Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 1, 2008)

Baku’s detention of Russian nuclear equipment destined for Iran: Why it happened and what it means

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
After Moscow on April 28 provided the documentation Baku said was required to permit the transit of Russian equipment needed for construction of a nuclear power station in Iran, the Azerbaijani authorities two days later, after reviewing this paperwork, allowed the train carrying it to pass into Iran, thus ending what had been an increasingly heated month-long standoff among the three countries.

But even though each of them said the incident was closed, their declarations did little to end speculation that more was involved in the Azerbaijan action than met the eye, a measure of the complexity of all issues involving Russia, Iran and nuclear materials and also of the challenges governments have in ensuring that both their own populations and the international community understand why they act as they do in any particular case.

This "incident" began on March 29 when Baku ordered its border guards to prevent a Russian shipment of 14 tons of equipment to Iran where a Russian construction company is building an atomic energy station.  But that event has a pre-history in a triple sense, one that helps to explain what happened next. 

First, Azerbaijan has exercised its right as a sovereign state to require documentation of particular kinds of potentially dangerous material several times in the past, so that this decision initially did not strike anyone as especially significant.  It was assumed by both Russian and Azerbaijani commentators that it truly was "a technical question."

Second, the international community, both through the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has focused on Iran's nuclear problem and prohibited the export to that country of any items or materials that might allow Tehran to move from the peaceful use of nuclear materials to a military program. 

But third, Baku did not stop the shipment when it crossed from the Russian Federation into Azerbaijan but only when it was about to go from Azerbaijan into Iran.  Several Azerbaijani experts have told the media that was a mistake; at the very least, it contributed to the notion that what the Azerbaijani government had done was political rather than technical.

For almost three weeks, none of the sides – not the Russian government nor the Russian company involved, not Azerbaijan and not Iran – did very much, besides saying when the question came up in the media that it was a "technical" one that they expected would be solved sooner rather than later.  Iran, for example, was saying that as late as April 23.

On the one hand, it seems likely that all of them believed that; and on the other, it is obvious that none of the participants wanted this to blow up lest it create the kind of ill will that would make it more difficult for Russia to build the atomic energy station in Iran and for both Russia and Iran to make use of Azerbaijan as a reliable transit bridge.

But then as sometimes happens, the incident burst into the media, and officials in all three countries changed their tone, laying out clearly defined positions that showed just how far apart they in fact were on this issue but also creating the conditions for conversations behind the scenes that ultimately led to the resolution of the incident.

On April 24, Araz Azimov, Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, told the press that Baku's action with regard to the shipment "does not bear a political character."  Both as an independent country and a member of the international community, he said, Azerbaijan has responsibilities to ensure that no country ships certain kinds of items to another without adequate documentation.  And he concluded by pointedly asking rhetorically, "If all this documentation exists, then why doesn't Russia simply provide it" and resolve the problem.

Both the Russian foreign minister and Atomstroyeksport, the firm directly involved, continued to insist that Russia had done all it needed to do and that Baku's demand for more documentation not only violated the principles of international trade but also raised the question of whether Azerbaijan was acting for other and deeply political reasons.

And Iran, having taken a low profile for the first weeks of this crisis, at the end of April summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador in Iran to hear its complaint and directed Iran's ambassador in Baku to demand that Azerbaijan allow the shipment to leave for Iran, statements that Azerbaijani officials and commentators reacted strongly to, saying that no foreign government should assume that it can instruct Baku on how to behave. 

Media in all three countries suggested that talks at various levels – a meeting between Russian and Iranian officials in Tehran about nuclear issues, a telephone conversation between the Russian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers which presumably covered this issue, and consultations at lower levels as well, some in the media speculated – all pointed toward a resolution.

In the end, the Russian embassy handed over the documentation that Azerbaijan said it needed, and Azerbaijan, after checking with its own experts at the Institute of Radiation Problems, allowed the shipment to proceed – an outcome that from a distance, many would view as a victory for Baku and its principled position.  

But that is not how it appeared or appears to many because of the intense media speculation about why Azerbaijan had acted in the way it did and when, speculation that has generated at least three theories: 
Azerbaijan wanted to show its loyalty to the United States, which is very much opposed to Iran's nuclear program.

Azerbaijan wanted to respond to Moscow's decision to upgrade relations with the so-called "unrecognized states" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, something Baku opposes both because Georgia is its GUAM ally and because moves on these two countries could presage a Russian shift on Karabakh.

Russia itself wanted to slow down its construction of the atomic energy station in Iran without having to take responsibility for doing so.  Consequently, it created a situation in which Iran is more likely to blame Baku than Moscow.
Others suggested that Azerbaijan had just made a mistake, either because it did not appreciate what the shipment represented when it crossed from the Russian Federation into Azerbaijan or was simply overwhelmed because of the radical increase in the transit of goods across its territory over the last year, a trend that overwhelmed the capacity of its customs service to do its job. 

But both Occam's razor – the proposition that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation is almost always the best – and the fact that no one has offered any additional proof to support theories that simply reflect and advance his views, suggest there is no reason in this case to go beyond the facts.
And that has an important lesson for Azerbaijan and for all other countries which act on the basis of a legal principle in a highly politicized atmosphere that may bring them into conflict with a more powerful country:  It is critically important to ensure that the government recognizes that it may be even more important to ensure that its message about what it is doing reaches key audiences at home and abroad than even seeing the conflict resolve itself in the ways that it wants.