Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 157

Turkey’s Armed Forces chief of staff, General Hussein Kivrikoglu, and a squadron of Turkish fighter planes visited Azerbaijan on August 24-26. Although prescheduled, the visit took on unplanned political overtones in the wake of Iran’s recent use of military force in the Caspian Sea against Azerbaijan and Western oil interests, deep inside Azerbaijan’s sector (see the Monitor, July 25-26, 31, August 7).

The July 23 incident, in which an Iranian warship forced an Azerbaijani research vessel out of a British-Azerbaijani offshore oil drilling area, was at the time the most serious consequence of a naval buildup otherwise spearheaded by Russia in the Caspian Sea. In the month since it occurred, Iranian air force planes repeatedly penetrated deeply into Azerbaijan’s airspace. Both Baku and Tehran, from their opposite perspectives, understood the Turkish visit as a gesture of support for Azerbaijan and a signal to Iran that it cannot count on isolating Baku.

Kivrikoglu joined Azerbaijan’s President Haidar Aliev and Defense Minister Safar Abiev greeting the first graduating class of Azerbaijan’s Higher Military College. Some 640 officers completed the training under a four-year program, funded by Turkey and designed to conform with NATO standards.

The visiting Turkish squadron of ten American-made Phantom jets staged two acrobatic flight shows over Baku to an enthusiastic public welcome. According to Azerbaijan’s most experienced diplomat, former presidential adviser Vafa Guluzade, the event provided a compensatory psychological lift to Azerbaijanis “after Iran’s humiliating actions.” Furthermore, “thanks to the demonstration of Turkish military might above Baku, President Aliev’s [planned and postponed] visit to Iran will become possible. The president can go to Tehran with dignity.” Guluzade, the first Azerbaijani official to have called for the stationing of NATO or Turkish air power in Azerbaijan three years ago, noted that these flights were the first appearance of Turkish and/or NATO military hardware in Azerbaijan. The demonstration was, however, mainly symbolic, as the jets are part of a noncombat group specializing in exhibition flights.

On August 26, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones conferred with Aliev in Baku on the Caspian situation. The State Department’s response to Iranian military moves there has been remarkably low-key, as were Jones’ remarks in Baku. In her discussions with Aliev, Jones placed this issue low on the agenda and stopped short of offering any specific assistance. In that meeting and in the concluding public briefing, Jones reiterated “concern about Iran’s actions,” which she termed “provocative in character and not serving to help resolve the issue [of the Caspian Sea’s legal status]”. She indicated that the State Department would leave it up to U.S. companies to decide whether to proceed with exploration for oil and gas in offshore areas subject to dispute. (Zerkalo, August 25; The Turkish Daily News, Anatolia News Agency, Turan, ANS, August 24-28; Azerbaijan (offcial Baku daily), AFP, August 28).