Azerbaijan – Between America and Iran

12 july 2006

Arif Yunusov

Resume: The Iranian issue has divided Azerbaijani society, as shown by frequent public opinion polls. The latest poll showed a fall in the popularity of the United States: only 11 percent placed the U.S. among countries that are the most friendly toward Azerbaijan (compared with 30 percent in 1999).

The crisis situation over Iran’s nuclear program has drawn international attention to its immediate neighbor, Azerbaijan. Iran is connected to this country through the many ethnic Azerbaijanis living on its territory, as well as through a history of difficult relations.

In the past, Azerbaijan and Iran were one state, and for centuries Teheran regarded Azerbaijani land as its own. However, the 1828 Turkmenchay peace treaty between Russia and Persia placed North Azerbaijan (about one-third of all Azerbaijani territory) under the jurisdiction of St. Petersburg.

From then on, the history of the divided people developed along two lines. South Azerbaijanis remained within the Islamic and broader Eastern civilization, while North Azerbaijanis began to join Russian, and through it, European culture. It was in the north that the national consciousness of the Azerbaijani ethnos awoke with the eventual emergence of political parties.

After the disintegration of the Russian Empire in 1918, the local elite declared the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic – the first republic in the Moslem East. Iran refused to recognize the independent state, and in the spring of 1920 Russia, now ruled by a Soviet government, regained control of the region, using a bloody conflict between Baku and Yerevan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory as a pretext. Yet the 23 months of independent existence have left a trace in the nation’s memory – as has the negative role that Russia, Armenia and Iran played in the destiny of the young democratic republic.

After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Soviet troops invaded Iran and throughout the war controlled South Azerbaijan. Moscow planned to annex the occupied territory and in December 1945 played a role in establishing a republic there under the leadership of Seyyed Jafar Pisheveri. His government included many people from Soviet Azerbaijan. Actually, the Soviet Union planned to unite both parts of Azerbaijan under its control. However, after the Soviet army left Iran, its authorities brought down the republic. Thus was missed the chance to restore the integrity of the Azerbaijani people.

Decades later, beginning in the late 1980s, more and more people in North Azerbaijan began to call for the reunification of the Azerbaijani lands. On December 31, 1989, thousands of Azerbaijanis, inspirited by the first possibility in many decades of uniting with fellow Azerbaijanis in Iran, crossed the Aras River, bypassing barriers on the Soviet-Iranian border. Today, this date is officially celebrated as the Day of Solidarity of Azerbaijanis in the whole world.


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence in 1991 of the sovereign Republic of Azerbaijan populated by eight million people brought back a situation in the region similar to that of 1918-1920. Once again a conflict broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, while relations between Baku and Moscow seriously worsened. After Azerbaijan gained independence, its foreign policy acquired a strongly pronounced pro-Western – primarily pro-American – nature. (This policy line, pursued by the Popular Front government led by President Abulfez Elchibey, continued after Heidar Aliyev came to power.)

The changes in the country could not but tell on its relations with Teheran, particularly in view of the fact that the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis who lived in the north of Iran, according to a 1986 census, stood at 11.5 million – more than 25 percent of the entire population of Iran. (In 2006, Iran’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Soleymani, said the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran now exceeds 35 million.) Ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran played a particularly notable role in the Army and government bodies.

Iran tried to channel these developments to its advantage assisting in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. At Iran’s proposal, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in May 1992 in Teheran. However, this first and only attempt of mediation ended in a disaster for Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. Official Baku received assurances from Teheran that Armenia would not start any military operations. However, even before the negotiations were over, Armenians stormed and invaded Shusha, the main stronghold of Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh. This event in many respects became a turning point in the war, and Iran bears full moral responsibility for it.

In 1994, under Washington’s pressure, Baku refused to include Teheran among members of an international consortium for the development of oil and gas fields in the Caspian region. Two years later, almost all Iranian religious, humanitarian and public organizations were banned in the country, while the leaders of the pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan were arrested and convicted of espionage on behalf of Iran. The Azerbaijani diaspora in Iran joined in anti-Iranian activities, raising the issue of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran at all international Azerbaijani congresses held regularly since 1997.

The official status of the Caspian Sea and its energy resources represents yet another stumbling block in relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. In July 2001, the two countries were on the verge of war after Iranian fighter aircraft and ships interfered with the development of oil fields near the Iranian border. In August 2003, Iran accused Baku of militarizing the Caspian Sea. The accusation was provoked by an Azerbaijani-American naval exercise in the Caspian Sea, in which 18 U.S. servicemen and the crews of two Azerbaijani combat helicopters and two patrol boats practiced how to defend oil-and-gas sea platforms from terrorists.

Following the presidential elections of 2003, government power in Azerbaijan was handed over from the ailing President Heidar Aliyev to his son Ilham. The presidential administration of George W. Bush chose to ignore numerous cases of blatant election rigging and reprisals, which accompanied the election campaign, and recognized the official election results. Washington’s stance angered even those forces in Azerbaijan that were particularly pro-Western. Oppositional media outlets carried screaming headlines, such as Oil for Democracy; Farewell, the West! and Short-Sighted Policy of Washington. One of the most radical pro-Western newspapers, Yeni Musavat, published an article headlined If an Election Like That Suits America, Then Long Live Bin Laden?

Amidst the hypocritical position of the West, the Azerbaijani population began to learn news about the situation in their own country from Iranian radio and four Iranian television channels, above all the private TV channel Sahar-2. As a result, pro-Islamic sentiments began to grow fast in the country.


After American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Azerbaijan decided its time had come in the confrontation with Iran, especially after the United States declared Teheran as one of the main threats to international peace. Thus, Americans began to pay more attention to ethnic minorities in Iran, especially to Azerbaijanis.

In 2002, high-ranking American officials received the leader of the South Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, Mahmudali Chohraganli, a professor of Tabriz University who had been expelled from Iran. After the meeting, the politician said in an official statement to the mass media: “The goal of our organization is the creation of a democratic secular state with a federative system in Iran, and South Azerbaijan will receive the highest status of autonomy in it.” After that, Chohraganli said later, negotiations began in the U.S. for the unification of all opposition forces in Iran. The Americans insisted on preserving the territorial integrity of Iran as a secular and democratic state, in which the Azerbaijanis could hope for the creation of an autonomous republic with the capital in Tabriz. On July 2, 2003, Chohraganli told a press conference in Baku that the struggle for “a new life for South Azerbaijanis” had begun and that 18 months later Iran would become a federation.

Washington did not expect any problems in its relations with Baku. However, the situation made it impossible to achieve an unequivocal choice in anyone’s favor. Ilham Aliyev, who took over the country’s helm at the height of the American struggle against terrorism, had to maneuver between Washington, Teheran and Moscow. Additionally, Azerbaijani society, stung by Washington’s reaction to the results of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, was no longer unanimous toward the deployment of American military bases in the country. Sensing the change in public sentiment, Aliyev said in the spring of 2004 that Azerbaijan should not rush in its decision to join NATO.

High-ranking officials from the Pentagon and the Department of State made visits to Baku. In March 2004, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiyev paid a visit to Washington at the personal invitation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The parties discussed the deployment of American troops in Azerbaijan and other military-technical issues related to the reconstruction and modernization of military airfields.

In the autumn of the same year, there surfaced reports about a possible U.S. attack against Iran, which sparked heated debates in Azerbaijan. Pro-Western politicians in the country pinned much hope on that hypothetical attack since they believed it could help reunite North and South Azerbaijan. However, a majority of local analysts warned that a deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations might have very negative consequences for Azerbaijan. Teheran added fuel to the tensions by declaring it might deliver a preventive strike against Azerbaijan if the latter was used by American troops as a bridgehead into Iran.

In November 2004, Azerbaijani mass media reported that over 50 U.S. servicemen had arrived as “advisers” to an airforce base near the Chukhanly village in the Salyan Region, not far from the Iranian border. Then followed reports that airfields in Nakhichevan and near the villages of Chukhanly and Nasosny (north of Baku), as well as a military proving ground at Garaeibat, had been completely modernized and met NATO standards. At least seven airfields were practically ready for delivering air strikes against Iran. Analysts pointed out that the military base at Chukhanly had an outlet to the Caspian Sea, and that Americans had begun the modernization of Azerbaijan’s Navy. The threat of a U.S. attack against Iran was beginning to look serious, especially after President George Bush hinted at such a possibility on the eve of his second inauguration.

These developments drastically changed Iran’s policy. In November 2004, after a decade of vain efforts by Baku, Iran gave the green light to the opening of a general consulate of Azerbaijan in Tabriz. In December, a special envoy of the Iranian president for Caspian Sea issues, Mehdi Safari, Health Minister Masoud Pezeshkian, Security Minister Ali Yunesi, and Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani visited Baku. In order not to give cause to Azerbaijan for turning into a bridgehead for American intervention, Iran sought to solve all outstanding problems between the two parties.

The “Iranian season” was crowned by an official visit to Teheran by President Ilham Aliyev on January 24-26, 2005. The parties signed nine documents on cooperation in various social and economic spheres, simplified procedures for crossing their mutual border by citizens of the two countries, and declared plans to open a Baku-Tabriz air route in the near future. Also, Iran said it would give Azerbaijan $1 million in aid for the development of the Azerbaijani economy. Yet the main result of the negotiations was that Iran publicly declared its support for Baku’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, condemned aggression on the part of Armenia and spoke in favor of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Another important result was the serious concessions that then President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami made on the Caspian Sea status issue with Baku.

In exchange, Teheran asked for guarantees that Azerbaijan would not allow its territory to be used by the United States for preparing and launching military operations against Iran. It also requested that Baku serve as an intermediary in settling its disagreements with the U.S. Aliyev avoided giving a direct answer but emphasized that his country advocated a peaceful solution to all regional conflicts and would not allow the deployment of foreign troops on its territory.


Aliyev’s visit to Teheran and the noticeable warming in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations caused irritation in the U.S. After the spring of 2005, Americans sharply stepped up contacts with the Azerbaijani opposition, and a sense of an “orange” revolution was in the air, especially considering parliamentary elections scheduled for the autumn of the same year. In early April, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld made a sudden visit to Baku where he planned to meet with President Aliyev. What happened next was like developments in a cheap detective story: hours before Rumsfeld arrived in Baku, Aliyev made an “urgent” departure for Pakistan. Rumsfeld learned about this at the Baku airport and immediately left for Pakistan as well. Despite the absence of official information about their meeting, sources close to the government said that the parties did speak about American military presence.

Immediately after that, the Azerbaijani political circles began to discuss the imminent appearance of NATO bases in the country. Moreover, according to reports from abroad, some high-ranking officials in Washington, including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General James Jones, spoke about the emergence of a full-scale NATO base on Azerbaijani territory as a decided issue.

Starting from the middle of 2005, in view of the approaching elections, the issue of military bases fell into the background, although, according to some sources, secret negotiations between Baku and Washington continued. Since the Azerbaijani president did not enjoy unconditional public support, nor in his own administration – especially among members of his father’s former team – the Americans’ tone gradually changed to harsher criticism. Angered by Washington’s reluctance to invite him for a personal meeting with President George Bush, Ilham Aliyev delayed a decision on the issue of an American military presence.

Suddenly, new developments in Uzbekistan, which were followed by the strict demand by Uzbek President Islam Karimov that the U.S. withdraw its troops from the country, made Washington change its plans. The deployment of American bases in Azerbaijan would be the most obvious solution to this problem. However, Baku continued to evade a final answer.

In early August 2005, the U.S. invited Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, Elmar Mamedyarov, for a visit. According to information from opposition circles, during that meeting the American side – in the form of an ultimatum – raised the issue of deploying its military bases and asked the Azerbaijani side to inform it of its decision before August 20 – the date of a planned visit to Baku by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The meeting would take place only if Washington received a positive answer.

Contrary to expectations, Rumsfeld never arrived in Baku. On August 24, Aliyev told journalists that Azerbaijan was not conducting any negotiations for the deployment of American bases in the country. The U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Reno Harnish, reacted by warning that in case the results of the parliamentary elections were rigged, the United States and the West as a whole would take a much tougher position. Baku regarded this statement as an undisguised threat.

In reply, Aliyev made a series of friendly gestures toward Russia. The Lider TV channel, which belongs to the Azerbaijani president, lashed out at “the U.S. policy of neo-colonialism in the region.” There appeared publications in the mass media close to the government, calling into question the prospects for the deployment of U.S. and NATO bases in Azerbaijan. In late August, the Ray (Opinion) sociological center conducted a poll in 33 towns across the country, which revealed that 54 percent of the respondents were opposed to U.S. bases, while only about 21 percent did not object to their deployment. Asked how they would react to Azerbaijan’s participation in a conflict between the United States and Iran, a majority of the respondents (58 percent) said they would not support it, and only 11 percent gave a positive answer.

In September 2005, the U.S. embassy softened the tone of its statements that urged Azerbaijan to carry out democratic reforms. On September 20, the Defense Minister of Azerbaijan, Safar Abiyev, made an urgent visit to Stuttgart, Germany at the invitation of General Charles Wald, Deputy Commander at the Headquarters of U.S. European Command. The negotiations in Germany focused on two issues: the deployment of American troops and the constructions of several defense facilities in Azerbaijan. In order to avoid accusations from Russia and anti-American forces in Azerbaijan, U.S. military bases were defined as temporarily deployed mobile forces, whose presence, however, would be long-term and would become a factor in strengthening U.S. military control over energy resources of the Caspian Sea.

Official Baku denied all reports about the negotiations. But suddenly, a “bomb” exploded: on September 21, Reno Harnish told journalists about the construction of two radar stations – one at Astara near the border with Iran, and the other near the border with Russia, in the Caucasian Mountains, not far from the town of Hyzy. The ambassador said the construction was part of the Pentagon’s plan for defending the Caspian Sea resources.

The ambassador’s statement shocked the press service of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense. At first, it declined to comment on the news, but later the press service chief declared: “The Ministry of Defense has no information about the construction of two radar stations with the assistance of the U.S.” The Foreign Ministry hurried to deny the reports as well.

Naturally, no one believed those statements. Moreover, whereas the country did gain from the modernization of seven airfields, the construction of two radar stations at once seemed pointless to many – all the more so considering Russia’s Daryal radar station in Gabala. Thus, Azerbaijan would have three such facilities, owned by two foreign states. Of the two U.S. radar stations, one would be directed against Russia, the other against Iran.

The United States realized that it would not achieve its goals in Azerbaijan until the Nagorno-Karabakh problem was solved. Therefore, in early 2006, American diplomacy stepped up its efforts in this field and offered Baku a new plan: Armenians must withdraw from six regions (according to a 5+1 formula) on condition that Azerbaijan agreed to hold a referendum on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in 10 to 15 years.

The Azerbaijani public interpreted this proposal as an intention to annex part of the country’s territory for the sake of U.S. strategic interests, as the plan was actually based on the principle “occupied lands in exchange for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence.” Aliyev understood perfectly well that any concessions on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue might backfire on him. It is little wonder, then, that the February 2006 meeting between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Rambouillet Castle near Paris ended in complete failure.

Having recovered from the shock, the U.S. returned to this issue, doing its best to have Aliyev agree to the proposed plan for settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Additionally, Washington demanded that Baku join a planned anti-Iranian coalition. The Americans hinted that otherwise they would use various kinds of levers to exert pressure on Azerbaijan: for example, they would raise the issue of human rights and democracy in the country. The authorities of Azerbaijan found themselves in a very difficult position. Aliyev partly admitted as much when he said in public: “We must be able to withstand pressure on our country on all sides.”

However, the crisis over Iran grew increasingly acute – and, accordingly, so did the importance of Azerbaijan. A failure to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could thwart U.S. plans with regard to Iran. So in late April, the American administration, quite unexpectedly, invited Aliyev to visit the U.S. – something that Aliyev had been unsuccessfully striving for since his first days in power. This news alarmed the authorities of Iran, and on the eve of Aliyev’s departure, Iran’s Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar paid an urgent visit to Baku. Then, several days after Aliyev’s return to Baku, he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During those meetings, the Iranian party unequivocally warned the president of Azerbaijan about the actions that would be taken against his country if Americans were allowed to use Azerbaijani territory.

The president of Azerbaijan found himself between a rock and a hard place. He himself admitted that, and after the negotiations with George Bush he said that Baku continued to advocate a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis. He repeated this during his negotiations and meetings with the Iranian officials. Nevertheless, many analysts in Azerbaijan believed that, most likely, Aliyev had given his consent to the unofficial use of Azerbaijani territory by the Americans.


The situation in the region grew even more complicated after ethnic Azerbaijanis held protests in Iran in May. The demonstrations showed the strength and growth of separatist sentiments among local Azerbaijanis, as well as the presence of really serious problems among them. The protests were provoked by the publication of cartoons in the government-controlled newspaper Iran on May 12, which were offensive to Azerbaijanis. A few days later, almost the whole of North Iran was swept by protests of indignant Azerbaijanis. The protests were particularly large in the unofficial capital of South Azerbaijan, Tabriz. The wave of popular indignation was so strong that the majority of Persians that lived in Azerbaijani-speaking areas of North Iran, especially civil servants, chose to immediately leave the region, which paralyzed for some time many institutions.

The authorities of Iran quickly realized the danger stemming from this situation and apologized to the Azerbaijanis, simultaneously arresting the newspaper’s editor and the author of the cartoons. At the same time, President Ahmadinejad announced that “foreign, above all American and Israeli, special services were behind the disorders in South Azerbaijan.” Turkey, too, aroused Iran’s suspicions. Simultaneously, Iranian authorities declared that the instigators of the protests included the leader of the South Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, Mahmudali Chohraganli. During the protests in Tabriz and other cities in the north of Iran many demonstrators chanted his name.

However, moves by Teheran failed to stop the protests, which in some areas outgrew into inter-ethnic confrontation. In late May, South Azerbaijanis began to wave flags of independent North Azerbaijan. These events did not leave indifferent the population of North Azerbaijan. Rallies of protest were held one after another outside the Iranian embassy in Baku. Realizing that the situation was getting out of control, the Iranian authorities ordered the Army and other security agencies to suppress the protests. In late May, almost 50 protesters were reported killed and more than 1,000 injured. The number of arrested people reached 11,000.

Characteristically, the authorities of Azerbaijan kept pretending that the developments in Iran were not their concern and were solely an internal affair of that state. Moreover, when reports about the brutal massacre of Azerbaijanis in Iran appeared in Baku, President Ilham Aliyev declared again, “Azerbaijan will not support a military action against Iran.” Simultaneously, the U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan denied American involvement in those events. Azerbaijanis did not overlook the fact that the protests in Iran were not covered by the mass media in many countries in the West, as well as in Russia. The contrast was especially striking against the coverage of recent events in France, when people of non-French origin demanded respect for their civil rights.

Occasional reports in the Western press about the developments in Iran were brief and presented those events only as a reaction to the cartoon scandal.
In early June, it became clear that the Iranian authorities succeeded in suppressing the protests by the ethnic Azerbaijanis. Then came a detective story involving Mahmudali Chohraganli, which added to the pessimism among the leaders of South Azerbaijanis, as well as in the North: on June 5, Chohraganli left the United States, where he had lived for several years, for Turkey in order to be closer to the protesters in Iran. However, on June 9, the Turkish authorities unexpectedly arrested him – only to deport him to Azerbaijan. The authorities explained their actions by the threat of a terrorist act that Iranian extremists allegedly planned to commit against Chohraganli. On arriving in Baku, Chohraganli had another unpleasant surprise in store for him: he was detained again by law enforcement bodies, which, without taking the trouble of giving any explanations, simply put the visitor on a plane leaving for Dubai, from where he was sent to the U.S. These events caused heated debates in Turkish and, especially, Azerbaijani societies, and stirred accusations against the local authorities that chose not to have problems with Iran.


The last few years have seen a sharp increase in the number of Iranian citizens buying real estate in Baku. This tendency resulted in an almost 30-percent rise in the prices of apartments and other real estate in the spring of 2006, as well as the higher cost of building materials. In February 2006, Iran’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Soleymani, said with irritation: “We will repulse aggressors, while the movement of 40,000 to 50,000 of our citizens to Azerbaijan will not change anything.” But the Azerbaijanis realize perfectly well that what is happening is actually migration, and the urgent purchasing of real estate in Azerbaijan is obviously connected with an impending war – especially as most of the “newcomers” are not Azerbaijanis but Iranians, including relatives of the ruling circles of Iran.

The Iranian issue has divided Azerbaijani society, as shown by frequent public opinion polls. For example, the Center for Economic and Political Studies (FAR CENTRE), with the help of the American National Endowment for Democracy, conducted a poll in April and May in 11 cities in Azerbaijan to find out what people thought of the crisis over Iran. The poll showed that 34 percent of the respondents supported Iran in the international conflict over its nuclear program, while only 20 percent supported the United States and the West as a whole. Only 9 percent said they expected benefits for Azerbaijan in case of a military operation against Iran, while 7 percent expressed the hope that South and North Azerbaijan would unite. Simultaneously, the poll showed a fall in the popularity of the United States: only 11 percent placed the U.S. among countries that are the most friendly toward Azerbaijan (compared with 30 percent in 1999).

Nationalist movements, which have become more active of late, do not hide their satisfaction with the approaching war. They hope that in case of Iran’s breakup, the United States will support the independence of South Azerbaijan, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has allegedly promised. The Popular Front and other pro-Western organizations held a round-table meeting in March in Baku to discuss the situation concerning Iran. All the speakers at the meeting emphasized that a war against Iran was inevitable and that Azerbaijanis must be ready to use the chance of re-uniting into a single state.

However, the majority of the population and experts have a different opinion. Many fear that, once combat actions begin, hundreds of thousands of Iranian refugees will flood Azerbaijan, and this will provoke further growth in the price of real estate, foodstuffs and other consumer goods. At the same time, there will be a growth of social tensions and crime. Simultaneously, the influence of Islam will increase as well, considering the high number of the faithful throughout the Iranian population.

The opponents of war warn that it would bring about an ecological disaster in Azerbaijan as extensive spills of oil and oil products caused by bombings would pollute water supply sources and bio-resources of the Caspian Sea. Furthermore, the use of modern weapons would sharply aggravate the seismic situation, especially around the capital. Supporters of Azerbaijan’s integration into Western structures fear that, if Iran fulfills its promise and starts bombing residential quarters in Baku, there would be numerous victims among the civilian population, and anti-American sentiments in society would grow.

Finally, a protracted war would further destabilize the situation in the region, while the United States would hardly allow the creation of a unified Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, strong disillusionment with Washington’s policy could facilitate the propagation of pro-Islamic sentiments and bring radical forces to power in Azerbaijan.

Aware of the grave consequences that an American attack against Iran may have, especially considering the use of Azerbaijani territory by the U.S., an overwhelming majority of Azerbaijan’s population realizes the bitter truth that their country will hardly avoid involvement of some kind in an American-Iranian crisis.

Last updated 12 july 2006, 13:32

} Page 1 of 5