Backgrounder: Iran President To Seek Improved Ties With Azerbaijan

By Emil Kaziyev and Saeed Barzin

BBC Monitoring
20 August

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad will start a two-day official
visit to Azerbaijan on 21 August.

Tehran and Baku are expected to sign several agreements on cooperation
and the two countries hope to put their relations on a better
footing. However, fundamental issues still remain to be resolved
between them.

Foreign policy orientations

Relations between Iran and the Azerbaijani Republic are governed
by different foreign policy orientations as well as the dynamics of
their respective domestic politics.

Iran is a Shi’i country of over 70 million people with a large Azeri
population. Foreign policy is defined by the principles of the 1979
Islamic Revolution and a strong anti-US stance.

Azerbaijan is a country of more than eight million people,
predominantly ethnic Azeri Shi’is. The republic emerged as an
independent state 16 years ago and today has close relations with

Both countries conduct their external relations according to different
interpretations of their national interest in a changing political

While the ethnic element is more prominent in Baku’s foreign
policy outlook, the Islamic perspective dominates Tehran’s view of
international politics.

In both countries political opposition groups that could modify
foreign policy are restricted. The two countries share a 700 km border.

Azerbaijan tends to view its US partner as a balancing factor
vis-a-vis its larger southern and northern neighbours, Iran and
Russia. Azerbaijan sees itself as a corridor for the delivery of oil
and gas to the West through the strategic Caucasus region.

At the same time, Baku wants functional political and economic ties
with its southern neighbour, while maintaining a degree of neutrality
in the greater scheme of things.

In contrast, Iran seeks to limit US and Western influence in the

Tehran is therefore critical of Azerbaijan’s ties with Washington,
and particularly of Baku’s relations with Israel.

Iran finds Azerbaijan’s ethnic perspective a source of concern and,
in turn, seeks to use religion to gain some leverage in the social
structure of its northern neighbour.

However, Tehran-Baku relations are not critical to Iranian foreign
policy, and Tehran is seeking a gradual expansion of bilateral ties.

Recent history

Iran and Azerbaijan have a long common history, and both countries
sought to restore their relations after the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991.

However, relations between the two countries did not get off to a
good start following Azerbaijan’s independence.

The then nationalist president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elcibay,
openly supported the idea of independence for the Iranian province
of Azarbayjan.

Elcibay’s explicit pro-Western and anti-Iranian stance prompted
Tehran to pursue a policy of tacit support for Armenia, which was
involved in armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the predominantly
Armenian-populated region of Nagornyy Karabakh.

Although Tehran officially recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial
integrity, many in Baku suspected Iran of helping Armenia during the
conflict. Iran still maintains close economic ties with Armenia.

Relations between the two nations improved somewhat under Azerbaijan’s
new president, Heydar Aliyev, who came to power in 1993. The two
countries’ leaders exchanged visits in an attempt to improve ties.

However, while refraining from nationalist rhetoric, Aliyev sought
to curb the influence of pro-Iranian forces, jailing leaders of the
Islamic Party of Azerbaijan for allegedly conducting espionage on
behalf of Iran.

Meanwhile, some high-ranking Iranian officials warned the Baku
government that Iran might consider recovering the northern part of
its province of Azarbayjan.

Baku’s policy should not be aimed at encouraging such a demand from
Tehran, the Azeri newspaper Ekho quoted Iran’s Expediency Council
Secretary Mohsen Reza’i as saying.

Iranian reactions to the activity of groups in Baku campaigning for
Azeri separatism emerged in some web publications. They referred
to the Azeri republic as "Northern Iran" and demanded the return of
territory of the Azerbaijani republic that was a part of Iran during
the 19th century.

Despite tensions, the two countries are actively cooperating in
various spheres and have signed a number of bilateral agreements.

Baku has promised Tehran not to allow any third country to use its
territory for actions against Iran. An agreement to this effect was
signed during a visit to Tehran by Azerbaijan’s former president
Heydar Aliyev in 2002.

Ethnic tensions

The question of Iranian Azarbayjan remains a source of tension between
the two countries.

Nationalist groups in Baku accuse Iran of violating the rights of the
Azeri community, while Tehran suspects Baku of encouraging separatism
in its Azeri-speaking provinces and sheltering ethnic dissidents
from Iran.

In March 2006, some participants in the World Azerbaijani Congress in
Baku addressed the idea of a united Azerbaijan, and spoke of human
rights abuses against ethnic Azeris in Iran, remarks which sparked
a diplomatic row between the two countries.

The then Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Soleymani, expressed
outrage at the views of some of the participants in the congress.

May 2006 saw protests in Iran’s Azeri-speaking provinces sparked
by the publication in the newspaper Iran of a cartoon that Iranian
Azeris thought was insulting.

The media in Azerbaijan extensively covered the subsequent

Azeri nationalist groups accused Tehran of violating ethnic rights
and staged protests outside the Iranian embassy in Baku.

However, Azerbaijani officials refrained from making comments. The
Azerbaijani ambassador to Iran, Abbasali Hasanov, said that the
protests were an internal affair of Iran.

According to the Baku media and anti-Iranian websites, the protests
were suppressed by Iran’s security forces and many ethnic activists
were arrested and jailed.

Caspian Sea

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the legal status of the Caspian
Sea was defined by the agreements between Iran and the Soviet Union.

Since then, the legal status of the sea has been an ongoing dispute
among the littoral states, including Iran and Azerbaijan.

The littoral states have been able to agree on the environmental issues
of the Caspian Sea. However, rights over the surface and the seabed,
border demarcation, use of common resources, fishing and rights of
vessels remain on the agenda.

Various legal concepts have been presented as a solution to the
divergent and often conflicting interests of the states. They range
from a complete division of the sea to the joint use of resources.

Iran favours an equal division of the water and its resources,
and wants free commercial shipping, no shipping under the flag of
non-littoral states and a fishing belt.

Azerbaijan seeks different, unilateral, arrangements. Baku has
held talks with Russia and Kazakhstan and signed agreements on the
delimitation of the seabed based on the median line approach.

There have been cases of heightened tension over the status of the
sea and over Baku’s cooperation with foreign oil companies.

In 2001 Iranian naval vessels forced an Azerbaijani survey vessel to
leave a disputed area of the sea, and subsequently UK oil major BP
suspended its exploration pending a resolution.

Talks between President Aliyev and President Ahmadinezhad could
help facilitate a future Caspian summit meeting. However, for the
time being, there is no consensus over an agenda or on a date for a
meeting of the leaders of the Caspian littoral states.

A summit held in Ashgabat in 2002 was an achievement in itself but
there were no solid results.