Analysis: Iran-Azeri Talks: No Strategic Shift

By Emil Kaziyev and Saeed Barzin

BBC Monitoring
23 August

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad’s August visit to Azerbaijan
and his talks with President Ilham Aliyev have not indicated any
strategic shift in relations between the two countries.

With mixed official and media reactions in both capitals towards
the visit, the two sides seem to have made only modest progress on
bilateral ties.

Rhetorical posturing by both sides is expected to continue but
pragmatic and tactical advances are expected to be made too.

Tehran’s official stance

The visit and its outcome, as reported in the Iranian media, does
not seem to have unduly troubled the government in Tehran.

Indeed, so far as the Iranian side was concerned, the Azeri neutrality
on Tehran’s nuclear policy was reiterated and welcomed.

Regarding Armenia, the most sensitive issue for Baku, an understanding
that Tehran-Yerevan ties are not anti-Azeri was officially expressed.

President Aliyev’s line on "friendly" ties with Iran was also
welcomed. On ethnic issues, a source of concern for Iran, the
significance of the fact that no anti-Ahmadinezhad demonstration
was allowed in Baku during the visit could not have been lost on
Iranian observers.

Ahmadinezhad gave the impression that all is well between the two
neighbours. In his words, "relations have been expanding and there
are no limits", and that ties are "deep, fraternal and sustained".

There were modest agreements to open an inter-state bus route,
build a road bridge and a power plant, and to promote the existing
600 million dollar trade between the two countries.

Baku’s official stance

Azerbaijani officials and clerics welcomed the Iranian president’s
visit while a number of political forces spoke out against it.

President Ilham Aliyev praised the results of the visit and the
signing of the joint declaration. "The joint declaration signed by
the presidents is a very wide-ranging and comprehensive document. It
outlines all the principles that cover all the aspects of bilateral
relations. I am confident that it will become a serious basis for
future cooperation," Aliyev said.

"I would like to particularly note that the joint declaration includes
a provision on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagornyy Karabakh problem. The
Islamic Republic of Iran once again clearly supported Azerbaijan’s
position, the importance of resolving the conflict within the framework
of international law and Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity," Aliyev
went on to say.

A spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister, Xazar Ibrahim,
described relations between the two countries as "high-level and
friendly". Commenting on the visit, he spoke in favour of expanding
relations with Iran.

Touching on the possible joint use of the Qabala radar station by
the US, Ibrahim said Azerbaijan was ready to accept any initiative
that would contribute to stability in the region.

Iran’s "US-Azeri problem"

Tehran’s greatest concern with Baku is the latter’s close ties with
the US and working relations with Israel.

Official statements before Ahmadinezhad’s departure for Baku did
not indicate that the Iranian government was expecting a change in
Baku’s strategic posture. Indeed, there was nothing after the talks
to indicate that any change had taken place.

However, Ahmadinezhad used his press conference to reiterate Iran’s
anti-US policy, and in Tehran several papers used the opportunity
to raise the same point. Otherwise, there was no apparent change in
Iran’s understandings or expectations.

Caspian Sea summit

Ahmadinezhad also had a modest achievement in securing a date for a
summit of the heads of the Caspian Sea littoral states. The summit
will be held in Tehran on 18 October.

Worried that it might lose out in the division of sea’s resources,
Tehran has been working for a settlement of the legal status of
the Caspian.

During the talks, Ahmadinezhad stressed Iran’s interest in finding a
solution to the maritime problems that arose after the collapse of
the Soviet Union. Prior to 1991, Iran and the Soviet Union divided
the sea between themselves. But now five countries need to find a
new arrangement on sharing the waters and resources of the world’s
largest lake.

Iran’s regional diplomacy

Ahmadinezhad’s visit was a part of Tehran’s recent "diplomatic
offensive" to consolidate relations with neighbouring countries,
even those working closely with the US.

The "offensive" is a part of a bigger diplomatic game vis-a-vis Iran’s
arch-enemy, the US.

The Iranian diplomatic initiative seems tactical in nature, but it
could have strategic implications if talking with US allies leads to
a qualitative change from an ideological posture to a more pragmatic
approach in certain areas of foreign policy.

A similar change was observed in Iranian foreign policy in the 1980s
vis-a-vis Iran’s southern neighbours.

Ahmadinezhad has visited half a dozen neighbouring countries in the
past several months.

Azeri expectations

Baku had released little official information regarding Azeri
expectations from the visit, but analysts believe that Baku had been
hoping for Iranian assistance in easing the blockade of the Azerbaijani
enclave of Naxcivan.

Azerbaijan needs to use Iranian territory for the supply of goods and
energy to the enclave. Agreements to this effect were signed during
the visit.

Baku is also trying to ensure that tensions between Iran and the US
do not harm Azerbaijan’s interests. Many in Azerbaijan fear that a
US operation against Iran might endanger the country’s security.

Azerbaijan is a key US ally in the strategically important Caucasus
region, and Tehran is concerned that the US might seek to use
Azerbaijani territory against Iran.

Political parties in Azerbaijan

The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan said that the visit would boost
"sincerity and friendliness" in relations and was of "major importance"
in preventing discord between the two countries.

But the Azerbaijani Milli Istiqlal Party described Ahmadinezhad’s
visit to Baku as a mark of "disrespect" for all Azerbaijanis.

The party accused Iran of violating the rights of ethnic Azeris and
said that the visit to Azerbaijan by the leader of a "chauvinistic
regime" hurt national feelings and constituted disrespect for all

It accused Iran of carrying out "hostile" policies against Azerbaijan
and demanded that the Azerbaijani government reconsider its relations
with Iran.

Groups of Iranian Azerbaijanis living in Baku tried to stage a
protest against Ahmadinezhad’s visit outside the Iranian embassy on
22 August. They had planned to criticize the policy of the Iranian
authorities towards ethnic Azeris and to demand the release of those
jailed by Tehran.

However, the police did not allow the protesters near the embassy,
and 10 demonstrators were taken into custody.

Commentators in Baku

Azerbaijani political expert Rasim Musabayov said by paying visits
to neighbouring countries that have friendly relationships with Iran,
President Ahmadinezhad is planning to drum up their support.

In Musabayov’s opinion, Azerbaijan may vote for the UN resolution
on the nuclear issue if it is not very strictly worded and construed
against Iran.

Another Azerbaijani expert, Eldar Namazov, said that Iran needed this
visit more than Azerbaijan, because Tehran wants Baku to guarantee
that Azerbaijan will not allow any third country to use its territory
against Iran.

Vafa Quluzada, a former foreign policy adviser, ruled out closer
relations with Iran. He said that Azerbaijan and Iran were two
"absolutely different countries with different regimes".

However, Azerbaijan was interested in resolving contradictions with
Iran and maintaining good relations with Tehran, he said.

He added that Iran was concerned about US plans to use the Qabala radar
station in Azerbaijan and over a possible US presence in the region.

Media coverage in Tehran

Newspaper coverage of Ahmadinezhad’s visit was limited. It is not
known if there were any state-imposed restrictions.

Several commentaries in the hard-line press (including Siyasat-e
Ruz and Jaam-e Jam), sharply attacked Baku for working with Israel,
siding with the US, giving sanctuary to anti-revolutionaries and
conducting anti-Iranian media campaigns.

There was also a positive spin in the tone and reporting of the story
as a victory for Ahmadinezhad.

The spin extended to commentaries and discussions on the
state-controlled radio and television, where the assessment of
bilateral relations was generally over optimistic and idealistic
in tone.

Otherwise the reportage was factual, formal and stressed common
cultural and economic elements between the two countries. The
pro-reform papers apparently had no comment to make on the affair.