A Caspian Sea summit may have been what brought Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Baku recently, but it was Iran’s bilateral relations with Azerbaijan that commanded a greater share of attention. Although Ahmadinejad left Azerbaijan with little to show for his time, Azerbaijani analysts are interpreting the visit as a sign that Baku does not want to give open support to US and EU sanctions against Iran.
Officially, all was positive between the two countries during Ahmadinejad’s November 17-18 stay. During talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, held on the sidelines of the Caspian summit, the Iranian leader declared that “with my Azerbaijani brother [Aliyev] we discussed and have a similar view on all international problems.” Only Azerbaijan’s pro-government TV stations were allowed to cover the meeting.
With an eye to trade, Aliyev also expressed optimism about future Azerbaijani-Iranian cooperation. “Neither Iran nor we are satisfied with the current trade turnover between the countries,” Aliyev commented. “We have the potential to increase it several times over in the near future.” In 2009, the latest year for which official data is available, trade turnover between the two countries stood at $168.8 million.
The meeting, however, only resulted in a memorandum -- a step short of a formal agreement -- on electricity trades, natural gas exports and undefined cooperation in “creation of the North-South transportation corridor.” No details were forthcoming.
Both presidents avoided mentioning problem areas, including the Caspian Sea issue, visas and Baku’s dissatisfaction with Tehran’s close ties with Azerbaijani foe, Armenia.
Elaborating about Baku’s “high level” of ties with Tehran, President Aliyev mentioned the two states’ “support” for each other within the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Yet just a few weeks before Ahmadinejad’s visit, Azerbaijani government representatives were quick to underline to EurasiaNet.org their support for UN sanctions against Iran. The statements were made during an October visit by US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey, who traveled to Baku to discuss Azerbaijan’s compliance with the sanctions.
Although Azerbaijani officials declined to share details from their talks with Levey, Ahmadinejad described the measures taken against Iran as comparable to “a mosquito bite.”
“The six months which have passed since the embargo was introduced showed that we did not suffer,” he claimed, repeating earlier assertions that Tehran is ready for “fair dialogue based on mutual respect” about its nuclear program with the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France and Germany.
Baku-based political analyst Rasim Musabekov believes Ahmadinejad’s visit shows that, while Azerbaijan, as a UN member, will follow the UN1929 resolution, it has no intention to lend official support to the harsher US and EU sanctions against Iran. “Azerbaijan has its own national interests,” Musabekov said. “No country among Iran’s neighbors supported these sanctions and I do not see a reason why Baku should do it.”
Fellow analyst Ilgar Mammadov shares this opinion: “It will be very difficult for the United States to convince Baku to closely cooperate on sanctions against Iran” since Azerbaijan is eager to avoid the problems with the Iranian government that official support for US sanctions would entail. “Baku will refer to the economic links between Iran and Armenia -- vital for the latter -- in downplaying Washington’s arguments.”
Azerbaijan, however, did not refer to those links publicly during Ahmadinejad’s visit.
In what appeared to be a way around the government expressing an official complaint, the leader of the small, pro-government United Popular Front Party, Gudrat Hasanguliyev, sent an “open letter” to Ahmadinejad that called on Iran to stop cooperating with Armenia so long as Armenia occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. The letter was published in pro-government media.
At a November 18 press conference, though, Ahmadinejad avoided discussing Armenia and made no mention of Iranian support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. “We believe that nations in the region should live in a peaceful and secure atmosphere,” Ahmadinejad said, emphasizing that the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh “should be solved peacefully.”
Similar sentiments marked his comments on the problem of the Caspian Sea’s legal status; the Caspian, he said, should become “a Sea of peace, friendship and efficient cooperation.” Tehran insists on dividing the sea into five equal parts. The other four littoral states, including Azerbaijan, argue that such a division goes against international practices.
The Caspian Sea summit in Baku ended November 18 with the signing of an agreement on cooperation in non-military security matters and a joint statement by the presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan about the need to resolve the ongoing dispute over the Sea’s national boundaries.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan.