Wednesday, 26 September 2001

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT’S VISIT TO IRAN AGAIN POSTPONED

Published in Field Reports

By Gulnara Ismailova, a freelance journalist, based in Baku, Azerbaijan (9/26/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

According to plans, President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev was scheduled for an official visit to Tehran on 17-19 September. As a preparation for the visit, Azerbaijani delegations consisting of over 30 officials and experts of ministries, departments, as well as business circles, have worked in Iran. Namik Abbasov, the Minister of National Security, also visited Iran to arrange security matters for the forthcoming visit.

According to plans, President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev was scheduled for an official visit to Tehran on 17-19 September. As a preparation for the visit, Azerbaijani delegations consisting of over 30 officials and experts of ministries, departments, as well as business circles, have worked in Iran. Namik Abbasov, the Minister of National Security, also visited Iran to arrange security matters for the forthcoming visit.

Meetings were planned for the visit with the President of Iran, clerical leaders of the country, the Speaker of parliament, and ca. 10 agreements on cooperation in political, judicial and cultural spheres were to be signed. The state visit was on the agenda even long before the July 23 incident in the Caspian Sea, when Iranian ships and planes violated Azerbaijani borders and entered into Azerbaijani territorial waters and air space. After that incident, relations between the two states worsened. However this tension in the relations was not the reason for the cancellation of this important visit. On the contrary, according to some experts, the official visit of Aliyev to Tehran could have been the starting point in solving the mounting problems between the two states, including defining the status of Caspian Sea, problems in the field of economic cooperation, the opening of a consulate of Azerbaijan in Tabriz, discussions on the problems of perhaps 30 million Azeris living in Iran, among other matters.

Azerbaijani society was also divided in opinions whether the President ought to go to Iran. As matters developed, the visit would have taken place only several days after the terrorist acts committed in New York and Washington. Vafa Guluzade, former State Advisor on Foreign Policy, called the upcoming visit of Aliyev to Iran ‘nonsensical’. In his opinion, Iran always supported terrorism on the state level and those, who suppose that in the current situation the visit of Aliyev to Iran fits to the interests of Azerbaijan, misjudge of the true interests of Azerbaijan. According to Isa Gambar, the leader of the main opposition party ‘Musavat’, Baku needed to consult its allies regarding the ‘advisability of the visit and its date Iran is a neighbor of Azerbaijan and we have to build favorable relations with it. But in the present situation Azerbaijan has to behave as a member of the world communit’, according to the Musavat Chairman. However the leadership of another opposition party, AMIP (National Independence Party) puts the matter differently. Maharram Zulfugarli, Advisor to the party chairman, positively assessed Aliyev’s visit to Tehran. In his opinion Azerbaijan has to lead ‘an independent’ foreign policy based on its own interests. Ali Karimli, leader of ‘reformist’ wing of the Popular Front Party, however spoke against the visit. He thinks the visit to Iran is ‘not advisable’ from the point of view of the national interests of Azerbaijan. In his opinion, it is not advisable for the Azerbaijani president to visit Iran until Tehran takes a commitment to respect the rights of Azerbaijan in the Caspian sea, allows the opening of an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz, and stops interfering in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan, according to Karimli. Nuraddin Mammadli, Chair of High Council of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, assessed that the visit should not have been cancelled: ‘There is nothing shameful in Aliyev's visit’. However on the eve of the visit it became apparent that a September 16 phone conversation had taken place between Heydar Aliyev and his Iranian colleague Muhammad Khatami, in which it was decided to postpone the visit to a later date in connection with the ‘non-preparedness of the documents to be signed during the visit’. It was agreed to continue work on the documents and then to define a new date for the visit. Vilayat Guliyev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, declared to local TV channels that the official visit of Aliyev to Iran was not postponed due to terrorist attacks in the USA. According to him, the terrorist acts have nothing to do with Aliyev's visit. Guliyev stated that ‘the visit was postponed, but will take place as soon as the sides agree on principal matters’. However it is likely that the terrorist acts committed in New York and Washington on September 11, as well as the possible political and military consequences of American retaliatory actions, may have played a role. Indeed, just after the terrorist acts in the USA, many world leaders decided to postpone state visits. According to the influential Turkish newspaper Radikal, the visit of the Azerbaijani President was postponed under American pressure.

According to some analysts, even had there not been any terrorist attacks, the visit of Azerbaijan President to Iran would not have taken place in the scheduled dates, first of all due to the dynamics of bilateral relations. Actually it was not possible to achieve even nominal progress in talks on the status of Caspian Sea, and in this situation the President of Azerbaijan could hardly agree to pay a visit to Iran if this visit did not foresee the signing of documents on the status of Caspian Sea. Just before the visit, the tensions between Baku and Tehran had approached a dangerous level: Iranian gunboat diplomacy in the Caspian Sea, the series of demonstrative Iranian intrusions into the air space of Azerbaijan, the non-correct reaction of Tehran to the visit of Turkish Chief of General Staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu to Baku, and to the air show conducted by the ‘Turkish Stars’ over Baku.

It is worth to state due to historical facts and modern realities, Iran has never been viewed as an ally or even a friendly country in Azerbaijan. Even the fact that Iran and Azerbaijan share religious ties (Shi’a Islam) has no significance, since the Iranian model of religious government is not acceptable to the vast majority of Azerbaijanis and hence practically impossible in Azerbaijan.

In any case, official Baku had to take a timeout. In the current situation, it is completely logical for the Azerbaijani government to wait for some approximate outlines of future changes in the region to appear.

Gulnara Ismailova, a freelance journalist, based in Baku, Azerbaijan

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