Before the presidential election in Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is supposed to pay his first visit abroad since the beginning of the year. He is going to visit Russia with a view to discuss questions concerning visa-free travel, trade and strategic and military cooperation. According to Parstoday, one of the key topics is expected to be the situation in the South Caucasus, particularly, the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.
Iran has always said that the key mediator of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, the OSCE Minsk Group, is unable to resolve the conflict and its reason for saying this is that it is not involved in the peace process, unlike Turkey, who has specific interest therein. But now that the Iranians’ relations with the Azerbaijanis are very tense and that they are doing quite well together with the Russians in Syria, they are really keen to negotiate with the Kremlin on Nagorno-Karabakh.
One of the key factors that spoiled Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan was the last year’s visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku. For the Iranians, Israel is an enemy. So, it was quite logical to hear the Iranian President’s advisor Ali Asghar Soltanieh as saying that his country was worried to see Azerbaijan improving its relations with Israel. Iranian Foreign Minister Bahram Ghasemi said that even though Azerbaijan had the right to receive Netanyahu, it had to avoid that visit as Israel was keen to set Iran and Azerbaijan by the ears.
The Supreme Leader’s representative to the province of West Azerbaijan Sayed Mehdi Ghoreishi said that Netanyahu’s visit to Azerbaijan was unacceptable, while Khamenei’s representative to Ardabil Seyed Hassan Ameli said that the only reason for Israel’s interest in Azerbaijan was that it was Iran’s neighbor. Ameli supports Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In his prayers, he shares the Azerbaijanis’ displeasure with what is going on in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Supreme Leader’s representative to East Azerbaijan Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari was the most categorical: he said that it was the Azerbaijanis’ duty to cancel Netanyahu’s visit. These views are especially important as all the three represent the provinces where pro-Azerbaijani and pro-Turkish moods are the strongest.
But Netanyahu still visited Baku. In response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Armenia. And the Azerbaijanis reacted to this visit in the same way as the Iranians had reacted to Netanyahu’s visit. They accused Iran of violating the principle of Islamic solidarity and cooperating with a country that, according to them, occupied 20% of their territory. Spokesman of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry Hikmet Hajiyev said that the Armenians were destroying the Muslim heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh. But Rouhani not only visited Yerevan but also signed a number of significant agreements there.
Even more, last autumn, the Economy Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Artsakh) signed a contract with Part Saman Jahan Co. from Iran to reconstruct Govhar Agha, the major mosque of the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shushi. This contract has not only disproved the Azerbaijanis’ allegations that the Armenians are destroying Muslim culture in Nagorno-Karabakh but has also become a step towards closer relations between Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh. And even though it was a private contract, it would have hardly been signed without the Iranian authorities’ consent.
The Azerbaijanis counteracted by accusing a group of Shias of organizing public disorders, possessing arms and killing people. In Jan 2017, Taleh Bagizade and his men were sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. The Iranian authorities were indignant, with the religious leaders of Iran’s northwestern provinces accusing Azerbaijan of supporting Wahhabis and persecuting Shias.
One more news that angered the Iranians was Azerbaijan’s plans to organize Islamic Solidarity Games: they cannot understand how the Azerbaijani authorities can spend $100 million on an event advocating Islamic solidarity while having as many as 150 Shia leaders kept in their prisons. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly urged Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to respect Muslims and Islamic values and has warned him that he is keeping an eye on him and is ready to stand up for those he is oppressing – for it is one of the key principles of Iran’s foreign policy to protect the oppressed around the world.
One of the reasons the Azerbaijanis are so tough on Shias may be their wish to move away from Iran and get closer to Turkey and the Gulf monarchies.
But there is one strong factor that is keeping Azerbaijan and Iran from an open confrontation – economy. The sides actively cooperate in business and are going to open a railway that will connect Iran with Russia.
So, even if the Iranian and Russian presidents discuss Nagorno-Karabakh, it will not be an easy discussion. Russia and Iran have similar positions on this problem: both need Azerbaijan economically and Armenia strategically. This approach may well yield some results. In Syria, the sides have been quite efficient, so, it would be logical if they try to cooperate on other geopolitical problems as well.
Anton Yevstratov, specially for EADaily