Azerbaijan Between Russia and Iran

How will Azerbaijan navigate the growing Qatar crisis, and relations between its two powerful northern and southern neighbors: Iran and Russia?

The fact that Azerbaijan neighbors both Russia to the north and Iran to the south is strategically beneficial and bestows on Azerbaijan a number of advantages. However, at times, it can also be a source of problems, of which one may soon become the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar, which, contrary to the expectations of many, is still far from resolution.

A number of Middle Eastern countries have issued an ultimatum to Qatar to stop supporting terrorism and funding a number of media resources, including Al Jazeera, which will end Qatar’s attempts to establish itself in the international media space.

In addition, Qatar has been asked to return $16 billion from deposits in Qatari banks, which is the least of their problems, given that the sovereign stabilization fund of Qatar is $340 billion and a 5% refund, even when given all at once, is not a major problem.

But the key issue is the condemnation of Doha for its support of Iran.

Information was leaked to the international press that Qatar has been asked to close diplomatic missions in Iran, to expel all members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its borders and to only conduct trade with Iran that does not conflict with US sanctions. Qatar called all these demands “unacceptable” and stated that in fact the blockade is aimed at limiting its sovereignty and interfering in its foreign policy.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer described the growing crisis of Qatar and neighboring countries as a “family affair”, with which the countries must cope themselves.

But many disagree with him. Sanctions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, even though they did put Qatar in a difficult situation, did not bring the expected result, despite the fact that the country only has a land border with Saudi Arabia, through which it receives almost all its products, goods and construction materials. After its closure, only maritime ports remain, which can not accept large ships. Nevertheless, Qatar remains adamant, receiving the support of Iran and Turkey.

After the introduction of sanctions, Turkey began supplying Qatar with food and other goods by air and sea. The Turkish Ministry of Customs and Trade reports that after the announcement of sanctions, the volume of exports from Turkey to Qatar grew by three times compared to the usual level, reaching $32.5 million. In addition, since 2014, Qatar has a Turkish military base that is increasing its military contingent, and Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Ishik said that any requirement to close the base will be regarded as interference in Ankara’s relations with Doha.

Iran also daily sends about 1100 tons of fruits and vegetables to Doha by sea and has opened its airspace for international flights to Qatar, which were banned from flying over Saudi Arabia and other countries. True, the union of Qatar with Turkey and Iran is quite unexpected and, perhaps, not very stable.

Arab Sunni countries have historically preferred not to draw closer to the Iranian Shiites and have been wary of Turkey’s desire to achieve regional leadership. It remains an open question: by how much will Qatar draw closer to Iran and Turkey, and will this inevitably change the balance of power in the region?

In the meantime, tensions are mounting.

Even during the visit of Donald Trump to Riyadh, King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud said that the Iranian authorities are the “spearhead” of global terrorism. And Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman spoke of the “transfer of the battle” to Iran. In response, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehgan advised the US to leave the Persian Gulf. And the tone of his speech can not be called diplomatic. He also said that the whole of Saudi Arabia would be destroyed, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, if the kingdom took any ill-considered steps.

In the midst of all this, Russia’s position remains without attention. Meanwhile, the tension around Iran affects its interests, as Tehran is one of Moscow’s allies in Syria. However, the economic partnership between Russia and Iran is not so intense. In terms of a strategic plan, one can only talk about the Bushehr nuclear power plant. The rest is about intentions and prospects for cooperation. The volume of trade between Iran and Russia in recent years amounted to $1- $ 2.5 billion per year. For comparison, the turnover between Iran and China exceeded $50 billion.

But one way or another, Middle Eastern affairs concern Russia, if only because in December 2016 the Qatari sovereign fund bought a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, paying more than $2.5 billion, and in January 2017, the Russian Direct Investment Fund concluded with the Qatar Fund a $2 billion investment in Russia. However, in 2015, deals were concluded for the investment of $10 billion in Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Russia will interfere in the Qatari conflict. But it is not accidental that the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, came to Moscow after the conflict began. Although, during the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia does not intend to interfere in the relations of the Arab states with Qatar, but the high guest thanked the Russian institutions that offered “assistance in overcoming illegal measures that were brought against us”.

The transfer of Russian planes to the Iranian base of “Shahid Nozhe”, though temporary, showed Moscow’s desire to restore its lost influence with the collapse of the USSR in the Near and Middle East.

Unexpected for many countries in the Middle East, the decision to allow Russian aircraft on the Iranian base, contrary to legislation and ideology, caused a sharp negative reaction in a large part of Iranian society. But another part considered that the presence of Russian aircraft would strengthen Iran’s regional positions and help in the confrontation with the US and Israel. And it is not ruled out that the Iranian base will again be open to Russian aviation, if it is required, which will also have a significant psychological impact on the region, showing that Syria is not the only country ready to admit Russian troops to its territory. Especially considering that today Russia occupies a special position in the Middle East, being the only external force that has maintained relations with all countries of the region.

However, some Russian experts are asking how dangerous of an ally Iran is for Russia, given that it is ready to conduct military operations in different points of the Middle East.

Today Iran is at war on at least two fronts: in Syria and, in a less obvious manner, in Yemen.

During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, it was Syria that prevented the conversion of the Iraqi attack on Iran into an all-Arab war against Iran. Therefore today Syria is an important outpost in the confrontation between Shiite Iran and the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Consequently, the Iranian military in Syria is fighting together with the Russian. So, the Russian-Iranian Union in Syria can draw Moscow into the most diverse of Middle Eastern conflicts. Moreover, the activation of terrorists in Iran cannot ruled out.

As recently as June 7 in Tehran two groups of terrorists made a simultaneous attack on the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini, and tried to break into the parliament building. There were reported 7 dead and 11 wounded. Responsibility for the attack was assumed by the Islamic State, against which Iran is fighting in Syria together with Russia. Some experts believe that ISIS is trying to attract Iranians into its ranks and calls on the Sunni minority of Iran to oppose the Shiite regime. Although the degree of success of propaganda among Iran’s Sunnis is questionable, it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of intensifying terrorism in Iran.

Moscow apparently understands that Iran, with its uneasy relations with both the West and the Middle East, can negatively affect Russia’s relations with the United States, Israel and the Arab countries, which are already dissatisfied with the supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

And Iran is wondering whether its position in post-war Syria will meet its aspirations or the main dividends will go to Moscow, whose military actions attract more attention.

A significant group in the government and the armed forces of Iran believes that Russia is too active and eclipsing Iran in its actions to strengthen the regime of Bashar Assad. Another group on the contrary believes that Russia is not sufficiently active in Syria in military terms. In addition, Iran is more interested in further establishing relations with the West, and Russia does not need to quarrel with Israel and the Gulf monarchies for the sake of the Iranians.

Of course, Moscow would like to draw Iran further into its sphere of influence. The political basis is there, given Tehran’s distrust of the West, but despite common goals in Syria, there is no sufficient basis as of yet for a firm alliance between Moscow and Tehran. Despite being allies in the Syrian conflict, there is not unity between Russia and Iran in terms of a strategic plan. Russia sees the future of Syria as a secular state; Iran, on the contrary, is determined to contribute to the formation of the state while preserving the privileges of the Alawites who are close to the Shiites. The question arises as to whether Russia has the mechanisms and power to influence internal Middle East processes and whether it has sufficient authority for mediation in circumstances where an escalation in relations between Arabs and Iranians could lead to a full-scale war in the region.

Azerbaijan is associated with Iran not only economically but also ethnically. And in terms of Russia, Azerbaijan is connected to its northern neighbor by the Karabakh conflict. However, Azerbaijan does not want to ruin its relations with the Arab countries that are currently opposing Qatar. And it especially doesn’t want to ruin its relations with the United States. The development of the conflict in the Middle East may put the Azerbaijani authorities in a position where they need to choose what side they are on, contrary to its policy of ensuring the national interests of the country and equidistance from the main world blocs. Meanwhile, the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are increasingly becoming fertile ground for terrorism, which may well spread to Iran. And the last thing that Azerbaijan needs today is a conflict that will affect its southern neighbor and especially the ethnic Azeris living in its northern part.

The question arises as to how the Russian-Iranian connection will affect Azerbaijan with its protracted Karabakh conflict. Perhaps in no way. But, both Russia and Iran are considered as allies of Armenia. And this is a potential lever of influence on the policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Syria and the Qatari crisis divert attention from the Karabakh conflict, which for the current administration of the United States is apparently of little interest. But it can acquire significance in the light of Russian-Iranian activity in Syria.

Ana səhifəAnalysisAzerbaijan Between Russia and Iran