Azerbaijan: Did Washington Have a Hand in Stopping Nuclear Shipment Headed for Iran?
Azerbaijan's refusal to release Russian nuclear power plant equipment headed to Iran has put the country at the center of a diplomatic firestorm. Analysts are divided over the source of the trouble. A former Azerbaijani presidential aide believes that the United States asked Baku to halt the shipment, while another expert contends that Russia, ambivalent about Iran's nuclear program, is deliberately delaying handing over the necessary documentation to release the shipment.
On April 29, the Iranian ambassador in Baku, Nasir Hamidi Zare, demanded a speedy resolution to the impasse without any meddling by international agencies. "Neither the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor the United Nations should be involved in this issue," the official Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, quoted Zare as saying. "We are awaiting further steps by Azerbaijan."
Russian diplomats, meanwhile, seemed oddly passive about the delay. "The cargo has been detained by Azerbaijan, so they have to decide what to do next," RIA Novosti quoted Moscow's envoy in Baku, Vasily Istratov, as saying.
Araz Azimov, Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, suggested that a decision on the cargo's fate was not imminent. "No negotiations are being held," Azimov told RIA Novosti. He went on to blame Atomstroiexport, the Russian state-controlled company that initiated the shipment, for fomenting acrimony. "Representatives of Atomstroiexport released to the media information about the cargo being seized, which caused the media hoopla, but no concrete actions are being taken [by Russia]," Azimov said.
The incident began March 29, when the Azerbaijani border security personnel stopped a truck and two trailers that were carrying 14 tons of heat insulation equipment from Atomstroiexport. The equipment, valued at $170,000, according to the customs office, was reportedly bound for Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The cargo stoppage is the first known instance in which Azerbaijan has blocked Russian shipments bound for Iran's nuclear power project.
The stoppage didn't garner much outside attention until mid-April. At that time, State Customs Chairman Aydin Aliyev held a news conference during which he insisted that the cargo was stopped because it did not have clearance for export from the Azerbaijani government, as is required for such cargo. "This equipment is subject to export control," Aliyev said.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry states that it has asked Russia to "provide more information about the type of cargo" and how it pertains to United Nations sanctions against Iran, a spokesperson said.
In an April 22 statement, the Russian shipper, Atomstroiexport, maintained that the cargo does not fall under UN sanctions against Iran, and that it was "prepared according to all . . . international carriage rules." The company asserted that the equipment is for civilian purposes only, and has no military applications.
Such statements, however, have only spurred Baku's demands for documentation for the cargo. "If such documents exist, why Russia does not provide them to Azerbaijan?" Azimov asked on April 26. He stressed that Azerbaijan's demands were not "anything hard to fulfill, or impossible," the APA news agency reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly discussed the issue by phone on April 21 with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, but details of the conversation have remained under wraps.
Citing Baku's growing ties with Washington, Vafa Guluzade, a leading foreign affairs expert in Baku, believes that the United States found out about the transfer of Russian equipment and alerted Azerbaijan to take action. "I think Baku stopped the cargo at the request of its Western allies," said Guluzade, who served as a top aide to former president Heidar Aliyev and who now works as an independent political analyst in Baku.
A US defense delegation visited Baku on April 14-17 for consultations with top members of the Azerbaijani military, but it is not known if the topic of the Iranian nuclear shipment was discussed. Guluzade suggested that Russia was refusing to disclose details about the equipment in order to block the chance of an inspection. "I think Russia is afraid of being accused of having violated the sanctions," Guluzade said.
Another Baku-based expert, Rauf Mirkadirov, a political analyst for the "Zerkalo" (Mirror) daily newspaper, differs. "Of course, it is possible that the cargo was stopped at the US' request," Mirkadirov said. "However we have to remember that Russia itself might be interested in a delay in construction of the Bushehr plant. Moscow is indeed not interested in the emergence of a new country with a nuclear weapon to its south."
Delays in Russian shipments for the plant have already caused problems between Moscow and Tehran, he added. "It is likely that the incident is part of Russia's larger game [of straddling the fence on the question of Iran's nuclear program], and that Azerbaijan's actions are part of this game," Mirkadirov said.
An April 26 commentary published by the Russian daily Gazeta heightened speculation that the incident could be Kremlin contrived. "Azerbaijan is a member of the UN, which has certain transit rules. Under the rules, when transporting goods through the territory of a certain country, a declaration of the goods' nature and destination should be produced," the commentary stated. "If Russia wants Azerbaijan to turn a blind eye to international rules, it will not happen. If they have all the documents, why doesn't Russia produce them?"
Iranian and Russian officials held talks in Tehran on April 28, during which the Iranians reportedly briefed their Russian counterparts on "serious proposals" that Iran hopes will assuage international concern about the nature of the country's nuclear program, the IRNA news agency reported. Details of the proposals were not released, but the lead Russian participant in the discussions, Russian Security Council Secretary Valentin Sobolev, told RIA Novosti that the Iranian explanations served to "advance Iranian-Russian relations."
Initially, Tehran kept silent about the Azerbaijani incident. Then, when Iranian officials acknowledged the delay, they downplayed the significance. On April 23, for example, Zare, the Iranian ambassador, described the cargo stoppage as "a technical problem and we hope that it will be solved within a few days," APA news agency reported.
Within days, however, Tehran's stance began to harden. On April 28, Tehran started demanding that Azerbaijan release the equipment. "We demanded from the Azerbaijani ambassador in Iran that this cargo should be released and given to the Iranian side shortly," the Itar-Tass news agency reported Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini as saying. Tehran, like the Kremlin, insists the equipment was being transported in accordance with international norms.
Analyst Guluzade believes that Iran changed its tone when it became clear that Russia itself would not be able to resolve the problem.
Azerbaijan has bristled at the Iranian criticism. "No one has the right to speak to Azerbaijan in the language of demands," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Khazar Ibrahim affirmed at an April 28 briefing. Baku, he emphasized, is still waiting for Moscow to provide the detailed information needed for the cargo's export. "Azerbaijan acts within its own law and international law, and we do not need someone's recommendations," he added.
Ibrahim did not indicate how long the impasse could last, or what will happen with the cargo if Russia does not provide the requested documentation. There are "various" procedures for such situations, he said. "Only experts can make a final decision once the documents are received," he said, without further elaboration.
It is not the first time that such an incident has occurred. Over 10 years ago, Azerbaijan halted a shipment of steel pipes from Russia to Iran, noted Guluzade. The equipment was returned once "[e]xperts . . . came to the conclusion that these pipes could be used to produce ballistic missiles."
A similar scenario occurred earlier this decade with an air shipment of Russian MiG fighter jets to Serbia, he added.
For now, the standoff over the cargo will mean heightened diplomatic pressure on Baku from both Moscow and Tehran, but, in the end, contends Guluzade, the need for good ties with strategically located Azerbaijan is a necessity neither Russia nor Iran can easily overlook.
"Azerbaijan is a transit country and both Russia and Iran will need its services in the future," he said. "Therefore, of course, relations [between the three] will worsen for some time, but they will all take friendly measures towards each other soon."
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