In 2019 Iran is engaged in an effort to strengthen ties with a country it has often been at odds with – and Azerbaijan is in need to allies in its dispute with Armenia.
On Wednesday last week, Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s Chief of General Staff of the armed forces began his two-day visit to Baku and met with the president of Azerbaijan. This is the third visit by high-ranking Iranian officials to Baku since December 2018 and seems to signal a new phase in Iranian-Azerbaijan relations.
Bagheri met with a number of Azeri officials and signed multiple bilateral agreements. It is the first time since Azerbaijani independence in 1991 that the highest Iranian military officials have visited Baku.
Bagheri met with Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan’s minister of defense, President Ilham Aliyev and Ogtay Asadov, the speaker of Azerbaijan National Assembly. The two countries signed multiple agreements to strengthen their military and security cooperation and increase trade between the states.
Earlier in December 2018, Iran’s minster of intelligence and the minster of communication visited Baku, meeting with Azeri officials. Asadov also visited Tehran and met with President Hassan Rouhani in late December 2018.
The two countries have agreed to expand bilateral relations, further strengthen their military and security cooperation, increase trade, and work mutually on the completion of the North-South Corridor, which aims to expand regional trade by ship, rail, and road. Bagheri also reaffirmed on behalf of the Iranian government the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, indicating that Iran will always stand with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia.
The diplomatic traffic between the two neighbours seems to be on the rise, particularly after they signed the Caspian Sea deal in August 2018, which clarified ownership of the sea between the states.
The two countries, as the officials also repeatedly emphasised, have strong confessional, cultural and linguistic ties and the shared border between Iran and Azerbaijan is one of the safest in the region.
Safest Iranian border is with Azerbaijan
The former Soviet-Iran border that is now a shared border between Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the safest Iranian border.
Inhabited by the Turkic speaking Iranians, the border between Iran and Azerbaijan starts from the Turkish border and goes all the way to the Caspian Sea, following the Aras River. Compared with problems encountered on other Iranian borders - for instance, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US hostility in the Gulf - this is the least problematic border both for Iran and Azerbaijan.
A secure border allowed Iran and Azerbaijan to construct number of mutual dams and power plants on the Aras river that benefit both counties.
Azerbaijan is the most stable country of the Caucasus and a more reliable partner if compared with Armenia and Georgia. Even though Georgia is a popular business and leisure destination for Iranians, Georgian authorities have reportedly deported many Iranian nationals from entering the country despite a visa-free policy and have imposed financial restrictions on Iranian business owners.
The Armenian ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 2018 and the admiration it has received from Western powers seems to also be a major concern for Iranian officials.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been economically and politically a relatively stable country with predictable political behaviour in comparison to Armenia and Georgia. This gives Azerbaijan the upper hand in negotiations with regional and global powers.
New partner in the regional alliance of Iran, Russia and Turkey
What seems to be another reason for strengthening relations between Iran and Azerbaijan is the strategic location of Azerbaijan, which bridges Turkey, Russia and Iran to each other over land.
Iran, Russia and Turkey, as new allies in the region, have no direct land connection to each other. One could interpret the regular trilateral meetings of Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and also between Iranian, Russian and Azerbaijani officials, as steps towards creating a land corridor that bonds the regional powers together.
In exchange for this partnership, Azerbaijan hopes to have the support of the regional powers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and ultimately regain control over its occupied territories. Following their relative success in peace-building in Syria; it is also probable that the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance will eventually bring decades of conflict in the Caucasus to task and try come up with better solutions than the Minsk Group.
The North-South Corridor
Since Iranian maritime activities are among the major targets of US sanctions, the Iranian government is looking for alternatives to lower this pressure and bypass the sanctions. The North-South Corridor seems to be a feasible alternative for Iranian maritime trade.
Azerbaijan is one of the countries on this transit road that will eventually connect India to Russia. Even though a large section of this corridor goes through the Iranian territories, Azerbaijan’s cooperation is also essential for its completion.
If the corridor becomes fully operational, it could also be a great opportunity for Azerbaijan and eventually Russia, to access international waters and also inner Asian markets through Iran.
Recent diplomatic traffic between Iran and Azerbaijan has entered a new phase after the visit of the Bagheri to Baku and the meetings he had with Azeri officials.
Since Bagheri is the highest military official to have visited Baku since the Azerbaijani independence, Iran seems to be looking to strengthen its relations with Azerbaijan amid increasing pressure due to US sanctions.
Both Iranian and Azerbaijani authorities seem to be aware of the role they can play in the future and have a mutual interest in expanding their relations.
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