Vol. 2, No. 19 (October 01, 2009)

Azerbaijan’s position in the Middle East: Challenges and opportunities

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Azerbaijan occupies a unique position in its relations with the Middle East: It is the only country in the world that maintains good relations with all the countries of the region, despite the tensions and conflicts among them and the demands of each that all outside powers take sides.  On the one hand, this regional manifestation of Baku’s commitment to a balanced foreign policy sometimes creates difficulties for some governments in the region and even for itself.  But on the other, it gives Azerbaijan a remarkable opportunity to serve as an intermediary and honest broker far greater than would otherwise be the case.
Three cases illustrate this point.  The first of these involves Baku’s close ties with Israel and its simultaneous support for Palestinian rights.  No Muslim country in the world has closer ties with Jerusalem or is more often praised for its tolerant and supportive approach to Jewish issues than is Azerbaijan.  Lacking any tradition of anti-Semitism, Azerbaijan has pursued close ties with the Jewish state.  Israel has a large and active embassy in Baku, its president has visited Azerbaijan this year, and Azerbaijani parliamentarians are pressing for the government to open an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel, something the government appears to have resisted doing lest it offend Muslim countries with which Azerbaijan also maintains close ties.
That highlights an aspect of Azerbaijan’s balanced policy that rarely attracts much attention.  In order to maintain ties with both sides in any international support, Baku frequently finds itself prevented from taking all the steps that either side would like.  That may limit Azerbaijan’s freedom of action, but in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, both sides appreciate Baku’s approach, seeing it as useful to their respective causes even if it is undoubtedly the case that some in each camp would prefer if Azerbaijan would in fact choose sides.  And consequently, even while it is constrained in some respects, Baku has both greater freedom of action and perhaps a greater opportunity to help with conflict resolution than would otherwise be the case.
The second case concerns Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran, a country whose Shia Islam and Persian tradition puts it at odds with the Arab world and whose nuclear program has put it on a collision course with Israel in the first instance and Europe and the United States more generally.  Because Iran is Azerbaijan’s neighbor, because Azerbaijanis must pass through Iranian territory to reach Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan, and because more than a third of Iran’s population consists of ethnic Azerbaijanis, Baku has no choice but to seek close working ties with Iran, however much its partners in Israel, the Arab world, and the West might prefer a different stance. 
Here too Azerbaijan experiences both constraints and opportunities.  On the one hand, Baku frequently has to explain to its partners why it continues to maintain such close relations with a country others do not trust and why Azerbaijan believes that it can work with a government many other states have the gravest doubts about.  But on the other, Baku’s ties with Tehran mean that it not only can serve as a channel for information and communication but also help overcome other disputes.
And just as Israel very much appreciates Azerbaijan’s stance, even though it wishes Baku would tilt even more in its direction, so too Iran welcomes the approach Azerbaijan has taken, fully appreciating the complexities Baku faces and the questions it raises with its other partners because of its relationship with Iran.
The third case may appear more nebulous, but it is equally important.  It involves Azerbaijan’s commitment as an Islamic country to maintain and develop relations with the Muslim world even as it maintains and develops ties with the secular West.  That is perhaps not surprising given that, in the view of some, Azerbaijan today is the most secular of Muslim countries and the most Muslim of secular ones, a situation that allows it to serve as a bridge between two worlds.
Again, many on each side of this divide often would like to see Azerbaijan come down more firmly on its, but the most sophisticated on both increasingly recognize that Baku’s approach works not only to Azerbaijan’s benefit, gaining for Baku a prominence in the world that it might otherwise not have, but also to theirs, showing the way in which secularism and Islam can be combined in ways that are not necessarily detrimental to either. 
Maintaining these various balancing acts requires a sophistication that one might not expect to find in a country that only recovered its independence 18 years ago, and it is a testament to the careful strategizing of both Heydar Aliyev and his son, President Ilham Aliyev, that Baku has managed these relationships as well as it has.  In no case have these ties been without problems, and as tensions increase across all three divides in the coming months, Azerbaijan is going to face ever more challenges.
Some governments and some people in Azerbaijan itself will press for Baku to make a clear choice, backing Israel or the Palestinians, backing Iran or its opponents, or backing Islam or the secular world.  They will argue that trying to maintain good ties with both will ultimately preclude close relations with either.  Other governments and again some in Azerbaijan itself will argue that Baku’s best option is to pull back from engagement not with one side or the other but from both.  Such people will say that Azerbaijan is not in a position to be the bridge or intermediary in any of these conflicts and that it must simply defer to others.
But there is a third, intermediate position, which it appears likely the Government of Azerbaijan will pursue: expanded relations with both sides of these pairs of countries and cultures in conflict.  That is likely to mean that Baku will be subjected to more criticism both at home and abroad, but it opens the way for something else: a chance that Azerbaijan will be able to serve as the kind of successful intermediary that will simultaneously win it praise from both the parties immediately involved and their backers and elevate Baku in the eyes of the world to a major regional player.
In that event, the balanced foreign policy that Baku has made the cornerstone of its approach to the world will be vindicated, a development that not only could lead other governments to try it but also result in a reduction of tensions and even the end of some longstanding conflicts that many around the world even now assume are beyond the wit of anyone to resolve.