Toward a normalization of Azerbaijan-Iran relations, Georgia
Feb 14 2005

Toward a normalization of Azerbaijan-Iran relations

Gilles Riaux’s Column

By Gilles RIAUX, PhD student at the French Geopolitics Institute –
Paris 8 University in Paris
On 14/02/2005

The recent visit to Iran of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, from
Janurary 24th to 26th 2005, confirms the rapprochement between Tehran
and Baku. Not only did he meet with the Iranian president Mohammad
Khatami whom the presidential term of office will be ending soon, but
Ilham Aliyev also met with le Guide Ali Khameney and Ali Akhbar
Hashemi Rafsandjani – two of the most influent men of the Islamic
Republic of Iran.
Among the topics discussed the major ones were the condemnation of
the Armenian occupation in Nagorno-Karabagh, the strengthening of
economic bonds and the cooperation for fight against terrorism, drug
trafficking and organized crime.

Furthermore, this visit was a follow up to the one of Khatami in Baku
in August 2004. This visit ended up on the opening of a consulate of
the Republic of Azerbaijan in Tabriz and the signing of agreements
for the improvement of communication infrastructures and energetic
cooperation between the two countries. Those two official meetings
show, if not proove, the undeniable rapprochement between Baku and
Tehran – rapprochement initiated by Heydar Aliyev’s visit to Iran,
early 2002.

And yet over the 90’s, there was an obvious distrust between the two
capitals. This distrust was at its strongest point in July 2001 when
an Iranian military ship demanded an oil prospecting ship coming form
Azerbaijan to get away from the Iran territorial waters.

At the beginning, Iran saw USSR’s fall as a way to expand its
influence in Central Asia and Caucasus, by taking advantage of their
religious and cultural common history. Until it was conquered by the
Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century, the current
territory of the Azerbaijani republic was an integral part of Iran.
There the major ethnic group of the population is Shiite (the
Azeris), which is also the main minority in Iran.

However, the new and weak republics of Central Asia and Caucasus
choose to strongly assert their national indentity so as to prevent
any foreign interference. The new president of the Republic of
Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elçibey, takes a nationalist stance, especially
agressive toward Iran. He asks for an Iranian Azerbaijan to secede
from Iran, and for the creation of a great Azerbaijan of which the
capital would be Tabriz.

It is then that Tehran decides to actively support Armenia for the
Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, in order to defuse a possible secession of
Iran’s Azeris and to weaken the republic of Azerbaijan. Officially,
Iran takes a neutral stance but as its Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Mahmud Vae’zi, admitted it, Iran’s support to Armenia is dictated by
domestic issues (source ). The Islamic
Republic turns for good its revolutionary project into a strict
realism regarding its Foreign policy.

The coming of power of apparatchik Heydar Aliyev marks a turning
point for Azerbaijan. He trades the hazardous nationalist policy of
his predecessor for a realism inherited from a long experience of the
Soviet system. From this point, he has to bring back on its feet a
country which is then on its knees and weakened by a territorial
conflict lost for good.

So as to succeed in his project to turn Azerbaijan into « a new
Kuwait », Heydar Aliyev has first to work on the issue of oil
exportations, in order to provide a stable environment by improving
its relations with the region’s power. Once the difficult BTC oil
pipeline project passed, Tehran gets that it would never become a
mandatory partner for Azerbaijan. Indeed despite Iran’s outstanding
location, the USA would never have accepted that Caspian Sea oil
transit through the territory of the Islamic republic.

It may be difficult sometimes to understand the Iranian Foreign
Policy, this one resulting from arrangements between the different
factions in power. However, Iran being surrounded by the USA and
ethnic minorities – primarily Azeris – developing cultural claims,
Tehran is now inclined to improve its relations with Baku.

This improvement is both following the domestic, and the foreign
line. And for Iran taking part in stabilizing Caucasus, by the
resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or the fight against the
different smuggling that destabilize the region, has become necessary
since this country wants to be a regional power. It is also a way to
loosen the American grip.

Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Tabriz, the new Consulate of the Republic of
Azerbaijan, as well as the mausoleum of Sharyar – key figure of the
Azeri litterature in Iran, is also helping the domestic line. It gave
the opportunity to bring to Iran’s Azeris goodwill tokens for their
cultural claims, and to limit the radicalization of Azeri

But this apparent normalization conceals still pretty poorly the
difficulties met by two States which choose a realistic Foreign
Policy. The position towards the United States and the legal status
of the Caspian Sea are still the major disagreements which prevent a
strong alliance between Azerbaijan and Iran.