Would Iran Join Baku’s Policy of Armenia’s Isolation?

  • Comments - 12 August 2016, 17:11
Armen Vardanyan

AIISA expert


On August 8 Russian, Azerbaijani and Iranian presidents met in Baku, reaching a set of arrangements and adopting a joint declaration on trilateral cooperation. Following that summit it’s important for foreign policy makers and experts to understand whether Iran will participate in Azerbaijani plans of Armenia’s isolation, and how relations between Iran and Azerbaijan will develop in general.


Elected as the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani stressed on the very day of his inauguration that redefining of relations with neighbors will be among the priorities of his Government. It particularly referred to Azerbaijan, with which Iran’s relations have been sharpened for a lasting period, reaching their peak under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan rather escalated in mid-2000s, greatly affected by worsening of West-Iran relations. Against this background Baku also got actively engaged with an anti-Iranian campaign, and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev turned the country into an appropriate platform to that end, expecting the Western support to return Karabakh instead.


However, official Baku realized with time that rapprochement with the West won’t lead to return of Karabakh, and disappointed with the USA and the EU, Ilham Aliyev turned its face to Russia and Iran. In that context Azerbaijan demonstratively worsened its relations with the West, which was manifested through arrests of opposition figures, civil society representatives and opposition reporters, and in 2015 the OSCE office was closed in Baku.


At the same time, since 2010 Russia-Azerbaijan relations have rather improved. As a result, in the period of a few years Baku purchased armaments from Russia with more than USD 5 billion, as well as concluded a range of important agreements of strategic importance.


Parallel to thawing of Russia-Azerbaijan relations, Ilham Aliyev also initiated steps towards and reached improvement of Baku-Tehran relations which received a fresh impetus in 2013, when Hassan Rouhani came to power. After being elected, presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan already met 7 times during mutual visits and different international forums.


Deepening its relations with Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan strives to create Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran geo-political triangle with the following purposes: firstly, to deprive Armenia of the support by its two strategic allies making them at least neutral and unsupportive during the war, and then to more deepen its isolation. April war showed that Azerbaijan’s minimum plan worked—both Russia and Iran took a neutral position during the military operations, not supporting Armenia, while Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey was explicitly backing Baku’s operations.


After the nuclear agreement among six leading powers and Iran concluded in Vienna, Azerbaijan undertook active steps towards attracting Tehran as well to more increase Armenia’s international isolation. For that purpose Baku attempts to implement a range of strategic programs with Iran, thus more deepening relations between the two. Azerbaijan also expressed willingness to transport Iranian oil to Europe allocating Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline for that purpose, as well as proposed Iran to join TANAP (Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline).


However, the biggest project Azerbaijan intends to bring into life is North-South Transport Corridor, thus connecting Russia and Iran through its territory. It’s beneficial for Azerbaijan both politically and economically. In political terms through it Armenia is being pushed aside from another big regional program, Yerevan’s international isolation becomes more complete, and Azerbaijan’s importance for Russia and Iran grows. It’s also beneficial for Azerbaijan economically, as it’ll provide the opportunity to export its commodities to Iran and through its territory to the Persian Gulf countries.


With this project Azerbaijan will more increase its influence in the region. Steps in this direction have been initiated yet from 2005, however, the program received a great impetus after Iran was unsanctioned. Main work should be implemented towards construction of the 375 km section of Qazvin-Rasht-Astara joining Iranian and Azerbaijan-Russia railways.


Throughout recent years the Iranian side constructed Qazvin-Rasht 205 km section, which is ready by 93%. It will be exploited already in 2017. Upon preliminary calculations at the initial period the railway will transport 1.4 million passengers and 5-7 tons of cargo per year, and then up to 20 mln tons. 22 tunnels and 15 bridges will be constructed on the whole distance of the railway. For the construction of the other sector—Rasht-Astara, this year the Iranian side applied to Azerbaijan for a loan. Baku agreed to provide it to Tehran with the total amount of USD 500 million.


At the same time construction of the railway section of 8.3 km from Azerbaijani Astara to Iranian border was launched in March and will be accomplished by the end of the year. And in Azerbaijani Astara city symbolic groundbreaking ceremony of the bridge connecting Azerbaijan with Iran took place in April.


The project is also beneficial to Russia and Iran as it provides favorable conditions for more deepening of economic ties and attracting of new markets. Until now Russia and Iran build up trade mainly through the Caspian Sea, however, overland transport is cheaper. For that very reason Russia also shows great interest towards this project, and is also ready to make large investments in North-South project.


Moscow intends to actively participate in reconstruction of Iran’s railways allocating targeted loan for that. Moreover, another crucial part of North-South highway, stretching through the territory of Azerbaijan, has already been put into action, by which pilot transportation of Iranian commodities to Russia has been implemented.


However, despite the “thaw” in the relations of Iran and Azerbaijan, two countries traditionally have deep distrust to one another. There have always been concerns in Azerbaijan, that Iran intends to change the country’s governance system, turning it from secular state to a theocratic one, and the latter, in its turn, is concerned with close ties between Israel and Azerbaijan, and Baku’s territorial claims to Tehran from time to time.


Iran is also concerned with the ties between Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, banned in the country, and Azerbaijan. The organization fights to establish a “United Azerbaijani state,” in which Northern Azerbaijan (current Republic of Azerbaijan) and the so-called Southern Azerbaijan (Iran’s Atropatene state) will be included.


Despite warming of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, the 2015 developments in Nardaran, Iran-Azerbaijan relations sharply worsened for the first time right after Rouhani was elected as president. Although Iran’s incumbent president strives not to sharpen relations with Azerbaijan, as compared to his predecessor Ahmadinejad, relations between Tehran and Baku again worsened on a religious basis.


The second stage of worsening of Iran-Azerbaijan relations was recorded in 2016, when Gagik Beglaryan, RA Minister of Transport and Communication, visited Tehran and concluded a range of crucial agreements with Iran’s high-ranking officials. After that visit he particularly informed that negotiations resulted in an agreement on establishing an international road that connects India to Europe through the territory of Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Black Sea.


Iran-Azerbaijan relations reached their peak on June 5 of ongoing year, when Edward Nalbandian, RA Foreign Minister, paid an official visit to Iran, where he was warmly welcomed. At the meeting with Armenian FM Iranian president Hassan Rouhani stated that his country is ready to support in connecting the Persian Gulf with the Black Sea through the territory of Armenia, and to that end they are willing to provide technical and engineering services to Armenia.


During that visit a range of crucial documents have been signed, including the decision on cancellation of visa regime between the two countries.


Visit of Armenian ministers to Iran and their reception by the country’s authorities on the highest level aroused a big hysteria in Baku. Avant-guard of Aliyev’s propaganda machine—Haqqin.az, published numerous articles on that subject, where, non-official speaking tube of Azerbaijani authorities basically confessed, that Iran prevents Azerbaijan’s plans to isolate Armenia.


Firstly, Azerbaijani media outlet expressed resentment why Iran strives to reach Europe through Armenia, while Azerbaijan has all necessary infrastructures. Then, reflecting to reception of Armenia’s FM at the highest level by Hassan Rouhani, the media outlet openly blackmailed Iran, stating if Rouhani visits Yerevan and shakes Sargsyan’s hand, then Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev finally should make a decision to pay a historical visit to Israel, by opening an Embassy to Jerusalem.


Threats to Iran weren’t restricted by articles published through media outlets only. Harsh criticism was heard to its address in Azerbaijani Parliament as well.


However, two important events followed those developments, which once again prove that Iran isn’t going to withdraw from its ambitions to have an exit to Georgia and Europe through Armenia. First, in the period of July 14-15 a meeting was held in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia with participation of high-ranking officials from Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece to discuss shaping of a transit corridor connecting Persian Gulf with the Black Sea.


Second, according to Iranian media outlets, quite recently the Islamic Republic of Iran holds negotiations with Armenia to export Iranian oil product through the territory of our country to Georgia, and then to Europe. To that end the Armenian Government established a state company on import and export of Iranian natural gas.


Lately Baku’s nervous behavior showed that Ilham Aliyev’s plans to dispose Tehran against Armenia and its isolation through Iran, basically, have failed. Obviously, despite the “thaw” in Iran-Azerbaijan relations and developing of political and economic relations between the two, Iran isn’t going to become an actor in Aliyev’s game.


Undoubtedly, Iran will continue its policy to deepen relations with Azerbaijan. However, Yerevan maintains its strategic importance for Tehran. Contrary to other participants of Moscow-Baku-Tehran axis—Russia and Azerbaijan, Iran is not interested in Armenia’s isolation from regional programs, as well as its weakening. Perhaps Tehran realizes quite well if the country joins Azerbaijani plans to isolate Armenia, it might be deprived of the room for maneuver and will obtain some dependency on Azerbaijan in the future.


Despite the neighborly relations originated between the two, it’s less likely that Iran forgets what the Azerbaijan’s position has been for many years, while becoming one of the leaders of anti-Iranian struggle. Thus, Iran on the one hand will continue developing its relations with Azerbaijan, attempting to implement joint programs with that country, and will develop relations with Armenia on the other, thus, not violating the balance.



Improving Security and policy debates in Armenia (NED)

The Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs (AIISA)