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Iran/Azerbaijan: Tehran Gears Up For Aliev's Long-Awaited Visit

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is expected this weekend in Iran for talks that Tehran is presenting as "the beginning of a new stage" in bilateral relations. Although both sides are due to sign a string of bilateral agreements, political analysts and media in Baku believe the long-delayed visit is unlikely to yield substantial results on the major disputes that separate the two countries.

Prague, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev starts a long-awaited three-day visit to Iran tomorrow aimed at easing tensions between the two neighbors.

Aliyev is expected to hold talks on regional and bilateral issues with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. He is also due to meet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The sides are expected to sign no fewer than 12 bilateral agreements, including a joint political statement and a new friendship-and-cooperation treaty. Azerbaijan and Iran have been linked by a friendship pact since 1994, but Aliyev has reportedly been pressing for a stronger treaty.

Azerbaijan's pro-government "525 gazet" daily yesterday quoted Aliev's office as saying that 11 agreements were ready for signing -- including the friendship treaty -- and that experts are still working to finalize a document pertaining to customs taxes.

In remarks published yesterday in a number of Azerbaijani media outlets, the press officer of the Iranian embassy in Azerbaijan, Ezzatollah Jalali, said Tehran views the forthcoming talks as "the beginning of a new stage" in bilateral relations.

The date and details of Aliev's visit were made public only on 14 May, and the announcement created some surprise in Baku.

Former presidential adviser Rasim Musabekov, who works as an independent political analyst, told RFE/RL that the timing of the visit remains a mystery to many in the Azerbaijani capital.

"It is difficult to say on whose initiative this visit is taking place, because it has been postponed six or seven times since 1999. Is it Iran that insisted that the visit no longer be delayed? That is possible. Or is it Aliyev who made Iran understand that the meeting should take place now, and precisely now? It is difficult to say. But, in any case, news that the visit will start on 18 May sounded like a surprise," Musabekov said.

Aliev's visit takes place three weeks after the Azerbaijani leader and his Iranian counterpart met on the sidelines of a Caspian summit held in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.

The question of dividing the Caspian Sea has been contentious since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in the emergence of four new countries on its shores: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. The Caspian is believed to contain the world's third-largest crude-oil reserves.

Talks among the five Caspian states have dragged on for years without a settlement, preventing the development of the sea's natural resources. The major stumbling block has been how to fairly apportion rights over the seabed, where the oil is located.

Iran, which has the smallest shoreline, is nonetheless seeking a minimum 20 percent share of the sea bottom for itself. By contrast, the four other Caspian states insist on a dividing scheme that would leave Iran with a roughly 13 percent stake of the seabed.

In Ashgabat on 23-24 April, leaders of all five countries failed to reach an agreement, and some participants blamed Iran for sticking to its line.

On 15 May, Tehran protested a deal signed two days before between Russia and Kazakhstan to divide up the northern part of the sea, reiterating that such bilateral accords could not be considered legal in the absence of a comprehensive agreement on the status of the Caspian. Iran's Foreign Ministry also said the signing of such documents could only delay talks among the five coastal states for a common accord.

Yet, Aliyev said yesterday that Russia will sign a maritime border agreement with Azerbaijan next month, which will be similar to the one it had signed with Kazakhstan.

Many in Baku consider Iran's tough stance on the Caspian as an attempt to prevent Azerbaijan from further developing its ties with American oil majors seeking to develop offshore oil fields.

"Iran fiercely opposes close cooperation between Azerbaijan and the West, and this is a stumbling block in relations between the two countries," the Baku-based "Zerkalo" newspaper commented on its website yesterday, adding: "To a certain extent, one can understand Iran. Its interests have been ignored on a number of regional projects, automatically prompting Tehran to adopt an anti-Azerbaijani position."

In July last year, an Iranian warship allegedly violated Azerbaijani territorial waters, forcing a Western oil-exploration vessel to return to shore. The incident -- which took place near an oil deposit that both Tehran and Baku claim -- sparked a diplomatic row between the two capitals and prompted Aliyev to cancel a planned visit to Iran.

Given the present state of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations, analysts in Baku caution against high expectations regarding Aliev's trip to Tehran. Yesterday, "525 Gazet" quoted Lala Shovket, the chairwoman of Azerbaijan's opposition Liberal Party, as saying that Aliev's trip is unlikely to yield substantial results with regard to such major issues as maritime borders.

Musabekov, too, doubts the visit will end with Aliyev and Khatami attaining a breakthrough on all major bilateral disputes.

"I do not expect this visit to solve those serious problems that exist between Azerbaijan and Iran. In any case, the atmosphere that prevails on the eve of the meetings, the unconstructive position displayed in Ashgabat by Iran regarding the division of the Caspian Sea, [Tehran's] perpetual reprimands on whom Azerbaijan should or should not have relations with, its constant opposition to Azerbaijan's collaboration with Western oil majors -- all this indicates that, at least, the backdrop of this visit is unfavorable," Musabekov said.

If the question of who owns the resources of the Caspian Sea is the most visible problem dividing Iran and Azerbaijan, it is by no means the only one that exists between the two neighbors.

The "Zerkalo" daily said yesterday the insistence of certain Azerbaijani opposition parties to have NATO military bases deployed in the country might have added fuel to Tehran's discontent with Baku.

Relations between Tehran and Washington -- which sees Azerbaijan as part of its South Caucasus security system that also includes Georgia and Turkey -- have substantially deteriorated since U.S. President George W. Bush described Iran in his state-of-the-nation address on 29 January as part of an "axis of evil" that allegedly sponsors terrorism and seeks to produce weapons of mass destruction.

In a further attempt to isolate Tehran, the U.S. yesterday imposed sanctions on eight Chinese, two Moldovan, and two Armenian companies that reportedly transferred sensitive weapons technologies and equipment to Iran.

Defense ties between Iran and Armenia -- made official by a bilateral agreement signed on 5 March -- have been a major concern for Baku. Despite a 1994 cease-fire agreement, Azerbaijan remains formally at war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Ethnic Armenian troops occupy a large part of Azerbaijan's territory and, despite mediation offered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, both sides have so far failed to settle their dispute.

Since 1991, Baku and Tehran have also been at odds over the fate of Iran's Turkic-speaking minority.

Ethnic Azerbaijanis comprise about one-third of Iran's 60 million-strong population and fears in Tehran that Baku could prompt the country's northernmost provinces to secede are never far from the surface. In Baku, officials and analysts claim these concerns, which they describe as unfounded, have prompted Tehran to freeze negotiations over the opening of an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz, a northern Iranian city with a mostly Turkic-speaking population.

Baku regularly accuses Tehran of conducting intelligence activities on its territory and of harboring members of the officially defunct Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia.

Although both countries share the same Shiia Muslim faith, secular Azerbaijan also suspects Iran's hard-line religious clerics of nurturing plans to destabilize its southern areas by spreading radical Islamic views.

"One could compare the problems that exist between Azerbaijan and Iran to a snowball. The longer a snowball rolls, the bigger it becomes, and there is no end to this process," "Zerkalo" wrote yesterday, adding that the bilateral agreements Aliyev will sign in Tehran "will unlikely remove the political tension between the two countries."

Yet, to Musabekov, geographical proximity forces Azerbaijan and Iran to sit at the negotiating table. "Iran and Azerbaijan are neighbors, and there is nothing one can do about that. Since there are no positive developments toward the settlement of the problems that exist between our two countries, we need to discuss, listen to each other and try -- if not to find a compromise -- at least to move in a direction that would bring us closer to a compromise," Musabekov said.