H.E. Mr. Mohsen Pakaeen, Former Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Republic of Azerbaijan, sat down one week ago with IRAS for a lengthy interview about the Iran-Azerbaijan relations. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Iranian-Azerbaijani relations have experienced many ups and downs in the past two and half decades, but the obvious point is the bilateral relations have gained new face during the past three and half years. As you were ambassador to Azerbaijan in that period of time, what decisive factors have shaped the current ties and what were the obstacles before your diplomatic mission?
"Given their cultural and historical commonalities, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan should have a better relationship with each other. Unfortunately, in the early days of Azerbaijan’s independence, an intimidating approach could be seen in the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Azerbaijan, Elchibey, the leader of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party became the first President of the country. His approach to various domestic and foreign issues was very unrealistic. Since 1993, Mr. Heydar Aliyev came to power, and a realistic approach prevailed in Azerbaijan, and her government did not follow that extremist approach in its official positions. Although ethnic groups in this country, supported by the West, Israel and the US Congress, still continue to provoke these issues.
"Of course, the influence of these groups has been reduced in Azerbaijan, but given that they possess some media, at times they use the opportunities to influence the bilateral relations between the two states. Different approaches of the two states to religion and the system of government are considered other reasons for the emergence of a negative approach in their relationship. Iran is a revolutionary and an Islamic state, while Azerbaijan is a newly independent state of the former communist government of the Soviet Union. Religion was considered as the opium of society by the Soviet Union, and she fought all religious manifestations. Due to the strict conditions of the tsarist times and the rule of Stalin and Lenin, the people of Azerbaijan were deprived of any religious expression and manifestation. It is true that most of the Azerbaijan population are Shiite, however, based on surveys conducted approximately 10 to 15 percent of the Shiite perform religious practices, and we should not expect this community to think and act like us. Under communism, Mr. Heydar Aliyev, a member of the ruling party, despite having high capacity, did little progress in the ranks of government, because he was a Muslim. The Azerbaijan religious community has not much changed since then, and we cannot expect from this community what we expect from the Islamic and revolutionary society of Iran.
"For sure, the rapid growth of Shiite in Azerbaijan in the years after independence, and especially, the Azeri youth’s high eagerness for Shiite must be emphasized on. The next problem is a disagreement on the common cultural heritage. We have many historical and cultural commonalities with the Central Asian states and the Caucasus. For example, Avicenna was born in Bukhara, or Nizami Ganjavi was buried in Azerbaijan and the like. At times, some groups from both states stir up these issues and create problems. Two solutions can be considered facing these problems: either entering into a cultural conflict, or working together to respect these legacies. This means that the two or more states who can discuss properly in this area should collaborate with each other to better introduce the intended cultural heritage to the world. If Iran is willing to introduce the Persian poetry of Nizami Ganjavi to the world, she will fail to do so by confronting Azerbaijan, but it is possible through joint cooperation. Like what was done for the Nowruz - ten states jointly registered it in the United Nations. Basically, on the registration of tangible and intangible cultural and historical heritages, the UNESCO is opposed to the monopolization of cultural legacies.
"Another factor that sowed discord in Iran’s relations with her northern neighbor is the role of the Zionist media. With an understanding of the sensitivity of the area, these media release the news that at times are reflected, and even exaggerated, in the media of the two states, and this is an issue that shows we should be careful in such cases, and know who and where the news source is. When I was working at the Iranian embassy in Azerbaijan, I tried to bring the media of the two states together. Therefore, trust-building was to some extent created, and this highly contributed to the development of relations. Doors of the Iranian embassy were open to all media, and many meetings were held with them. But in terms of the current situation, several factors brought Iran and Azerbaijan close to each other. The first factor is the US mistakes during the last presidential election held in Azerbaijan and the US subsequent positions on the issues of human rights in Azerbaijan which made the Azeri extremely angry, and they took it as interference in their internal affairs. So this issue led to the fact that Azerbaijan and her people who have a high sense of nationalism to stand against the US. Naturally, their relations grew cold, as far as the US ambassador to Azerbaijan was politely expelled from there. The more the US mistakes grew, the more Iran and Russia came closer to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan was a state ignoring the region, but the US mistakes pushed her back to the region. After the re-election of President Putin, he immediately visited Azerbaijan, and this led to more cooperation between Azerbaijan and the regional states. The next issue is the Ukrainian crisis where the US failed to support her ally, and Russia occupied Crimea, and these events made regional states and Azerbaijan distrustful of the US.
"On the other hand, European Championship 2015, sponsored by the European, was held in Azerbaijan (because of European economic problems), and despite Azerbaijan spent a lot of money, due to her human rights issues, European states did not send their first teams to Baku, and this angered the Azeri, and the relationship between Azerbaijan and Europe grew cold. Another argument that prompted Azerbaijan to be inclined toward the region is the discussion on extremism and the Takfiri presence in the Middle East. Since the majority of the population of Azerbaijan is the Shiite Muslims, and this state is a target for the Takfiri, one of the reasons Azerbaijan became close to Iran and Russia is also to prevent the Takfiri influence [in her state]. Another important factor playing a role in making the two states - Iran and Azerbaijan - close was the win-win diplomacy followed by the Iranian eleventh administration. Mr. Rouhani, knowing Azerbaijan, fully used this rhetoric. During the past three years since the first meeting of the two Presidents in Davos, Switzerland, they have met seven times, and their relationship is becoming warm. These factors led Azerbaijan and Iran to have now friendly relations."
Could you provide us with bilateral trade figures and statistics? What are the strength and weakness of the bilateral economic ties?
"In relation to the balance of trade between the two states, at the time I was sent to Baku, there was $300 million trade relationship in the non-oil sector. Now the figure has reached $600 million as the official statistics of the customs shows, and of course it can increase. Most of the trade consists of non-oil exports. If there are customs facilities and rail facilities, trade relations between them can even develop more. If oil cooperation such as gas swaps or investments in the Caspian Sea are considered as well, this figure will be over one billion dollars. Azerbaijan also serves as a good bridge between Iran and Russia through which Iran delivers her products to Russia. On transit, there has been a significant progress in creating the North-South Corridor, and Azerbaijan which previously was not even willing to develop 7 km of railway on her side to the Astara border, is now cooperating with Iran to construct the entire route by a joint venture. The North-South Corridor is of high importance for the two states, because it connects Azerbaijan and the surrounding states to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea, and also establishes the Iranian relationship with the Central Asian states. The issue of the Caspian Sea is also very important in the strategic relations between the two states, and if they can have a joint venture in the Caspian region, both of them will benefit. Today, communications and tourism industry are booming between them, and this can help them become strategic partners."
What initiatives and measures have been taken to improve the economies of the bordering provinces and regions? What other measures are needed to be taken in the near future?
"Azerbaijan is the land neighbor of four Iranian provinces (West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Gilan), and has maritime borders with the provinces of Mazandaran and Golestan, and is close with the province of Zanjan in terms of language, though, they do not share a border. Therefore, Azerbaijan can have close cooperation with seven Iranian provinces, and these relations usually exist. The cooperation is done in various areas. In the first place, this cooperation is on a commercial basis, because Azerbaijan shares borders with four Iranian provinces, and some of these provinces including Gilan have a good capacity to export fruits and vegetables to Azerbaijan, and also the provinces of Ardabil and East Azerbaijan can export building materials like cement and clinker to Azerbaijan - she has good business relations with these provinces. Azerbaijan is one of the buyers of the Iranian fruits, especially from the province of Gilan, and also purchases fruits from the provinces of Mazandaran and Golestan by sea. She also buys almost all her needed potatoes from Ardabil. The next issue is transportation. There is the Rasht-Astara railway that is under construction, and it will be the way through which Gilan province can connect Azerbaijan to the Oman Sea.
"There are also land routes, and all four Iranian provinces and even the province of Zanjan can also be connected by land from Azerbaijan to Russia and Georgia, and transport their goods for different areas. The next area is tourism; the Iranian provinces and especially provinces that have land borders with Azerbaijan receive the Azeri citizens. About a million people travel annually from Azerbaijan to Iran. They visit Iran, because no visa is required to do so. About a third of the tourists visiting Iran do so for receiving treatment, and they go to the Iranian hospitals more for the purpose of receiving outpatient and prolonged treatments. Currently, tourism is an active issue in Iran and Azerbaijan, and the boom in these kinds of activity led to having secure borders, and fortunately, we have not seen any special case of insecurity in the borders of the two states in recent years. So in terms of trade and security, there is a positive relationship between the provinces of Iran and Azerbaijan."
It seems one of the main obstacles to improve Tehran-Baku relations is the close ties of Israel and Azerbaijan. According to Iranian Defense Minister who said recently that Iran could not tolerate the presence of Israel in Azerbaijan, to what extent such concern is serious and in case of Israeli infiltration to our northern neighborhood, what would be the Iran's reactions?
"Israel’s attempt to get out of isolation was one of the reasons this regime paid attention to the former Soviet republics. After the independence of former republics, Israel first started to have trade relationships with them, and then tried to play an active role in regional developments. Israel sought to find non-Arab allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia to show the world that she has friends even among Muslim states. Due to Russia’s support for Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan was inclined towards the West, and the US became the bridge between Israel and Azerbaijan, and the Azeri authorities, aware of the Jewish influence and lobby from the distant past, set one of the fundamental principles of their foreign policy to have a closer relationship with the Jews to deal with the Armenian lobby. Usually Israel promotes that the relations between Tel Aviv and Astana and Baku will become strategic relationships, but the reality is that no Muslim country can establish a strategic relationship with Israel, because this regime is the greatest security threat for the world of Islam, has occupied the first Qibla of Muslims, and every day commits new crimes against Muslims. Therefore, the relations among Astana, Baku and Tel Aviv will not become strategic relationships. Furthermore, a strategic relationship means to legitimize the occupation, and Azerbaijan which opposes the occupation of Islamic lands, cannot be a strategic partner of Israel. We hope that Azerbaijan as a Muslim country, and a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation can recognize the Israeli mischievous tricks, and distance herself from this regime."
It seems that during Obama presidency, Azerbaijan preferred to lean towards Russian and Iran, but in the Trump era and incoming US President's utmost support of Israel, don’t you think that Azerbaijan will keep distance from Tehran and Moscow and move towards Washington and Tel Aviv?
"I think Azerbaijan has realized the advantages of regional cooperation with Iran and Russia, and will follow the same path during the Trump presidency."
Creation of trilateral mechanism of Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia are among the important initiatives in the recent years. To what extent the mechanism has been successful?
"Tehran, Moscow and Baku experienced new trends of cooperation in their trilateral meeting. This meeting does not mean to form a new union or treaty, but it can be considered as a new process of cooperation among states with common views, and its implementation can serve as a regional cooperation pattern for other states. The most important achievement of the meeting for Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan can be the coordination of trilateral economic cooperation in different areas. In the field of trade, the completion of the Rasht-Astara railway as a connecting link for the North-South Corridor is on the agenda of Tehran and Baku, and the process has gone well. Since this railway will connect Russia to the Persian Gulf waters, it has certain charm to this state, so the three states can have joint cooperation in this field. There is also the ground for common interactions in the areas of energy, especially gas trade, oil swaps, [oil and gas] exploration in the Caspian Sea, and the electricity transmission. Given the mutual trade sanctions between Europe and Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan are able to meet the Russian import needs, and yet can import their needed goods from Russia. Therefore, finding ways to strengthen the private sectors through giving the necessary incentives to businessmen to achieve growth in the commercial exchange can be one of the achievements of the trilateral meeting in Baku."
Iran has always been the ally of Armenia against Azerbaijan. But, some analysts believe that Armenia concerns of Tehran-Baku close ties. Why?
"The relationship between Iran and Armenia can be interpreted within the framework of the development of relations with neighbors, and this relationship is not directed against any other state. The Iranian officials’ visits to Azerbaijan and Armenia are done in the framework of setting the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy with her neighbors. The condition for the development of relations between the two states is the political will of their leaders. The main reason for witnessing positive developments in Tehran’s relations with the regional states is that the Rouhani administration has emphasized on the development of relations with the neighbors and the establishment of moderate foreign policy, so no state should feel worried.
In 2016, we saw once more the Nagorno-Karabakh War at the time of Iranian's intention to close its ties with Azerbaijan. Where is the Iran's place in the War and what both states (i.e. Armenia and Azerbaijan) expect Iran?
"On the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, everyone knows that at that time Iran contributed great assistance to Azerbaijan, but both Azerbaijan and Armenia have chosen the Minsk Group to resolve their differences, and if Iran gets involved in this issue under the current conditions, she may not be able to do something more than the Minsk Group, because these two states are not willing at all to accept each other's conditions. Primarily, the two states should resolve their differences. At the same time, Iran has repeatedly announced that she is ready to solve this problem with the help of neighboring states in the region, and has emphasized that Iran’s good relations with both of them can be an effective tool to solve this problem."
As you might notice, after the Russia-Europe deterioration of ties in the eve of the Ukraine Crisis, the Europeans have taken more attention to the Azerbaijani gas fields. In that regard, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) are on the way and since two years ago, Iran has been invited to expand the Shah Deniz field and collaborate to export the gas via these pipelines. As some Iranian officials have had a couple of meetings with some Azerbaijani counterparts, what would be the result of the consultation and negotiation?
"The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) that transport the Azeri gas to Europe are gas lines whose prices are cheap and not standard. The use of these gas lines, in the first place, should be economic for Iran to join it. Now the rate of gas export to Europe via the TAP and the TANAP is not standard, and the gas is cheaply delivered to Europe, and the rate is calculated on the basis of contracts concluded between Europe and Azerbaijan in the early days of her independence. Due to the low price, Iran is presently reluctant to use the pipelines, and they are practically not economic for her. But if negotiations take place in this regard, and the prices are set as standard, Iran can consider using the pipelines. Currently, the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is not willing to use them."
Some experts believe that given the current production, if Iran want to join the project, it could not. What's your opinion?
"If the Iranian investment in the second stage of the Shah Deniz field development in the Caspian Sea produces revenue, Iranian officials can consider the use of the TAP and the TANAP. Of course, Iran has not yet considered this as a priority issue, and her gas is transferred more through the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea."
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