Some flowery rhetoric from Tehran notwithstanding, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev’s January 24-26 official visit to Iran turned out to be a routine event that confirmed the tension-free relations between neighboring countries, without evidence of rapprochement at U.S. expense. Such a rapprochement had been the subject of speculation ahead of the visit. The theoretical possibility of Washington asking to use Azerbaijan’s territory to strike Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons development sites is clearly a matter of concern in Baku. However, it has just as clearly not led Baku into attempting to limit U.S. influence in the region, let alone cooperating with Iran toward such a goal.
Aliev, on his first visit to Iran as president, returned Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s August 2004 visit to Baku. Accompanying Aliev, apart from his Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mamedyarov, were Azerbaijan’s Health and Education ministers and several heads of economic ministries and departments. The delegation’s composition underscored that no specific discussions on defense and security issues were planned. A story by Iran’s official news agency (IRNA, January 25), purporting to cite Aliev as seeking also “relations in the area of defense” with Iran, almost certainly was using the official Iranian media’s familiar technique of putting words flattering to Iran into the mouths of high-level visitors.
Aliev met with Khatami, along with supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iranian Majlis Chairman Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Kharrazi, and Defense Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani. The Azerbaijani delegation also visited the recently opened consulate of Azerbaijan in Tabriz, the largest city in Azeri-populated northwestern Iran. Those high-profile meetings notwithstanding, the visit did not yield a joint communique, but merely a press statement, reflecting a routine event.
The sides agreed to the Caspian Sea being a “sea of peace and stability” (wording that carries different meanings in the riparian countries’ capitals) and to continue working within the five-sided negotiations toward a legal regime of the Caspian Sea acceptable to all riparian countries. They agreed on combating international terrorism, drug running and human trafficking, transnational organized crime, and cooperation among the two countries’ security agencies in that context.
Iran is to allocate a grant and loans for construction of a bridge across the Araks River (between Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave and Iran) and of a Baku-Astara highway. In addition, the two governments have agreed to conduct a feasibility study on building an Alat-Astara road and a Kazvin-Astara railway, both of which would connect Azerbaijan with Iran along a segment of the long-contemplated North-South transport corridor. Such proposals centering on Astara have figured on the bilateral agenda for some years.
The Azerbaijani side avoided Iran’s proposal to either introduce visa-free travel or substantially simplify the visa regulations between the two countries. Azerbaijani officials believed that the existing visa regime is required for border security and to prevent the use of Azerbaijan’s territory for illicit traffic. A simplified visa regime is currently operating within 45 kilometers on either side of the Iran-Azerbaijan border.
Defining the Karabakh conflict as “Azerbaijan’s biggest problem,” Aliev expressed disappointment with the ten-year old negotiating process, blocked by Yerevan’s intransigence, in his view. He asked Iran to “use [its] economic leverage” on Armenia to moderate her negotiating position, inasmuch as Armenia depends on Iran for an outlet to the outside world. He also asked Iran’s leaders to continue supporting Azerbaijan’s position at the UN and within the Organization of the Islamic Conference regarding the Karabakh conflict. The Iranian leaders could not be expected to go along with the former request, but did easily agree with the latter.
Under journalists’ prompting, Khatami attempted to explain why Tehran denounces Israel’s, but not Armenia’s, “illegitimate seizure of territories.” He maintained that Israel’s existence was in itself illegitimate, the entire state consisting of “occupied territories” in Tehran’s view; whereas Armenia was a legitimate state, in illegitimate occupation of part of Azerbaijan’s territory, and necessitating that “the international community help put an end to that occupation” through peaceful means. Iranian leaders used this occasion to renew Tehran’s decade-long offer to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The visit reflected — and built upon — the late president Haidar Aliev’s success, by and large, in normalizing Azerbaijan-Iran relations toward the end of his rule. Due to Azerbaijan’s internal consolidation and Western alignment, Iran has given up on organizing radical Islamist propaganda in Azerbaijan, harboring militant Azeri opposition groups, opposing the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, and lecturing Azerbaijan against cooperation with the United States and other “imperialists.” Only some toned-down elements of that rhetoric persist in Tehran’s admonitions to Baku about “not allowing third parties to undermine bilateral relations,” keeping “foreign forces” out, and seeking solutions to regional issues by “regional countries” only, to the exclusion of “non-regional” ones.
One irritant in relations is the status of the Araz-Alov-Sharg offshore oilfield, situated well inside Azerbaijan’s maritime sector (by the standard determinant of coastal length), but claimed by Iran based on its own method of delimiting the sea into five sectors of equal size. The issue was not broached publicly during Aliev’s visit. It has remained unresolved since August 2001, when Iran’s warships and planes forced Azerbaijan and British Petroleum to cease exploration there.
In sum, Aliev’s visit did not modify the character of Azerbaijan-Iran relations; nor did it affect Azerbaijan’s stance as a member of the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition and NATO partner. Regarding the hypothetical use of Azerbaijan’s territory for a putative U.S. attack on Iran, Aliev’s chief foreign policy adviser Novruz Mamedov stated, “No U.S. invasion of Iran, as was the case with Iraq, is on the agenda at the moment. For our part, we give priority to neighborly relations in such cases, that is, we adhere to our independent policy during operations of this kind” (Ekspress, January 29).
(IRNA, Tehran Times, January 25-27; Turan, AzerTag, ANS-TV, January 25-27; Zerkalo, Ekspress (Baku), January 25, 27, 29; American Foreign Policy Council, Eurasia Security Watch, February 2, 2005).