of the Caspian legal status that should be discussed by all five Caspian states. Regrettably, they cannot agree on many aspects.9 Today, the situation threatens not only joint projects in the field of extraction and transportation of marine and hydrocarbon resources but creates new security and environmental problems in the region. Ten years of diplomatic efforts, numerous seminars and conferences, negotiations and agreements have failed to outline the states’ marine borders. The prospects of a breakthrough remain dim.
In March 2001, in view of a number of bilateral agreements between the Caspian states, the presidents of Russia and Iran pointed out in a joint declaration that such agreements could not be binding for other states where the sea’s legal status was concerned.
There was an impression that the situation became clearer on the eve of the Caspian summit in Ashghabad postponed several times until April 2002. While the positions of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia coincided in many respects and Iran and Turkmenistan had somewhat different ideas about the problem, it was expected that a number of visits could clarify many points. President of Turkmenistan visited Moscow, President of Iran came to Ashghabad, president of Azerbaijan, to Moscow and Tehran. The visits were made, the summit opened and closed while the situation was amply illustrated by the fact that the presidential summit did not produce any final documents.
The religious problem is another, very important factor that keeps Azerbaijan and Iran apart. There is no concerted opinion about Islam in Azerbaijan, yet all agree that the republic is experiencing a religious revival. Today religion is one of the major social and political factors: new mosques appeared while old mosques were returned to the believers; the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Transcaucasus opened an Islamic university, a department of theology appeared at Baku State University. History has demonstrated that religion, if used correctly, may help resolve many problems. One wonders whether what is presented to us as religion, Islam in case of Azerbaijan, corresponds to the true faith.
In Azerbaijan many religions are living side by side without conflicts. This is a hallmark of the religious situation in Azerbaijan confirmed by the Pope’s May visit to Baku. The secular state (Azerbaijan is a secular state according to its constitution) tries to control the situation and prevent a spread of Wahhabism from the north and Shi‘ism from the south. It seems that the State Committee for Religious Organizations (a prototype of a future Ministry of Religion) was set up in Azerbaijan in 2001 to control the religious communities.
Despite the friendly and good-neighborly relations between the two countries, the media in Azerbaijan regularly carry materials on illegal activities of Iranian citizens, which might provoke religious expansion. Iranian newspapers respond in kind with openly anti-Azerbaijanian propaganda that was especially vehement during the latest visit of President Aliev to Tehran.
Let me mention in this connection a trial of the leaders of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan which took place late in 1996. They were sentenced to various terms in prison for high treason and espionage in favor of another state (Iran). Later the Islamic Party failed registration with the Ministry of Justice while President Aliev magnanimously pardoned the condemned. Still, in late November 2001 one of the condemned, first deputy of the chairman of the party’s supreme council Gadzhiaga Nuriev, was detained at the Astarinskaia customs when he was leaving the country for a course of treatment in Iran.10 He was set free only four months later.
Today Nuriev heads the elders of the village of Nardaran. The villagers entered into an open confrontation with Aliev’s regime; there are police checkpoints at the approaches to the village, those who have the courage to present any demands on the authorities are detained. Chairman of the Islamic Party Alikram Aliev was arrested once more. It should be said that when the authorities tried to stop a non-sanctioned rally in the village several people were severely wounded, several others were killed. The competent structures are trying to detect the Iranian trace in this action of social protest while the villagers had dug themselves graves on the central square named after Imam Hussein and are prepared to die for the faith and justice.
Trade and Economic Ties
The trade and economic relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are developing at a good pace and with very good prospects: bilateral trade is increasing every year along with the economic cooperation scale.
When opening the 9th traditional exhibition of Iranian goods in Baku on 9 June, 2001 the Iranian side expressed its readiness to give Azerbaijan interest-free loans. During this annual specialized exhibition the head of the Iranian governmental delegation, Deputy Commerce Minister and head of Exports Promotion Center of Iran, Mojtaba Khosrowtaj invited Minister of Economic Development of Azerbaijan F. Aliev to cooperate in petrochemistry, machine building, light and food processing industry, melon production, etc.11
The project of exporting Azerbaijanian hydrocarbons across the Iranian territory has not yet been shelved. This was made clear by what both presidents said during their latest meeting in Tehran. One can hardly argue that the cross-Iranian route is the most advantageous and shortest one that can make use of the already existing ramified Iranian network of pipelines and terminals. Today, however, political considerations dominate over economic expediency: Azerbaijan that has made public its Western orientation as the main one opted for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route.
Objective factors and the geopolitical situation force Azerbaijan to select strategies depending on oil export routes: it has no direct access to the world markets, therefore possibly pipeline directions are all-important. The process of selection inevitably draws the country into complex geopolitical games. Since the economic factor dominates the regional contradictions and rivalries, Azerbaijan has to take account of the intentions of many countries with aims and national interests of their own even at the expense of its own aims and interests.12 So far, Azerbaijan is using the oil export routes Baku-Novorossiisk and Baku-Supsa.
Regrettably, Iran and Azerbaijan cannot be partners when it comes to oil export routes. Their relationships in the process are a tangible illustration of the regional geopolitical processes. The countries are divided into “ours” and “alien,” which inevitably leads to geopolitical unions and alliances. Late in 2001 the Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline was commissioned: it brings oil of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) from Kazakhstan across Russia and the Black Sea to the world markets. American companies supported by their state are also CPC members.
While Iran and Azerbaijan are not connected with a pipeline, other transport communications of the two countries provide a good basis for restoration of the Great Silk Road and creation of the “North-South” transportation corridor as a part of the international transportation corridor project. Naturally enough, much depends on the countries involved in the projects.
Ecology and exploitation of fish resources of the Caspian are two other aspects of cooperation which leave much to be desired. Iran and Azerbaijan, along with other Caspian countries and some of the international organizations, participate in the Caspian Ecological Program (CEP). The sea is highly polluted, which affects the unique sturgeon population and has already cut down, or even reduced to naught, an income earned by export of black caviar (one kilogram of which costs nearly 100 barrels of oil).13
There is another problem that causes concern in Azerbaijan: before the Karabakh conflict Iran had offered to build an integrated hydro scheme at Khudaferin, the territory no longer controlled by Azerbaijan.
Contacts in the Social and Cultural Sphere
The Azerbaijanians and Iranians have been living side by side for the longer part of their histories, they have created many material and cultural values that belong to entire mankind today. Both countries mark jubilees of outstanding scholars and poets of the past: Nizami, Tusi, Khatai, Fizuli. In many villages and towns believers and non-believers alike carefully look after the graves and tombs of imamzadehs, members of families of immaculate imams. Pilgrimage to Meshed to the grave of Imam Riza is a voluntary obligation of all Azerbaijanian Muslims.
As distinct from other entities of the geopolitical game in the region, Iran is largely developing trade, economic and cultural ties. There is an Iranian cultural center in Baku that regularly organizes exhibitions and other events; there is an Iranian Imam Khomeini Charity Society Imdad that extends annual assistance to refugees and the families which suffered in the Karabakh conflict.
There are many Azerbaijanians in Iran and many Iranians in Azerbaijan but the relations between the two states are not that simple: Tehran is very much concerned with possible subversive acts and provocations among the ethnic Azerbaijanians living in Iran. The concern is founded on the fact that there is a good soil in Azerbaijan for the activity of special services of the countries that are no friends of Iran (Israel, the U.S., etc.). Official Baku does not encourage pan-Azerbaijanian nationalism, yet there is any number of those who still believe that Northern and Southern Azerbaijan can be re-united. This cannot but lead to a lot of complications.
Transit of drugs and smuggling cause a great deal of headache for the special services of both countries. Their heads meet regularly to coordinate their efforts in fighting crime, illegal drug trafficking and terrorism. On 22 January, 2002 Minister of National Security of Azerbaijan Namik Abbasov and Minister of the Interior of Iran Abdulwahid Musevi Lari met in Baku where they signed a memorandum of cooperation in border issues, fighting smuggling of drugs, psychotropic and other substances.14 It seems that the two ministers also discussed the problem of extradition of certain criminals hiding in Iran and Azerbaijan. The president of Azerbaijan also received the Iranian minister.
The neighboring peoples are “doomed” to good-neighborly relations. Despite close historical and cultural roots, the countries represent two different worlds—Asia and Europe, East and West. Both have found themselves virtually at the frontline of the “war of civilizations” and of the dialog of civilizations. Both have a chance to display to the world an example of good-neighborly and friendly relations and to become the bulwark of peace and stability in the region. The road to this lies through mutual understanding, dialog and cooperation in all fields, through gradual and stage-by-stage settlement of the accumulated problems. Only close regional cooperation can guarantee peace, stability and security in the region.
Nobody knows when the positions of both states will draw closer. So far we have to say with regret that the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran directly depend on their relations with third countries.
1 The Way to the Truth. Message of the Great Leader of the Islamic Revolution and Founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Homeini to the head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Tehran, 1995, p. 6 (in Arabic).
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 See: A. Maleki, “Iran and Turan: Apropos of Iran’s Relations with Central Asia and the Caucasian Republics,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 5 (11), 2001, p. 91.
4 See: Ibid, p. 92.
5 See: A. Rasizade, “The Mythology of Munificent Caspian Bonanza and Its Concomitant Pipeline Geopolitics,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 4 (10), 2001, p. 28.
6 See: Zerkalo, No. 140, 28 July, 2001, p. 7.
7 See: Ibid, p. 11.
8 See: Zerkalo, No. 140, 28 July, 2001, p. 5.
9 See: Kh.K. Ardabeli, “Pravovoi rezhim Kaspiiskogo moria, razvitie resursov i energeticheskikh magistralei,” Amu-Darya, No. 1, 1999, p. 17.
10 See: Zerkalo, No. 13, 19 January, 2002, p. 9.
11 See: Zerkalo, No. 140, 28 July, 2001, p. 11.
12 See: H. Kuliev, “Azerbaijan, Pipeline Strategy and Pipeline Geopolitical Dimension,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 3 (9), 2001, p. 20.
13 See: A. Danekar, “Preduprezhdenie ekologicheskogo krizisa na Kaspiiskom more,” Amu-Darya, No. 1, 1999, p. 64.
14 See: Zerkalo, No. 16, 24 January, 2002, p. 2.