Analysts in Baku are divided over the outcome of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first official visit to Azerbaijan on August 21-22. Major issues such as regional defense and energy projects and the Caspian Sea territorial dispute are believed to have been the focus of the visit, but both sides have been tight-lipped on the substance of the discussions.
Publicly, both Azerbaijani and Iranian officials stressed consensus, emphasizing the historical and religious ties that bind the two Shi'ia Muslim nations. A joint presidential statement signed on August 21 affirms "the importance of bilateral political dialogue in the context of equality of states, non-interference into each other's affairs" and a commitment to refrain from the use or threat of force. Repeating earlier assertions by Baku, the declaration also states that Azerbaijan recognizes Iran's right "to use nuclear energy peacefully within the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The countries are getting closer," Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said at a joint news conference. "Our relations are strong and we are sharing opinions on all issues," Aliyev claimed that Iran also fully supports Azerbaijan's position on the conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described Iran and Azerbaijan as "two brotherly countries" that share common views "over political issues."
"Azerbaijan's development is Iran's development and Iran's development is Azerbaijan's development," Ahmadinejad added. "Iran strongly supports Azerbaijan's independence and security."
Political analysts in Baku remain unconvinced that bilateral relations are as strong as Aliyev and Ahmadinejad portrayed them to be. One expert, Rasim Musabekov, contends that the declarations about a common purpose and mutual support are "just words."
"Each of these countries has its own agenda . . . and the agendas are different. Azerbaijan will not plan to change its policy on military cooperation with the West, nor will Iran reconsider its position on regional and international problems," said Musabekov, a pro-opposition commentator. "The sides carefully listened to each other it's the visit's only result."
Security issues could explain the effusiveness. Although Azerbaijan has publicly declared its neutrality in the wrangle between Tehran and Western states over Iran's nuclear program, "Tehran is concerned about Azerbaijani-US security cooperation," commented Vafa Guluzade, a former presidential foreign policy advisor. "Iran does not want to see threats to its national security proceeding from Azerbaijan." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Aliyev also has a stake in interaction with Ahmadinejad, he added. Keeping the door open to Tehran helps Baku maintain balance in its relations with Washington and Moscow. "Iran is one of the major players in our region. Therefore, Baku should confer with Tehran," Guluzade said.
Prior to Ahmadinejad's visit, US-Azerbaijani security consultations on issues ranging from North Atlantic Treaty Organization integration to anti-missile systems were held in Washington on July 9-10. Similar discussions took place in Baku on July 26-27 with a Russian delegation led by Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.
The Aliyev administration's warm welcome for Ahmadinejad was criticized by the Azerbaijani opposition. "Such visits to Azerbaijan by the leader of a regime that the international community considers a real threat are not a good sign," Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar told the party's Yeni Musavat newspaper on August 23. A day earlier, police outside the Iranian Embassy forcefully broke up a demonstration by another opposition party, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, which was protesting against violations of ethnic Azeris' rights in Iran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Guluzade believes that it is too early to say for sure where Azerbaijani-Iranian relations are headed. Experts believe they will have a better idea only after a meeting of the five Caspian Sea littoral states, scheduled for October 16. The Caspian states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan -- will use the gathering to try to break the stalemate surrounding the territorial division of the Caspian Sea. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"If Iran accepts any compromise on the Caspian legal status there [during the meeting], it would mean Baku likely gave some guarantees about not [raising] military cooperation with the United States to a level that would threaten Iran," he said.
Ilgar Mammadov, an independent Baku-based political analyst, drew attention to energy issues.
At the news conference, President Aliyev said that the two countries are considering joint projects to "ensure regional security," as well as the European Union-backed 3,300-kilometer Nabucco pipeline project, intended to export gas from Turkey to Austria via Eastern Europe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite US misgivings about such a partnership, growing demand from Europe for alternatives to Russian gas could motivate this interest, Mammadov believes. Securing compromises from Tehran on the legal status of the Caspian Sea could better position Azerbaijan to be a major player in the European gas game. To win the concessions, Azerbaijan may offer guarantees to bar "anti-Iranian military cooperation" with the United States and propose possibilities for facilitating the export of Iranian gas to Europe, he suggested.
In Baku, Ahmadinejad took a backhanded swipe at what he cast as US attempts to enlist Baku in a plan to geopolitically encircle Tehran. "Some forces" who are allegedly trying to "create problems between Iran and Azerbaijan," the Iranian president said, "have no chances" for success.
Mammadov believes no particular agreements between Baku and Tehran were reached during Ahmadinejad's recent visit. "There are still debates between the West and Russia for Central Asian gas from one side, and between the Europe and the US on energy cooperation with Iran. And Ahmadinejad's visit to Baku highlighted these conflicts," Mammadov said.
The trip was the Iranian leader's third visit to Azerbaijan, though the first official trip. Ahmadinejad last visited Baku in May 2006 at the Organization of Economic Cooperation's summit. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Aliyev, in turn, last visited Tehran in 2005.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.