Yesterday, April 26, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev began a three-day visit to the United States. This is his first official visit to Washington, which many observers believe will boost U.S.-Azerbaijan strategic relations. Heading the list of topics that President Aliev and President George W. Bush will discuss on Friday, April 28, are Iran and the Iranian nuclear program.
“There is no choice,” declared Azerbaijan’s popular Zerkalo daily newspaper on April 25, underlining the current dilemma that Azerbaijan faces regarding the Iranian nuclear issue and Baku’s potential role in a possible military attack against Iran. “If the United Nations Security Council decides to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, Baku will have no choice but to support these sanctions,” according to the article. “In case of a military option too, Azerbaijan will have to choose, as it will definitely lose its neutrality.”
The choice, however, is not an easy one. Azerbaijan shares a 611-kilometer land border with Iran, and the two states have good economic relations. In addition, there are some 25 million ethnic Azeris who live in Iran. Although the majority of Azeris dislike Iran and its regime, they are also opposed to Azerbaijan’s involvement in a military operation against this country (see EDM, January 18).
“Considering [Azerbaijan and Iran’s] geographical proximity, historical, cultural, and ethnic ties, it is very difficult, or even impossible, for Azerbaijan to become a member of any anti-Iranian coalition,” political scientist Rasim Musabekovtold Day.az (April 10).
Iran’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Suleymani, has already urged the Azerbaijani government not to allow the use of its territories by third countries for a military strike against Iran. “I am sure that Azerbaijan would follow the agreement on cooperation and prevention of mutual attacks signed with Iran in 2002,” he remarked (Today.az, April 24).
Last week, just before President Aliev left for Washington, Tehran dispatched its defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, to Baku, where he met with President Aliev, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, and high-ranking military officials.
“Azerbaijan’s security is our security. Our defense capability is Azerbaijan’s capability too,” the Iranian defense minister declared, in an effort to woo Azerbaijani officials. While in Baku, Najjar told local reporters that his visit was “aimed at expanding cooperation on the basis of treaties already signed. Tehran can assist Azerbaijan in developing its defense industry. We can exchange experience in this field” (MosNews, April 25).
Both Suleymani and Najjar referred to a non-aggression pact between the two states that excludes the use of either state’s military bases by a third country in order to attack the other (see EDM, August 15, 2005).
Shortly after the visit, however, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani alleged that the United States is using territory inside Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan territories for reconnaissance missions inside Iran.
Russia’s Regnum news agency reported on Tuesday that Larijani had told the Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper, American “reconnaissance units are acting in Azerbaijan [and] their activity is aimed against the Islamic Republic of Iran” (Regnum, April 25). Larijani also threatened that if Azerbaijan opens its territory for a military attack against Iran, Tehran would retaliate by hitting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and other strategic energy installations in Azerbaijan (Zerkalo, April 26).
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated previous warnings about the possibility of referring Iran to the UN Security Council. “There is no doubt that Iran has continued salami-slicing tactics, a little bit here and then a little bit more and then a little bit more, despite the fact that the international community has said very clearly, ‘Stop’,” Rice argued (www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/64545.htm). “There will have to be some consequence for that action and that defiance,” she added.
Larijani has warned that Tehran would stop cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if the UN Security Council imposes sanctions against his country (ISNA, April 25). At an international conference in Tehran on Tuesday, Larijani stated that Iran has successfully completed the first phase of its nuclear program, which was to put “into operation 164 centrifuges” at the uranium enrichment center in Natanz. The next phase is to make more centrifuges and continue uranium enrichment (IRNA, April 25).
Larijani said that even if the issue is taken to the Security Council, Iran would not suspend its nuclear program. Referring to President Bush’s recent statement that he did not rule out a military option against Iran in case it develops a nuclear weapon, Larijani remarked, “Those who believe that the Iranian nation will give up its right [to a nuclear program] through such threats are mistaken” (IRNA, April 25).
While it is premature to talk about a military attack against Iran, even the distant possibility of such an option makes Azerbaijan very anxious. It is clear that the U.S.-Iran nuclear tension is likely to only worsen in the near future. Even so, Baku hopes that any potential standoff between Washington and Tehran will not involve Azerbaijan’s active participation, as it will require making a difficult choice — a choice that might be very costly.