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Better than war
Mere fact that Iran and Azerbaijan are talking is grounds for optimism

By Omid S. Marvi
May 24, 2002
The Iranian

Last monday, Haydar Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, concluded three days of high-level talks with Iranian leaders in Tehran on a number of regional and bilateral issues, including the thorny issue of the maritime border between the two countries . The two neighboring countries signed a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding intended to boost cultural, economic and trade ties.

Considering the dismal state of relations between the two countries and coming after several cancellations -- by some counts seven times -- the fact that this visit took place at all, was a surprise to many observers.

The visit got off on a rather bumpy start on Saturday. At their first meeting, held at Sadabad Palace, a bizzar exchange between Aliyev and Khatami occurred which was later related to a Radio France International reporter. While referring to an April meeting of the five littoral states of Caspian Sea, Khatami said: "The leaders' summit in Ashgabat on the Mazandaran Sea was important."

"I do not understand. What is the Mazandaran Sea?" Aliyev interrupted.

"Well, you call it Caspian, we call it Mazandaran. Caspian comes from Qazvin which as you know is the name of a city in northern Iran."

"Respectfully, I have never heard any of this," replied Aliyev.

Khatami then reportedly tried to defuse the tension by saying that the name should not matter as long as it was a sea of friendship, to which Aliyev had agreed and the two leaders started discussing some confidence-building measures.

Aside from the fact that the Caspian is called the Khazer Sea in both countries, the episode best captures the present state of Azeri-Iran relations: Seemingly irreconcilable differences bordering on outright hostility, tempered by the exigencies of geography and geopolitics. This was not how things were meant to be.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was great hope attached to the future of relations between the two countries. There are 40 million ethnic Azeris in Iran and there is much common history and tradition that binds the two nations -- in fact until 19th century, Azerbaijan was one of the provinces of the Persian empire.

The first rift came with the election of Abulfazl Icibaik in 1993. His avowedly pan-Turkik and pan-Azeri rhetoric and his calls for a "Greater Azerbaijan", plainly terrified the Iranian leaders who are always wary of any threats that may awaken ethnic tensions in their country. As for the Azeris, they did not appreciate Iran's brand of cultural exports which tended to undermine the fragile foundations of the young state.

With the eventual pro-Western orientation of Azerbaijan 's foreign policy, which resulted in a series of security arrangements with Washington and its NATO ally, Turkey, Tehran clearly felt betrayed and abandoned by Baku.

In a remarkable instance of realpolitic, the Iranian leaders decided to align themselves with Azerbaijan's old Christian nemesis, Armenia, rather than with the Muslim Azerbaijan, something that did not help in easing the tensions. Lately, papers in Azerbaijan have reported that the government in Baku has invited US and NATO to set up a base in the Absheroon Penninsula on the Caspian Sea, not far from the Iranian border.

It is in this context that the maritime disputes between the two countries have to be interpreted. For, even though at present Iran has a running dispute with all the other states of the Caspian Sea basin, Azerbaijan is the only country where Iranian navy vessels have been used and deployed as a deterrent force. By the same token, a softening of position by Tehran vis-a-vis Baku on this issue bodes well for an eventual resolution of the conflict.

At present, there is a complete impasse on this problem. Iran believes that the only legal regime operative in the energy-rich sea must be the 1940 and 1921 treaties and the breakup of the Soviet Union should not interfere with it.

This would give Iran a 20% share based on an equal five-way splitting, rather than one in proportion to the shorelines which would give Iran only 13%. In the case of the ongoing dispute with Azerbaijan, Iran would be deprived of the highly-prized Alburz field, believed to contain large reserves of crude oil..

Adding to Iran's woes, Russia which until recently called for a comprehensive legal regime similar to the one advocated by Iran, is now effectively abandoning its earlier position. It has already signed a bilateral agreement with Khazakhestan along the lines favored by the other states.

Washington has entered the fray by exerting pressure on Iran and encouraging countries like Azerbaijan to stand up to Tehran's perceived intransigence. It is backing up its warning to Iran by some tough words and threats to use force.

Last May 16, only days before Aliyev departure to Tehran, US Special Envoy to the Caspian Sea Basin, Steve Mann flew to Baku for some high-level talks with government leaders and oil sector executives. "We believe the oil explorations have to go on, with or without Iran. Iranian would have no choice but to accept the wishes of the international community."

The prospect for a militarized Caspian Sea is apparently sending shivers through the spine of all the regional states. Almost all the governments in the region are grappling with myriad domestic problems and a US-Iran confrontation in the Caspian is the last thing they need right now. Khatami in particular is intent on avoiding a showdown with the US at any cost. Azerbaijan with one seventh the population of Iran and a much smaller GNP is particularly vulnerable to a conflageration.

It was in this context that Aliyev's visit was met by a collective sigh of relief from all the local countries involved. Haydar Aliyev is a highly skillful politician who has mastered the art of survival, first in the old Soviet establishment, then in the post-Soviet ethnic cauldron. Moreover, he is quite familiar with the Iranian political scene.

In 1943, before his meteoric rise in the Soviet polity, Aliyev was a young Red Army officer -- probably in the Military Intelligence. Iran was occupied by the Allies and Aliyev spent several months in Northern Iran, paying frequent visits to relatives that had migrated to Iran after the 1917 Revolution. Since then, he has made several visits to Iran. According to one of his aids, he understands Persian -- though it is not clear if he can speak it -- and follows the developments in Iran with a keen interest.

At the conclusion of the three-day talk both leaders sounded a note of optimism. There were some agreements reached in boosting economic, trade, and cultural ties. Khatami promised to visit Baku in near future, and although no breakthroughs in relations were reported, the mere fact that the two sides are now talking to each other in non-adversarial language is grounds for optimism.

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Omid S. Marvi


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