BACKGROUND: Since restoring its sovereignty, Azerbaijan has been one of the key elements in the context of the U.S.’s policy of containing Iran’s regional influence. During Azerbaijan’s first years of independence, Iran sought to extend its influence over Azerbaijan, mainly through promoting radical Shiism. According to scholar Farideh Heyat, this strategy had two main components. On the one hand, it contained “massive and much publicized assistance to Azerbaijani refugees, something that attracted sympathy and support. And on the other, Iran through its seminaries in Qom trained a new generation of Azerbaijani Shiite clerics, something that also promoted an Iranian point of view.”
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1990s Azerbaijan's government had started taking measures to restrict Iranian influence. Moreover, in 2001 the State Committee for work with religious organizations was established with the purpose of monitoring and diminishing the import of religious literature. In addition, legislative requirements for registering religious groups with the above-mentioned state body were also introduced.
Since the very start of Azerbaijan’s independence, Iran has for several reasons been a complicated neighbor. Iran has established economic contacts with Armenia in light of its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and it has "exported" its religious ideology in order to influence Azerbaijan’s population, a majority of which are Shia Muslims. Iran also possesses the ability to, in case of domestic upheavals in Azerbaijan, influence the country's southern regions populated by the Talysh, an ethnic minority speaking an Iranian language and having cultural ties with Iran. In 1993, during a serious deterioration of the domestic situation in Azerbaijan, the Talysh movement declared an Autonomous Republic, the leaders of which were jailed after Heydar Aliyev’s ascent to power.
Azerbaijan’s close economic and military ties with Israel and the U.S. have also been a complicating factor, as have contradictions between the two countries over the status of the Caspian Sea.
Iran is still one of the key reasons for Azerbaijan’s geopolitical relevance. The very fact that Azerbaijan borders Iran has significantly added to the special importance to Azerbaijan. This fact, to a certain extent, allows Azerbaijan's ruling elite to justify serious drawbacks in its human rights, democratization and corruption records, and is a counter-argument to Western criticism regarding these systemic shortcomings.
IMPLICATIONS: There are differing estimates concerning the possible consequences for Azerbaijan of the ongoing U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Of course, the rapprochement should not be overestimated, since it is a complex issue and might turn out to be a long process exposed not only to the impact of domestic Iranian dynamics, but also to congressional opposition in the U.S. and domestic processes in certain states of the region, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Russia. In addition, regional dynamics including the Sunni-Shia tensions in the Middle East, the Syrian crisis, Russia's increased activity in post-Soviet Eurasia, unpredictable developments in Central Asia after the U.S. military withdrawal, the growth of Chinese influence, and the threat posed by radical Islam, testify to the necessity of even distribution of U.S. attention and priorities in this broad and ever volatile region, making it imperative for the U.S. to avoid “putting all eggs in one basket."
Assuming that the ongoing rapprochement will continue, Azerbaijan could face important consequences of further deepened relations between the U.S. and Iran, which would likely weaken Azerbaijan's international position. In particular, a future growth of economic ties between Iran and Western democracies; an increase in Iran's export of hydrocarbons and a contingent decrease of world oil prices on which Azerbaijan's economy significantly depends; and the workable establishment of Iran as a key transportation hub in broad Eurasian context, would all contribute to diminishing Azerbaijan's geopolitical importance.
Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that a key goal of the U.S. has since the early 1990s been to promote diversification of Europe’s natural gas supplies, especially developing an alternative to Russian natural gas. Recent dynamics around the Shah Deniz gas field and the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, presupposing transportation of Azerbaijani gas through a network of three new pipelines via Georgia, Greece, and under the Adriatic Sea to Italy, indicate that even in case of success in U.S.-Iran negotiations Azerbaijan will in the nearest future continue to play an important role in the context European energy security.
Moreover, the deep existing contradictions between the Iranian regime and the U.S. should not be underestimated. A univocal and irreversible reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. is hardly in the cards as long as the current Iranian regime stays in power, though tactical advances in a rapprochement might be expected.
In a short-term perspective, Azerbaijan will likely retain its geopolitical position in light of the need to diversify European energy supplies. Yet, if Iran succeeds in broadening its export of hydrocarbons and promoting its transportation potential, Azerbaijan’s importance for the U.S. and Europe will be significantly diminished in the mid- to long-term perspective.
The U.S.-Iran rapprochement will likely contribute to a re-estimation of current regional geopolitical realities by Azerbaijani decision-makers, some of whom appear to have become overly optimistic in the context of the country’s significant economic growth and relative economic independence in the last several years.
As Murad Ismaylov points out: "with multi-billion dollar oil revenues flooding the Azerbaijani economy, Baku has gone through a period of exceptionally strong GDP growth, a fact that immeasurably boosted the country’s economy, raised the level of its self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and, consequently, has given Baku the self-confidence that it can make its own way..." In this context, a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran will likely have a sobering effect on the Azerbaijani ruling elite. A decrease in exports and transportation revenues in the mid- to long-term perspective could impact Azerbaijan’s economic and political stability and become an impetus for local social unrest, especially in light of Russia's pressure from the north, Turkey's domestic developments and ongoing instability in the Middle East.
CONCLUSIONS: Irrespective of Azerbaijan, even a success in the negotiations with the current Iranian regime is unlikely to contribute to an “Iranian drift” in U.S. foreign policy in the region. At the same time, rapprochement with Iran could become quite advantageous for the U.S. in terms of strengthening its positions in Eurasia. This will be an additional justification for a balance-of-power strategy, within which such regional actors as secular (Sunni) Turkey, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shia Iran, Israel and Russia, among others, will be counter-deterring each other, thus directly or indirectly favoring the regional strategy of the U.S..
AUTHOR'S BIO: Farhad Aliyev, Ph.D., is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.