It is evident that the worst is now behind. Iran was one of the 10 signatories of the final declaration of the 15th Summit of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) which, amongst many other clauses, incorporated a congratulatory part dedicated to Azerbaijan’s victory in last year’s war and the restoration of its territorial integrity. On top of that, a new gas swap deal was signed by Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran, which is perceived as another indication that the recent political rupture has been left behind.
No room for resentfulness
Iran’s recognition of Azerbaijani territorial integrity is not new. On a diplomatic level, at least, in terms of pure rhetoric, Tehran has consistently supported Baku on Karabakh throughout the 30 years of the protracted conflict, but those in the habit of taking any Iranian asseveration with a pinch of salt have always been wary of its sincerity and, if one is allowed to add, rightly so. As we know today, during the illegal occupation, certain business circles within Iran, possibly sanctioned by the official authorities in one way or another, made the best use of the lack of Azerbaijani control in the region to the detriment of far more important gains.
During the 44-day war, Iran maintained a supportive diplomatic tone, yet things went “slightly” awry afterwards. The crisis, prompted by the perfectly lawful arrest of two Iranian truck drivers by the Azerbaijani authorities, led to mutual accusations, and to a sufficient degree of reciprocal mistrust, which temporarily rendered any move in the direction of rapprochement impossible.
Yet the implications of the new geopolitical reality that emerged after the Second Karabakh War have proven to be too consequential to be ignored, even by such a resistant heavyweight as Iran. Victors are to be reckoned with and, thanks to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's suitably uncompromising stance, when such a course of action was justified, through carefully measured moves, Iran now seems to have finally come to terms with the present reality. Just after a month of sabre-rattling and some unprecedented war games near the Azerbaijani border, Tehran showed, in the most demonstrative manner, that it is willing to open a new chapter in its relations with Baku.
During his meeting with President Aliyev on the sidelines of the Ashgabad summit, Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi made a subtle and vague point about a hypothetical foreign intervention aimed at negatively impacting Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. Whatever that unmentioned force may be in Iranian parlance, many observers would agree that if there is one player that is genuinely troubled with the normalisation of the relations between Baku and Tehran, and that is Armenia.
There is a clear sense in Yerevan that, in light of the dissatisfaction with the country's main strategic ally, Russia, which did not provide the anticipated support during last year's war, all avenues must be explored so as to ensure there remain constant frictions in Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. That perhaps explains why various circles in Armenia were jubilant when Tehran and Baku were exchanging mutual accusations, and, in the same vein, one can understand the reason substantiating the present Armenian disgruntlement.
The most visible manifestation of the aforementioned rapprochement is a trilateral agreement on a gas supply swap signed by Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran. Under the new deal, 1.5 to 2 billion cubic metres of gas will be annually sent from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan through Iran. Given the trajectory and its final destination, the scheme is also important for the diversification of Europe’s energy supply.
President Aliyev called the document “historic” and expressed his hope that it would further deepen economic relations between the countries. President Raisi, in the best traditions of Iranian diplomacy, in a manner duly emollient, said that the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan "are not only neighbourly relations but are the relations of the hearts". One may perhaps infer that when mighty economic considerations happen to be of a prevailing nature, "hearts" tend to follow.
Experts concur that the current trade turnover between Iran and Azerbaijan does not reflect the actual economic potential of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, which is massive, and needless to say, far beyond the opportunities offered by the trilateral deal in question. Baku, if things go in the right direction, may play a significant role in fulfilling the energy needs of Iran's northern provinces. Tehran, in light of the Western sanctions and subsequent isolation, has found itself under the task of forming a resistive economy and developed some capacity for "import substitution". Azerbaijan does not share the same predicament, but some believe, in view of not being immune to worldwide inflation and the importation of goods, the prices of which are inflated, Baku may also find it beneficial to learn from its southern neighbour's experience.
On a different note, Iran, despite its original resentment, no longer seems opposed to the concept of the Zangazur corridor, to which President Aliyev made numerous references in Ashgabat. Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. diplomat, believes the gas swap deal could give another layer of practicality to the corridor plan and bring Tehran closer to accepting its implementation. The diplomat conjectured that by means of ensuring that gas moves along the route in question, it may be possible to "build industrial zones along that road that could facilitate the use of the natural gas for petrochemicals production".
To conclude, if to recapitulate what has been said, it behoves a rational man of cold reason to appreciate that politics, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, is not a place for romanticism and emotional expectations. Azerbaijan and Iran are neighbours and destined to remain so. Onceguided by economic and political considerations based on the mutual interests of the sides, bilateral ties tend to flourish and let us hope that this will be the case in the example of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations for some considerable time to come.