Ülviye FİLİYEVA ERKEÇ
There has been tension between Azerbaijan and Iran for days. The crisis, which occurred after the emergence of Iranian trucks carrying logistics materials to the Armenian forces in the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh, could not be solved until today. The Azerbaijani side, which had previously detained some of the Iranian truck drivers, also announced that it would not allow the trucks to cross the border. While the anxious wait was continuing in the region where long truck queues had been formed, on October 20, 2020, after the consultations with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the importance of entering the Republic of Azerbaijan only through the official customs gates of the country was emphasized in the statement published by the Roads and Transport Organization of the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Development.
In the published statement, it is indicated that the illegal entry of foreign citizens into the territory of Azerbaijan is considered a violation of the borders of this country. For this reason, Iranian citizens and drivers are warned not to enter the Lachin corridor of Azerbaijan and Karabakh, where Russian peacekeepers are currently temporarily deployed, to avoid the negative consequences of this step and due to sensitivity. Additionally, they are also strongly recommended to respect the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In addition, it is emphasized in the statement that international transportation and cargo companies are prohibited from signing any trade agreement with the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh region, issuing documents related to the transportation of goods, and refrain from sending various goods to the aforementioned region.
In this context, The International Asia Today presents the views of the former Ambassador of Iran to Azerbaijan, Mr. Afshar Soleimani, in the context of the search for regional cooperation and stability.
Mr. Afshar, A meeting took place between President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. After the meeting, tensions began in Iran-Azerbaijan relations and the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia made encouraging statements about direct contact. In this context, how do you evaluate the processes taking place in the region?
In general, although Russia and Turkey meet on a common ground on some issues, they are known as rival states to each other on lots of issues. There are issues on which two states cannot agree in regional issues, such as the Syrian issue. Despite this, they try to bring national interests to the fore, at the same time meet on common ground. There are some collaborations such as economic cooperation, nuclear power plant agreement, natural gas projects, and etc. are made in different dimensions between Russia and Turkey.
Regarding the South Caucasus, in my opinion, the Russians did not want the Karabakh problem to be solved, as being one of those who started the conflict. During the First Karabakh War, if the Russians did not stand for Armenia, Azerbaijan would have been able to resist Armenia. Russia has taken similar actions with Central Asian countries, neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, recently wants to be included in regional cooperation with Turkey. During the Second Karabakh War, the Azerbaijani state could also liberate the lands where the Russian peacekeepers are now temporarily deployed. But Russia stopped the war with the liberation of Shusha and ensured its presence there for at least 5 years. At the same time, the USA gave the green light to Russia, which does not want the presence of Turks in the region. At a time when US President Donald Trump concentrated on the elections, his foreign policy was in stagnation. Although there are political conversations with Russia in the background, the USA does not show itself. When it comes to Russian-Iranian relations, I believe that these relations have never been good. Russia has never wanted Iran to have a say in the South Caucasus. The USA and OSCE’s Minsk group did not allow this either.
The Zangezur Corridor, which came to the fore after the Second Karabakh War in the South Caucasus, was an open road during the Soviet period. However, some of them want the border between Armenia and Iran to be closed. This cannot be so. Surely, there will be a way. The important thing is to ensure security in the region. Security is also important for Armenia, which has a bad economic situation. I do not agree with the idea that the opening of this corridor is the closure of the road with Iran.
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan often go through ups and downs. Experts say that Iran has an influence on some groups of the Azerbaijani population. In your opinion, did this tension have an impact on the public life of Azerbaijan?
Over the years I have dealt with similar issues between the two countries. I have more than 20 years of working experience in the region. I took part in various diplomatic missions. As an experienced person in this field, I do not think that there will be any conflict between the two states, but I find it important to have bilateral contacts. As I said, the foreign ministers came together and came to an agreement. That’s why we should not magnify the events that occur. With the agreements reached between President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and again in 2005 between Heydar Aliyev and Sayyid Mohammed Khatami, it was agreed that Iran and Azerbaijan would not allow other powers to intervene in the problems that may arise in bilateral relations. There are also security agreements between the two countries. There have always been rumours of those who want to disrupt bilateral relations. There were even rumours that Iran helped Armenia during the Khojaly Genocide committed by Armenians. I was on duty at the time, and I can convince anyone that there is no such thing. In those days, Iran stood by Azerbaijan, organized joint military exercises, provided military aid, established refugee camps, and provided various assistance to approximately 100 thousand people.
Just as Turkey carries out operations in Iraq and Syria to ensure its own security, the Iranian state also carries out operations in Erbil against separatist terrorist groups, which it sees as a threat to itself.
 There was no attack from Azerbaijan to Iran. When I was ambassador, there were rumours that Israel and the USA would attack Iran by establishing military bases in Azerbaijan. Of course, this couldn’t be true. At the moment, both countries have liberated the occupied lands of Azerbaijan, although by force. Peace and stability are also needed for Armenia, which is in a critical economic situation. Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan understands the importance of improving relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey and carries out studies in this direction.
As for the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Iran relations, only the enemy states will benefit from any disagreement between these states. If the Safavid and Ottoman states had cooperated without fighting each other, different realities could have happened now. Although I do not look at the issues ideologically, I think that Iran-Azerbaijan and Turkey should be ahead as Muslim countries. We should also not forget the human factor. Future generations will not forgive the conflicts that may arise between these states. In this respect, we should establish good relations with Armenia and Georgia. My heart would never consent to abandon the friendly relations with the country that has a religious union here and making cooperation with distant countries to the detriment of Azerbaijan or Turkey. We must develop good relations among ourselves.
What do you think is the reason why the USA remained silent on the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan?
I think that the USA, which left Afghanistan completely and left very few soldiers in Iraq and Syria, agreed with Russia on the South Caucasus issue. The USA, which is interested in opposing China, which leaves even the USA behind in some cases in world trade, does not want to enter into these issues. The United States itself suffered material damage by causing the deaths of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, the United States plans to return to the same stance taken by former President Barack Obama on Saudi Arabian-Iranian relations. Joe Biden, who was Obama’s deputy at the time, wants the states to solve today’s problems themselves. Although the USA is holding talks in the background, it does not want to repeat its past mistakes.
Today, we see that Iran opposes the opening of the Zangezur corridor. Why do you think Iran supports Christian Armenians in our region while standing by Shiite Muslims all over the world?
Iran wants to be on the side of Azerbaijan and Armenia by pursuing a balanced policy. Iran always wants to be on the side of Azerbaijan and Armenia by pursuing a balanced policy. Even if this has not always been at the level that Azerbaijan wanted. In the early 1990s, some ideas voiced by Azerbaijan were displeasing Iran. Currently, there are no negative statements against Iran at the state level compared to the past, and negative statements do not go beyond individual opinions published in newspapers and magazines. In fact, Iran did not make any of the aid he gave to Azerbaijan to Armenia although has commercial relations.
How do you see Azerbaijan-Iran relations in the future?
Azerbaijan and Iran are neighboring states. There is a phrase like that: “Geography is destiny.” The people of Iran and Azerbaijan have joint history and cultural backgrounds. These two states always want their people live in stability and have economic, commercial and cultural relations and they have to ensure this. Sometimes there can be problems in relations. However mutual agreements and trust must be established in order for good relations to progress rapidly. I long for the days when the borders between the two states will be abolished or travel without a passport will be possible. Although it looks like a utopian wish, I think that if there are positive developments regarding the sanctions against Iran in the future, it will be possible for mutual visits to be free one day. I definitely care about the good relations between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
 “Iran continues its bombardment targeting the rebels in the border villages of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government. Tehran is threatening to expand the operation if Iraqi Kurdish authorities do not deport the rebels. Since the beginning of September, Iranian forces have been operating with heavy weapons and drones on border villages accused of harboring Iranian Kurdish rebels. Tehran says it aims to disperse militant groups accused of attacking Iranian territory.” https://www.amerikaninsesi.com/a/iran-kurt-isyancilara-baskiyi-arttiriyor/6244437.html, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2021).