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Azerbaijan - Iran Relations

Azerbaijan's arms-length, frozen-smile political relationship with Iran has combines firmness on issues of sovereignty, avoidance of public confrontations, and reluctance to engage Iran directly on certain "international" (and some bilateral) issues. While concerned and even alarmed about these issues, Azerbaijan is reluctant to engage Iran on its nuclear program, support for terrorism, Middle East troublemaking, etc., because it sees the exercise as pointless ("they don't care what we think"), and perhaps leading to further strains in the bilateral relationship, with potentially nasty repercussions. Azerbaijan's long standing foreign policy is to maintain balanced and cordial regional relations, not choosing sides or creating waves among neighbors.

The relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, which have a rich historical and cultural heritage, is one of the major trends in the foreign policy of Azerbaijan. Iranian rulers enjoyed direct rule or dominance over Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia for nearly two thousand years until the nineteenth century, and Tehran has not forgotten this fact. Far more ethnic Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has attached a great importance to these relations since the first day of independence. Azerbaijan tries to strengthen the mutually profitable economic, political and cultural relations with Iran. Since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, ties between Baku and Tehran have not been without their problems. Iran's relations with former President Heydar Aliev were closer than they were with Elchibey, based on links forged during Aliev's rule in Nakhichevan. But these became strained following Iran's exclusion by US companies from the Azerbaijan International Operating Company set up to exploit three Azeri oil fields in the Caspian.

The admission of Iran into the international consortium set up in 1996 to explore the Shah Deniz prospect in the Caspian may have helped to improve the relationship. In the past, Heydar Aliev accepted Iranian help in setting up large tented refugee camps in Azerbaijan (Iran was fearful of a huge influx of Azerbaijani refugees, which might add to the sizeable ethnic Azerbaijani minority in northern Iran). Azerbaijan joined the previously moribund Economic Co-operation Organisation in Tehran in February 1992 which Iran saw as a forerunner to an Islamic Common Market. Azerbaijan and Iran signed an agreement in October 1996 for the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Nakhichevan.

President Khatami’s visit to Baku and Ganja in August 2004 and President Ilham Aliev’s own official visit to Tehran in January 2005 helped to contribute to modest improvements, as did the visit of President Ahmadinejad to Azerbaijan in 2007. However, a number of fundamental differences remain.

In early April 2007, Iran deployed troops and military hardware along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. According to an April 4 report of the Azerbaijani news agency Turan: "Military experts think that the deployment of troops and hardware pursue defence ends. This means that the troops are being pushed forward to repel attacks... .... The start of an information [propaganda] war is obvious. An intelligence expert has told Turan that recent publications in the media saying that Iran has drawn up a list of facilities in Azerbaijan that will be bombed in case of a US attack [on Iran] are a glaring example of this. Most likely, the reports were prepared and passed to the mass media by the Iranian secret services to exert psychological pressure on Baku. The goal is to deter Baku from supporting Washington in a military conflict with Tehran."

Azerbaijan is basically fatalistic about broader international issues involving Iran, and looks to the West and Russia to deal with them. It is more assertive with Iran on bilateral issues, but even there its tendency is to respond to all but the most egregious perceived pressures quietly, and without public confrontation. Nonetheless, the GOAJ acts forcefully when it feels necessary, e.g., in rolling up massive Iranian influence-building networks in the 1990's, resisting Iranian pressure over its relations with Israel, and intermittent highly publicized crackdowns on purportedly "Iran-directed" gangs and plots. This cable outlines recent bilateral flare-ups in the context of submerged bilateral tension.

Iran made a major economic and political influence-building effort in Azerbaijan in the early 1990's. These included subsidizing a pro-Iranian Islamist movement, active pro-Iran proselytizing by Iranian religious bodies and NGO fronts, and similar aggressive outreach activities. Most Iranian NGOs were expelled and Iranian networks mopped up in the 1990's by former President Heidar Aliyev, and Tehran now pursues a lower-profile, longer-term influence building strategy targeting rural notables and Shiite villages. Since the late 1990's bilateral relations have generally gravitated between mildly surly to smilingly correct. Azerbaijan's relatively cool, arms-length posture towards Iran contrasts with its much closer relations with Russia and Turkey.

Iranian influence-building activities inside Azerbaijan rest on a tripod of "social engagement" organizations, including an "Iran Assistance Society" that networks with rural notables and grants micro-loans to their nominees; the Baku-based Iranian Culture House and its affiliates, which proselytize and build clerical networks; and the Iranian Red Crescent society, based in "Iranian Clinics" in Baku and elsewhere. Important satellite institutions, such as charitable foundations administered by Iranians with Revolutionary Guard ties and Iranian-funded mosques, exist as de facto sub-sets under these three categories. Iranian government and semi-official foundations (some of which operate businesses in Azerbaijan) provide material support to some Farsi language schools, and offers selected village and lower-income Azerbaijani children with all-expenses paid Iran study scholarships (some reportedly including stipends for their families), and organize free pilgrimages to Mashad. Several Iranians with allegedly close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian Intelligence, and/or other regime organizations also run businesses or maintain investments and septels on Iranian business activities and actors).

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Page last modified: 14-11-2013 17:34:38 ZULU