A recent border dispute in the Caspian Sea has refocused attention on the poor state of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. But Tehran's unexpected show of force against its northern neighbor could also be a side effect of Washington's efforts to convince countries, including Azerbaijan, to limit ties with Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch takes a closer look at the issue of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations.
Prague, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- From Iran's perspective, of the newly independent states to emerge after the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago, it's been Azerbaijan that has presented the greatest problems.
The issue of who owns the resources of the Caspian Sea, which both countries border, is the most visible but by no means the only problem dividing the two neighbors.
Tensions came to the surface two weeks ago (23 July), when an Iranian warship allegedly violated Azerbaijani territorial waters and threatened to fire on an oil exploration vessel operated by the oil company BP-Amoco. The ship, conducting research about 150 km southeast of the port of Baku, had to return to shore.
The incident took place near the Alov deposit (Alborz in Persian) -- an offshore oil field that both countries claim.
Following the incident, Iranian aircrafts reportedly violated Azerbaijani airspace on three occasions. Tehran denied any infringement of Azerbaijan's territory.
The alleged border incidents triggered a diplomatic row. Both countries traded protest notes and Iran recalled its ambassador to Baku for consultations. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is scheduled to visit Tehran later this month, and the incidents are expected to dominate talks.
This week, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that all other Caspian border states -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan -- should refrain from developing offshore oil deposits until they reach agreement on dividing the sea's resources.
The question of who controls the rights to the resources in the Caspian seabed came to a head in 1994, when Russia raised the issue in a bid to prevent Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics from cooperating with Western oil companies. Since then, each of the five Caspian border states are seeking to maximize their share of the immense oil and mineral wealth believed to lie below the sea.
Since the 23 July incident, Baku and Tehran have each warned the other that they would protect what they said were their "legitimate rights" over the disputed oil field, raising concern the dispute could degenerate into something more serious.
Hard-liners on both sides of the border have urged their respective governments not to make any compromise over the Caspian issue.
In a further escalation of rhetoric, Iran's Expediency Council secretary and former Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezai recently recalled that "Azerbaijan belonged to Iran 150 years ago." He warned Baku that Tehran could well lay claim to its tiny northern neighbor.
Rezai's comments were picked up by several Tehran newspapers and were noticed in Baku. The United Azerbaijan Association -- which advocates reunification of Azeris living on both sides of the Araxes River that separates the two countries -- staged protests outside the Iranian Embassy.
Mohammad Reza Jalili is an Iran expert at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute for International Studies. Jalili told RFE/RL that, in his view, the border incidents might have been initiated by those in Iran who disapprove of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's recent attempts to ease tensions with Baku. Among them, he said, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the armed forces.
But Jalili said one should not pay too much attention to Iranian officials who like to remind Azerbaijanis that their country was once part of the Persian empire:
"I do not think the Iranians have any territorial claims on former Soviet Azerbaijan. Rather, my impression is that when they back such claims that Azerbaijan should be reintegrated into the 'Iranian motherland,' it is a way to thumb their nose at those who, in Baku, advocate the creation of a Greater Azerbaijan. It is part of a verbal sparring match that is taking place under the present rivalry between Tehran and Baku."
Ethnic Azeris comprise about a third of Iran's 60 million people, and fear in Tehran that the country's northernmost provinces could secede are never far from the surface.
That fear is fed by relatively recent historical events. In 1945, ethnic Azeris in Iran managed to set up a short-lived Azeri Republic in Tabriz with the backing of the Soviet Union.
Iran's concerns were heightened when Azerbaijan Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey became president in 1992. During his short time in office, Elchibey conducted a resolutely pro-Turkish, anti-Iranian policy that turned Tehran's wariness toward Azerbaijan into open enmity.
After taking over from Elchibey in 1993, current President Aliyev has managed to smooth over ties with Iran. Yet, as the recent upsurge in tension shows, bilateral relations remain far from ideal.
Azerbaijan has in the past accused Iran of conducting intelligence activities on its territory and of harboring members of the officially defunct Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia, or ASALA.
Secular Azerbaijan, for its part, fears that Iranian religious clerics might have a destabilizing influence on its southernmost areas.
Sanobar Shermatova is an Azerbaijan expert with the Moscow weekly "Moskovskie Novosti" ("Moscow News"). She tells RFE/RL that despite his mistrust of Iran, Aliyev will do anything to prevent a further deterioration in ties:
"Aliyev will do everything possible to improve relations with Iran. It is very important for him at the moment. He has to do so. Why? Because if one threat should hang over Azerbaijan after he dies, it will come from Russia and Iran."
Experts say the 78-year-old Aliyev is genuinely committed to settling a 13-year-old territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in order to leave his successor a state at peace with its neighbors. Armenia is backed economically by Iran and militarily by Russia.
Aliyev has not yet named a successor, although his son Ilham is seen as a likely candidate.
Shermatova says relations between Azerbaijan and Russia have improved slightly of late, but that Iran that remains a thorn in Aliev's side:
"All sorts of steps are being taken toward Iran because Aliyev wants to ensure safety for his successor, for his son. Iran is, in fact, a country he is afraid of."
Ahead of his upcoming visit to Tehran, Aliyev appears to be making an effort to improve relations.
Speaking in Baku recently after returning from a CIS summit, Aliyev mocked former President Elchibey's calls for a "Greater Azerbaijan" that would include Azeri-speaking areas in northern Iran.
He also ordered the creation of a government commission to cooperate with Iran on economic, trade, and humanitarian issues.
But it is not clear how far Aliyev can really go in improving ties.
Experts say a U.S. policy of containing Iran remains a major obstacle to any significant improvement in bilateral relations.
Last month, the U.S. Congress voted to extend for five years a law that would penalize non-American companies that invest more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy sector. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act was first introduced in 1996 to indirectly punish countries the U.S. says sponsor terrorism. U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to endorse the five-year extension soon.
Washington is strongly opposed to any regional oil project involving Iran and is committed to preventing any oil from Azerbaijan from crossing the Islamic Republic.
In 1994 Aliyev offered Tehran a stake in a multibillion dollar international project to develop oil fields in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian. He eventually yielded to U.S. pressure and excluded Iran from the deal.
Since then Iran has accused Baku of being a tool of Washington and its regional allies Turkey and Israel.
Shermatova says Azerbaijan's decision to evict Iran from the international oil consortium marked a turning point in bilateral relations:
"If Azerbaijan had managed to build up economic ties with Iran, many political problems would have been settled by now; many problems, not all problems, of course. Some problems would have remained. But, in any case, it would have helped iron out a great many conflicts."
Jalili says Iran's strategy in the long run is to regain the status of a regional power it had before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"The problem is that Iran is quite isolated on the international arena. This is first of all due to its bad relations with the United States. But as soon as Tehran and Washington normalize relations, Iran will find itself with new opportunities to realize its geopolitical ambitions to the north."
Jalili says the latest dispute between Baku and Tehran reflects the growing impatience of Iranian leaders, who would like to see their country participate actively in developing the Caspian.
He also sees the incidents as a warning sign by Iran to its neighbors not to squeeze it out further from the region.