Vol. 1, No. 22 (December 15, 2008)

Iran and Azerbaijan: The need for dialogue

Alum Bati*
Wicklow Chambers

In the December 1 issue of the ADA biweekly (Vol. 1, No. 21), two interesting articles reflected on Iran and its influence in the Caucasus.  This is a note in response.

The authors of the two articles, Paul Goble and Gulnara Inandzh, accepted the view that Iran is the biggest gainer out of the recent Georgia-Russia conflict, though Ms. Inandzh did so in a more nuanced way.  My immediate response is that it is Turkey, not Iran, that is the main beneficiary.  Turkey has quite rightly seen the opportunity to play a more active diplomatic role in the Caucasus (not that it was ever very passive in this regard).  Of course, Turkey has its own very special interests and sees the real possibility of resolving its long-standing issues with Armenia.  It should be encouraged to do so and, in the process, help bring resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate. 

As for Iran, I wonder whether it would be such a bad thing if Iran were to be the main beneficiary. 

Commentators on Iran tend to look at that country in the context of the desires of the US, Russia or other greater of lesser powers.  They also have a tendency to anchor their views in events that may have taken place some time in history but may not be relevant today or tomorrow.  My attitude towards Azerbaijan’s foreign policy stance towards Iran approaches the issue from a first principle of foreign relations, that is, it should endeavour to maintain cordial relations with all its immediate neighbours.  A nation with unfriendly or distrustful relations with a neighbour is always a country struggling to move forward.  And the bigger the neighbour, the greater the struggle.  The establishment of sound and open relations with all (and I mean all) neighbours must be the main thrust of any nation’s foreign policy.  For a small nation like Azerbaijan this is all the more important and perhaps so obvious that it occasionally needs to be restated.

Iran is not only a neighbour of Azerbaijan.  It is also a regional power which cannot be ignored.  If you know that someone can’t be ignored, then the best way to avoid conflict is to be constructive.  Always wary but constructive.  Iran should, therefore, be included in Turkey’s proposed “stability platform” and the US should support this.  It does no harm to US interests and, indeed, might even support them.  An engaged, constructive Iran is far better than a simpering, disgruntled one.  I would take this further and try to engage Iran in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Iran should be engaged, made to feel important.  The vanity of regional powers should never be ignored; nor should their potential to cause harm if they are not given their due recognition.  Absence of conflict is better than simmering conflict and, where Iran is concerned, that means engaging Iran both in conflict resolution and regional development.  Azerbaijan should be careful not to act in a way that might cause Iran exaggerated concern (for example, I would certainly not advocate support for Azerbaijani nationalists in Iran). 

Oil and gas are important in the economies of the Caspian region.  I believe, however, that the global importance of the Caspian region has been much over-stated.  The Russian-Georgian conflict is, in my opinion, tangential to the debate and barely relevant.  Mr. Goble stated in his article [emphasis added]: “Because of the disruptions the Russian-Georgian war caused in the transportation networks in the Caucasus, Iran became a more attractive route out for Caspian basin oil.”  This is so only if recent history is ignored.  Iran was always seen as the best export route for Azerbaijani oil by everyone including the oil companies (with the exception only of the US and Turkish governments).  The pipelines were eventually built only under strong US diplomatic pressure, which was always a mistake.  It was a mistake because ‘oil security’ (the reason given for pursuing the western pipeline routes) is itself a chimera which the West is wasting time, effort and money in pursuing.  No producer (especially Iran) can turn off its taps for long without hurting its own economy (Iran’s would collapse) or that of its close friends (consider for example what happened when Russia tried to put pressure on Ukraine and instead got howled at by the EU).  Even if Iran’s finances were not managed by the economically illiterate, Iran could not, however much it might wish, restrict the flow of oil for more than a blip.
Everyone assumes that a nuclear Iran is a problem.  That assumption needs to be rethought.  Iran has said it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon and such evidence as there is suggests that, at least for the moment, it is not doing so.  Current Western foreign policy is only goading Iran into pursuing nuclear weapons.  It would be far better to concentrate on how to deliver nuclear materials to it and ensure its safe use rather than continually raising the temperature over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.  It achieves nothing other than antagonising an important neighbour of Azerbaijan.  Sanctions on Iran are an obstacle to the establishment of greater openness and freedoms in Iran and an ailing Iranian economy can in no way be good for Azerbaijan.
Finally, on Iran’s position in the region, the quicker all participants realise that Iran is an important regional player the better; and it is counter-productive and unrealistic to try to keep it out of discussions that affect it.  Let us not forget that Iran’s recent tactical successes have only happened against the backdrop of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (both countries bordering Iran) and Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon (an action aimed at Iran’s ally Hezbollah).  Were any of these acts of aggression taken without thought being given to the reaction in Iran?  If so, that would have been extremely negligent.  In any event, Iran did help the US against the Taliban and have blown hot and cold over Iraq.  Iran has at times been constructive and at other times destructive.  Encouraging the former should be the aim of any worthwhile Azerbaijani foreign policy. 

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of any body or organization.