The U.S. sanctions on Iran: Azerbaijan’s position

One of the most significant issues, recently hotly debated, is the US sanctions on Iran, which the Trump administration requires all of its allies to show their support.

November 21, 2018 21:14
3 minute read.
Turkish foreign minister

TURKISH FOREIGN Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (center) poses with his counterparts Elmar Mammadyarov of Azerbaijan (left) and Javad Zarif of Iran following a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey in October.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Azerbaijan is located at a very complex region when it is considered that three of neighboring countries to Azerbaijan – namely Russia, Iran and Turkey, are regional powers and key actors in the international politics. Nowadays, these countries are on the headlines of international news because of global issues they involved.

One of the most significant issues, recently hotly debated, is the US sanctions on Iran, which the Trump administration requires all of its allies to show their support. Naturally, Azerbaijan, as a neighbor country to Iran and a US ally, was called to have a stance against Iran’s Mullah regime by John Bolton, national security adviser to the US president, in his visit to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Indeed, Azerbaijan’s position is interesting, when it is considered that Baku has managed to have pretty good relations with the West, Israel (even when the crisis erupted between Israel and Turkey – a key ally and its strongest supporter – Azerbaijan managed to protect its neutrality) and Iran till today. It seems Baku’s stance toward Iran is likely to remain unchanged for several reasons.

Firstly, Azerbaijan has been following a balanced foreign policy toward its neighboring countries since Heydar Aliyev came to power about 25 years ago. Before, having declared its independence in 1991, National Front came to power and pursued a harsh foreign policy toward Iran and Russia. Threatening territorial integrity of Iran by provoking considerable Azeri minority (about 25 million) in there and trying to eliminate all Russian influence in the country, National Front and its leader [Abulfaz] Elchibey created additional difficulties for the country, which had already experienced troubles from the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Elchibey’s sharp rhetoric and unrealistic foreign policy goals resulted in anarchy in the country, which has also been a main factor behind major support of people to Aliyev. The lessons from these unsuccessful policies, and Aliyev’s pragmatism, reformulated Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and made it balanced, which is not believed to be changed in near future.

Secondly, Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran are fully appropriate to the national interests of the country, although it is not as good as Baku’s relations with other regional actors, namely Russia and Turkey. Baku exports natural gas to Iran, and in exchange Iran provides natural gas and other necessary goods to Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan, which does not have a land border with Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, there is a huge tourism potential between these countries, which Azerbaijan tries to realize its tourism potential after oil prices reduced sharply and the country’s oil-dependent economy faced serious troubles. In addition, any problem between Azerbaijan and Iran would serve interests of Armenia, which has hostile relations with Azerbaijan and it is in national interests of Azerbaijan to isolate it. Moreover, perhaps, the most important events in the last year were ending disputes over use of the Caspian Sea, about which Azerbaijan and Iran had totally different views. In August, all Caspian Basin countries came together and agreed on the solution of this problem.

In the past, there were such situations as well, not only related to Iran but also other neighboring countries. Baku insisted on its neutral stance toward the problems between two sides. Azerbaijan’s position can be explained with two recent examples. First, there was serious crisis between Israel and Turkey. Both of these countries are important for Baku. Azerbaijan has strong cultural ties with Turkey and has been supported by Turkey by all means, even Turkey’s border with Armenia has been closed because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Israel is also a strategic partner to Baku, especially in the context of bilateral security relationships. Baku tried to be neutral toward the crisis and it can be seen as a success of Baku’s diplomacy. Second, when the jet crisis between Turkey and Russia erupted, Baku again faced serious difficulties, since protecting its neutrality became more problematic. However, Azerbaijan managed to protect its neutrality, as well as played a crucial role in the rapprochement process between Ankara and Moscow. The crisis turned to be opportunity for the sides involved.

In conclusion, despite the fact that Azerbaijan is an ally of the US, it is far from reality to expect that it will take on the role to isolate Iran for a number of reasons, such as Iran’s importance as a neighboring country. Furthermore, Iran is a key country, and any tension between Baku and Tehran would serve Armenia’s interests, which is undesirable for Azerbaijan. Additionally, recent developments between these countries to strengthen bilateral relations, such as coming an agreement over share of Caspian Sea, make unsound the assumption of Azerbaijanian support of the US to isolate Iran.

The author is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Istanbul University.

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