While local newspapers and political analysts continue to speculate about whether the United States will attack Iran during President George W. Bush’s second term, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev departed for a three-day official visit to Tehran. Turan News Agency reported on January 24 that eight bilateral agreements had been readied for signing, covering transportation, trade, economics, energy, education, and health. During his visit, President Aliev planned to meet with his counterpart, President Mohammad Khatami, Supreme Spiritual leader Ali Khameni, and other governmental officials.
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have lately been on the rise, mainly due to increased media reports of U.S. intentions to attack Iran. Whereas bilateral relations between the two neighbors remained tense during much of the post-Soviet period, the two last months of 2004 witnessed high-level visits by the Iranian president and ministers to Baku. In December President Khatami paid his first official visit to Baku, and he was followed the Ministers of Defense, National Security, and Health. While in Baku, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani stated, “Our safety is Azerbaijan’s safety.” Local analysts link these intensified visits to the fears in Tehran that President Bush will launch an attack on Iran in order to prevent Tehran from developing weapons of mass destruction. Last week, Secretary of State designee Condoleezza Rice, speaking at her Senate confirmation hearings, declared, “At some point, Iran has to carry out the consequences of not being willing to live with international obligations.” Azerbaijan is widely regarded as a possible launching pad for these attacks.
The Azerbaijani independent daily Echo on January 24 discussed the consequences of such an attack for the Azerbaijani people. “One cannot exclude that the possibility of a military operation against Iran will increase day by day. How will Azerbaijan behave in such a situation if the U.S. insists that we fulfill our responsibilities as a coalition member? Is there a full assurance that in such a situation Azerbaijani villages and cities will not be damaged and the death of civilians will be avoided?” Echo writers wonder.
Whereas the launch of U.S. military activities against Iran seems quite unrealistic at the moment, the issue seems to have pushed bilateral Iranian-Azerbaijani relations towards improvement. Last year, Iranian authorities finally agreed to open an Azerbaijani consulate in Tebriz, another thorny issue in relations of Baku with Tehran throughout 1990s. President Aliev is expected to visit Tebriz as well.
At the same time, some issues still remain unresolved. Azerbaijani officials do not hide their displeasure with the beginning of construction work for the gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia. Baku sees this act by Tehran as aimed at strengthening Azerbaijan’s archrival. Similarly, Iran continues to insist on the division of the Caspian Sea into equal parts, thus hindering the resolution of the legal status of the sea. On January 24 Turan News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry representative Hamid Reza Asefi as saying, “Iran regards a 20% section of the Caspian Sea as its own territory and will not allow anybody to carry out any operations in its sector.” In summer 2001 the unresolved status of the Caspian Sea almost led to a war between the two countries.
Considering the complicated geographic and geopolitical location of Azerbaijan, the country’s leadership attempts to pursue a balanced foreign policy, building equally good relations with the West, Russia, and Iran at the same time. For Baku, it is indeed a matter of survival. Yet, many believe that should U.S.-Iranian relations hit a new low, Azerbaijan will have to choose sides. Sulhaddin Akpar, the deputy chairman of the opposition party Musavat is one of them. “In the Iranian case, Azerbaijan cannot stay neutral. Azerbaijan must pursue an active policy within the coalition in order to achieve the liberalization and democratization of Iran” (Yeni Musavat, January 24).