Iran, Azerbaijan Need More Social Understanding to Expand Ties

Monday, February 23, 2015

Elyas Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan are neighboring countries with both land and sea borders and also enjoy a great deal of religious, social and cultural commonalities in addition to close ties, such as family relations, between their citizens. However, despite such grounds for good relations, political, economic and cultural ties between the two states do not match the existing capacities in the two countries. Of course, many analysts believe that the conflict in viewpoints between Iran's religious government and Azerbaijan's secular government as well as Azerbaijan's close relations with the United States and Israel as opposed to Iran's close ties with Armenia are the most important impediments on the way of further expansion of relations between the two countries. However, it seems that the main hurdle which prevents achievement of this goal and deepening of the two states’ relations is the amount of trust that each country has in the other. Following the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan from the former Soviet Union, Iran and Azerbaijan were like two separated societies which had been far from each other for many years and, as a result, their newly formed ties were mostly based on emotions and sentiments.

However, before long, those emotional relations were sidelines by the two countries’ rising expectations of each other. Azerbaijan expected Tehran to take sides with Baku in its war in Nagorno-Karabakh region – just in the same way that Iran had already taken sides with Palestinians – and pay special attention to its northern neighbor. Iranian policymakers, on the other side, believed that by expecting this, a small state is dictating its will on a big neighbor. On the other hand, although the Islamic Republic of Iran had officially recognized the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Baku had become a member of the United Nations, some Iranian media circles and elites did not like the new country to be called Republic of Azerbaijan and designated it as the country of Aran. They believed that the new name has been given to Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920 with the goal of pursuing final union of two Azeri territories. In addition, since the new government in Azerbaijan was too inclined toward Turkey and the West, the Iranian government directed the bulk of its economic support toward Armenia. In later years, the two countries even accused each other of intervention in their internal affairs. Of course, such recriminations were mostly going on among the media circles and official elites, and were less reflected in government statements. However, they left their negative effect on the trust between the two countries. During recent years, such accusations have even found their ways into the two countries’ security issues.

The complications of this state of distrust are still visible. Since the dominant atmosphere between the two countries was one of distrust, any measure taken by one of them was considered by the other as an outright plot. Global registration by the Republic of Azerbaijan of some cultural relics which were considered as common cultural heritage for both nations was met with pessimism and protestations from certain Iranian circles. So, in practice, instead of being a ground for convergence, the cultural heritage served as a means of divergence between the two nations. On the other hand, some media outlets in the Republic of Azerbaijan have been accusing Iran of ignoring the rights of its Azeri minority. They have gone as far as politicizing a purely environmental issue such as the gradual drying of Urmia Lake in Azeri parts of Iran. The dominance of this atmosphere over media and elite circles in Azerbaijan has been so strong that the emotional conditions arising from it sometimes make officials in each country to take negative positions on the other country in spite of their genuine desire.

Now, following the inauguration of the new Iranian administration and in the course of the past 1.5 years, new dynamism has been witnessed aimed at expansion and deepening of the two countries’ relations. As a result, there have been 20 official meetings between the two countries’ officials at various levels during this period, including four visits between the two countries’ presidents at different places. These are good signs of the dynamic diplomacy that both countries have adopted vis-à-vis each other. Although such measures will be beneficial in erasing the negative impact of past tense relations between Tehran and Baku, it seems that a more important factor is to rectify or modify the atmosphere of distrust that has taken shape among the two countries’ elites and media circles. To achieve this goal, both sides should show strong commitments and take appropriate steps.

Key Words: Iran, Azerbaijan, Social Understanding, Close Relations, Intervention, Atmosphere of Distrust, New Iranian Administration, Vahedi

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*Photo Credit: IRNA

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