Rohani’s Iran and Azerbaijan

Hassan Rohani’s success in the Iranian presidential election has been interpreted by the international media as a notable victory, with some analysts declaring it as a victory of reformists over the conservatives.

Some remain skeptical of Rohani, seeing him as a regime insider who, for more than a decade, served as the head of the Supreme National Security Council, which reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Furthermore, few believe that under his presidency Iran will change its position on the nuclear issue.

The only thing that is clear for now is that the Iranian population is quite happy with the president, whose rhetoric is completely different from that of his predecessor, while the regime is probably happy that the election took place without any domestic upheavals.

However, there are now expectations from the population regarding social and economic issues — and officially Tehran needs to figure out its response to its ongoing foreign policy and security challenges with the US and other Western countries.

Expectations for Rohani are generally high, especially in terms of security and foreign policy issues, and neighboring countries, particularly in the South Caucasus, are watching closely. Any positive or negative developments on the Iranian-US front affect the countries in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan, with its close geographical relationship and strained political ties, is waiting to see what the new president’s approach to bilateral ties will be.

In Azerbaijan, the Iranian presidential election was observed with great interest because the election of a new president will not only affect high-level bilateral relations but also the situation of ethnic Azeris living in Iran, as well as Baku’s official relationship with the US, the EU and Israel.

Though Baku issued its official congratulations to Rohani on his election, many are skeptical for two main reasons: first, Rohani’s personal attitude to Azerbaijan and, second, the longterm tensions between Baku and Tehran.

Regarding the first concern, this dates back to 2001, when on July 23 Azerbaijani research ships and an Iranian gunboat had a small confrontation along their maritime border. This led to a brief escalation of tensions. Just a few days before the incident, Rohani had visited the South Caucasus and on July 20 he gave a press briefing together with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

In the official statement at the briefing, both sides spoke of their hopes for strengthening bilateral ties. Publicly, the Azerbaijani president referred to the close Iranian-Azerbaijani relationship but, behind closed doors, the meeting between Rohani and Aliyev was stormy.

In delivering a letter from the supreme leader, Rohani laid out three conditions for strengthening bilateral ties: closing the Israeli Embassy in Baku, stopping oil exploration in the disputed areas of the Caspian Sea and, finally, postponing a decision on the route of the Azerbaijani oil pipeline to Europe until a meeting between the leaders of the Caspian littoral states scheduled for 2002. In this context, the confrontation in that Caspian Sea can’t be seen as a coincidence.

During his election campaign, Rohani used similar rhetoric, declaring that in order to avoid problems with its Western partners Baku had distanced itself from Iran.

In terms of the second concern, the Iranian-Azerbaijani relationship is not only shaped by the personalities of their presidents but also by Iranian clerics and conservatives and their views on Azerbaijan. In this sense, the new president will not be any different.

After his election, the Iranian Majlis Research Center published a report titled “Challenges and Opportunities ahead of ties between Iran and Azerbaijan” analyzing a description by the Iranian leadership of Azerbaijan as a potential threat, based on: first, Baku’s close ties with Israel; second, its Western integration and secular approach, along with its Pan-Turkism ideas; and third, religious issues, with the claim that Baku is trying to isolate its Islamic community, specifically Shiites, from public life.

In this picture, due to the nature of the Azerbaijani-Iranian bilateral relationship, the change in Iran’s leadership only affects the public rhetoric and not the actual political will in the country. Looking back, there is no clear evidence that problems arose due to the rhetoric used by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the contrary, the main problems as seen by Iranians are linked to religious issues and Azerbaijan’s close cooperation with Israel.

In response to Iran’s antagonism, Azerbaijan brought up the situation of Iranian Azeris — their civil rights, education, etc. These issues were not raised officially but by politicians and activists. Most likely, Rohani — as he promised during his election campaign — will address the educational and cultural problems faced by ethnic Azeris and will then use that as a means to silence Baku’s complaints. In fact, Rohani, as both a pragmatic and religious leader, can be “liberal” when it comes to economic and social issues but is a “realist” when it comes to security and foreign policy challenges.

As sanctions continue to damage Iran’s economy, its leadership must take advantage of any opportunity for positive engagement. In fact, there are a few currently available: One of them is the development of the Shah Deniz gas deposits in Azerbaijan. In fact, on June 3, the US president adopted a new executive order to further tighten US sanctions on Iran as well as lift the sanctions imposed against Iranian companies participating in the project to develop Azerbaijan’s largest gas deposit Shah Deniz.

In the context of the skepticism among some Azerbaijanis towards Rohani, together with the patches of improvement in the bilateral relationship — which the US and Western powers do not oppose — the coming month will see both sides trying to manage the situation. There is no doubt that Rohani’s public statements during this time will significantly impact the trajectory of the relationship.

By Today’s Zaman

 

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