|Better than war
Mere fact that Iran and Azerbaijan are talking is grounds for optimism
By Omid S. Marvi
May 24, 2002
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
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
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
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.