Azerbaijan and Iran: the Contradictions and Perspectives of Development of Their Relations

Independent expert

The relations between the two countries should be considered in parallel contexts of history and modern times. Azerbaijan was within the Iranian (Persian) empire for a long time, and before the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus Azerbaijani khanates were in the immediate or indirect dependence from Iran. According to some sources, after the collapse of the Russian empire and by the results of the World War One, Tehran applied to the western countries with the request to annex Azerbaijan to Iran, referring to the history of the long existence of Azerbaijan within Iran.

Most of Azerbaijanis not only profess Shiism, but also belong to its Jafarite body, dominating in Iran, which has been getting the self-identification of the Persians and Turkic Azeris closer to each other for a long time. And although the Soviet atheism made quite a lot to erase this confessional connection from the memory of people, the formation of the pro-Iranian Islamic party in Azerbaijan in the very first years of its independence, among other factors, shows that a part of population preserved quite a sustainable sympathy toward Iran.

The relations between Iran and Azerbaijan were substantially spoiled during the rule of the People’s Front, the leaders of which by various pretexts touched the situation with the southern Azerbaijanis – the Iranian citizens – and raised the issue of the “divided people.”

The memory of Azerbaijanis has fixed that Shusha fell just when the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were going on in Tehran under Iran’s aegis. Since then all Iranian mediation proposals have not been ignored, although they have not been accepted either, hung in the air.

Iran’s positions regarding the status of the Caspian Sea is a matter of fact the policy, containing the U.S. penetration into the region, which, according to Tehran, is carried out by Azerbaijan. The attempts of forcible expulsion of the oil exploratory groups from the disputable sections of the Caspian, according to Iran, were finished with the demonstration of force by Turkey, the military aircraft of which performed   demonstration flights over Baku, signalizing Tehran the current configuration of positions in the region and the readiness to defend it.

What concerns Iran today? First of all, it is the potential formation of a strong state in Azerbaijan and its secular nature, which is a bad example for the whole state system of Iran, based on the principle of domination of the religious values. And it is the threat of separatism on the territory of the Southern Azerbaijan, mostly populated with a Turkic people. As a whole the southern part of the Azerbaijani ethnos, constituting the majority of population of the Iranian Azerbaijan in the provinces of Western Azerbaijan, Eastern Azerbaijan, Zenjan and Ardebil, and residing outside the area in the provinces of Kazvin, Hamadan, Gilyan, Kurdistan, Qum and Tehran, is the most considerable ethnic group, bigger than the whole population of the Azerbaijan Republic. Iran does not conduct the popular census by the ethnic principle, so the number of Azerbaijani is estimated between 20 and 36 millions.

Even for Iran it is a very big number, so no wonder that representatives of this people filled almost all echelons of the politics, economy, culture and other fields in the country.  The northern Azerbaijanis sometimes like counting “their people” in the political and ruling elite of Iran, at the same time forgetting that just “their people,” like the officials from the ethnic groups in the Soviet times, are the most ardent champions of the contemporary Iranian foreign and domestic policies.

Baku’s rapprochement with the West, and first of all with the United States, is the main argument for containing the process of Azerbaijan’s strengthening, and possibly the soonest settlement of the conflict, after which the democratic development of the region will become inevitable and remarkable for the neighbours. Even more, Iran is successfully developing its cooperation with Armenia, and Azerbaijan is no less successfully developing its relations with Israel, proving the fact that the relations between the two countries are not simple at all.

After gaining independence, Azerbaijan faced the waves of the religious expansion from Iran, which was conducted by various levels (broadcasting radio and TV programs, sending literature and religious preachers, creating relief funds, etc). Outwardly this activity has been decreased today, but Iran uses every opportunity to set “its brothers” by the religion on the right path. For example, the recent campaign in Azerbaijan, related to legalization of bearing the special women’s head cover hejab as a symbol of belonging to Islam, has invoked a fierce criticism of the secular Azerbaijani authorities in Iran. Especially active in the criticism of the Baku official policy is the Iranian TV channel, broadcasted in Azerbaijani, the language that has been taken out of the educational and cultural spheres of Iran.

The famous pro-western political scientist Vafa Guluzade said in his interview to agency  (January 24, 2011): “In the present situation Iran would find it a huge success, if it was able to achieve that an Islamic revolution  occurred in Azerbaijan, making it an Islamic state. That is why Iran wants to achieve some political goals, escalating the situation in Azerbaijan. When it is the question of the IRI national interests, Tehran betrays the Muslim countries and Islam.”

The official rhetoric of the two countries is more restrained; the two sides prefer mentioning the historical closeness of the states. “The peoples of Iran and Azerbaijan are two fraternal peoples. This fraternity comes out from the depths of the history, culture and religious beliefs of the two nations,”- declared the Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Baku last year during a joint press-conference with the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani noted during his visit to Azerbaijan this year: “The Iranian-Azerbaijani ties are not superficial, they are based on very deep and spiritual roots.”

At the same time the Iranian President did not “forget” to point out, apparently for the external audience, that the “role of Azerbaijan and Iran on the Caspian Sea is major and decisive;” meanwhile Larijani, confirming that his country supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, said that “Iran does not see any necessity in engaging super powers into the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as far as the problem can be settled on the regional level.”

Anyway, Tehran and Baku signed an agreement, according to which the two countries should not act against each other’s interests. However, it does not prevent both countries from waging a propagandist war against each other for the political purposes out of the economical interests and contradictions. Iran possesses huge oil and gas reserves, but the western energy projects, in which Azerbaijan takes part, leave Tehran out of them. Even now Azerbaijan is able to supply 1.2 million barrels of oil a day to Turkey through Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, but this route is not permitted for Iran. Now it is the Nabucco project that is going to be a stumbling block, as far as not only Iranian, but also the Russian interests are supposed to be touched by that.

Tehran’s nuclear program, which is fraught with a threat of military intervention against Iran or hitting it with rocket strikes by the U.S. or its allies, put Azerbaijan into an extremely difficult situation of balancing between the sides of that confrontation. However, it is necessary to note that Baku firmly declared that it would not permit to use its territory for intervention or bombarding Iran.

Azerbaijan actively develops its cooperation with the United States in security, first of all, in the combat against international terrorism. Azerbaijan sent its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it does not contribute to the settlement of the conflict. The problem is that several big countries and the United States as a world super power have their own “vital and strategic” interests in the region, complicated in a tangle of contradictions, not always openly pronounced. Those powers attach different roles to the three South Caucasian republics, but it is clear that the full realization of anybody’s ambitions is possible only in case if they become a part of the common geopolitical space.

It is apparent that the globalization processes could not have missed the region that is outwardly marked, depending on this or that strategic context, attributed to it. For Russia, it is the region that detonated the collapse of the USSR, the “Near abroad,” considered as a zone of the indispensable political presence of Moscow, it is a “bridge” by the North-South axis, the gates to the East, to the Central Asia and the Middle East. If we consider the region from the view of the United States, it is another strategic object: the access (including the military one) to Iran, one of the links in the chain that has been made up in the process of the anti-terrorist campaign, the access to Afghanistan, a new source of energy and the region of communications, capable to decrease the dependence of the West from the Russian oil and gas. For Europe, it is a region for the territorial enlargement, its new geographic point, which by means of unification of efforts with Turkey might become a border of its political presence in the nearest perspective. It is a potential “bridge” and the line of communication connection between the West and East.

Accordingly, the contemporary integration mechanisms for the South Caucasus, probable due to the real geopolitical demands, have three directions:  the path to the European Union, integration into the European structures; the local integration under the U.S. umbrella, and, finally, less probable, but not fully ruled out, the integration, determined by the connection of the region to Russia. In the last case, taking into account such a dynamically developing regional structure as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an option of wide integration is possible with the engagement of Iran and Turkey (minimum) and even the Central Asian states, China and India (maximum).

As it is known, the main driving force of the political relations, their negative or positive state, is actually the degree of the development of the economical cooperation among the countries, able to settle all the accumulated contradictions among the states in the soonest possible time, but not the official statements on this or that occasion. Azerbaijan is a participant of many large-scale economical projects, worked and implemented in the region by the western countries and the United States. At the same time Azerbaijan more and more expresses its interest in the regional economical cooperation with participation of Russia, Turkey and Iran. And there many examples of that.

Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan started implementing the connection of the railway systems of the three countries within the frameworks of the large-scaled North-South project, allowing to connect vast territories into a common economical zone. On February 7, 2011, the heads of the Azerbaijani, Russian and Iranian railroad authorities signed an agreement on setting a joint enterprise within the frameworks of the North-South railway transport corridor project. It is planned to invest $400 millions into the constructions of the railroad.

During the meeting of the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament Orgay Asadov and speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani in June, 2011, a decision was made to hold a trilateral meeting of the heads of the Turkish, Azerbaijani and Iranian parliaments.

Turkey and Iran started talks on creation of the free economic zone on the border of the two countries. After the realization of the project, the neighbouring countries, first of all Azerbaijan and Georgia, would be able to join it. In addition, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan began creating a common electric power system; Iran and Armenia pursue a similar goal.

And the most recent event: Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan declared about their intention to increase the level of the economic cooperation and carry out several joint projects. The declaration was signed on April 16 by the Foreign Ministers of the three states on the shore of Lake Urmia in the town under the same name in the Iranian province of the Western Azerbaijan.

Undoubtedly, the closer economical cooperation reflects the political realities of the region: the blockade of Iran, refusal of the West to see Turkey in the European Union in the near perspective, Azerbaijan’s desire to get political dividends, along with the economical ones, in its relations with the West. Turkey has already announced its Caucasian platform, proposing to unite the economical potential of the region with Russia’s participation, quite a long time ago. Even more, Ankara’s ambitions urge it to propagandize some Eurasian Union, created by the EU example, but possessing much bigger, gigantic demographic and economical potential. Interestingly, Moscow does not  brush it aside from a start, and the question is just who will play the first fiddle in such a huge project, taking into account that China, the second biggest economical giant, will take part in it for certain.

As for the present, three countries of the region, i.e. Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan, suppose to make the first steps: to remove the barriers for the mutual trade, to arrange new communications, to make up a cultural program for the project with the aim of getting the peoples closer to each other.

Undoubtedly, the West considers these initiatives as a threat to its interests, but in secret, so far not expressing such thoughts aloud, believing that this initiative would not be implemented, as many others.  However, such a trump of Ankara can change the opinion of some western countries about Turkey’s membership in the EU.

The declaration, which was adopted by the results of the meeting, consists of nine points, and one of them mentions the necessity of settling the regional conflicts within the territorial integrity of the states and inviolability of the borders.

Tehran was satisfied that the text of the declaration, confirming its right to use nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes within the frameworks of the Treaty on non-proliferation of the nuclear weapon.

The participants of the meeting are planning to mutually invest into the projects for development of the economical cooperation in tourism, energetic and some other fields. In order to implement the declared perspectives, the parties are going to create a trilateral committee for the economic issues, to decrease the customs duties, to establish the eased regime for crossing the borders, and to modernize the border points. Baku, Ankara and Tehran are also planning to exchange information in the spheres of security and struggle against terrorism, smuggling of arms, drugs and illegal immigration.

As a whole, according to the forecasts of analysts, including the western experts, the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan in the nearest perspective will be developing in the already established mode of periodical cooling and warming. At present Tehran is more concerned with the “Arab revolutions,” determining the future of not only the Islamic, but also the whole world. Iran’s ambitions to become the leaders of the Islamic world impose the appropriate model of its foreign policy, consolidation of the Shiite forces all over the Middle East.

In the long-term perspective stable relations between Baku and Tehran are viewed on the way of establishment of democratic regimes in both countries, capable to solve all problems with the help of the international law.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev greets his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his residence in Baku.Photo:


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