By Galib Mammadov, Transatlantic Security Analyst
In February 2012 Ilham Aliyev met with NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and expressed Azerbaijan’s desire to expand the NATO partnership. NATO has a continued interest in cooperating with Azerbaijan, as 30% of NATO’s shipments to Afghanistan are being carried via Azerbaijan. In this the meeting President Aliyev said that Azerbaijan is willing to continue to be a reliable partner to NATO.
Although Azerbaijan is not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state, Azerbaijan’s relations with the organization date back to March, 1992. The former President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev signed the Partnership for Peace Framework Document in 1994. At that time Azerbaijan, together with 37 Central and Eastern European and former Soviet countries, joined a North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) which in 1997 transformed into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Continued cooperation with NATO accelerates Azerbaijan’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, and gives Azerbaijan a chance to participate in NATO-led operations and accelerate reform in the defense and security sector.
Azerbaijan’s willingness to cooperate with NATO makes some of its neighbor countries like Armenia and Iran feel vulnerable. The Armenian government considers the upgrading of the Azerbaijani army to NATO standards as a threat. As a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia now occupies around 17% of Azerbaijani territory. The two sides have engaged in peace talks for decades but no agreement has been achieved. The Azerbaijani President mentioned many times the possibility of using hard power to resolve the conflict if peaceful talks do not work. Azerbaijan’s pro-west policy helps the country to increase its influence in the region, and Armenian officials understand that it will be harder to negotiate with a NATO power.
Azerbaijan’s relations with its neighbor, Iran are also very tense. Iran is now home to more than 25 million Azerbaijanis. In the early nineteenth century Iran and Russia separated Azerbaijan to Northern (now the Republic of Azerbaijan) and Southern Azerbaijan (North of Iran) as a result of the Russo-Iranian war. The majority of Azerbaijanis living in Iran want independence from the Mullah Regime, and this desire for independence makes Iranian regime vulnerable. Iran fears that Azerbaijan can exploit ethnic Azerbaijanis to detach the territory from Iran. This explains why Iran supported Armenia in its aggression against Azerbaijani territorial integrity. We know that the Shia Iranian regime openly call themselves protectors of Shia Muslims all over the world. Though most of the people in Azerbaijan are Shia Muslim, Iran supports Armenia over their Shia brothers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Azerbaijani officials have never openly supported Iranian Azerbaijanis in their battle against the regime. If Azerbaijan becomes a NATO member as a result of the close partnership with the organization, Azerbaijani officials will have more power to be able openly support the independence of Southern Azerbaijan.
Relations were also tense because of a dispute over the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Iranian officials began to use this card against Azerbaijan when Iran was excluded from the Contract of the century in 1995 due to U.S. pressure. U.S. officials openly demanded that Azerbaijan exclude Iran from the Contract of the Century; otherwise American companies would withdraw from the contract. In protest, Iran brought forth the issue of legal status of Caspian Sea and claimed that it is illegal to exploit its resources without the accordance of all Caspian states. Despite Iranian warnings Azerbaijan continued its offshore exploitation. As a response, in July 2001 the Iranian Navy and Air Force violated Azerbaijani waters and as a result, British Petroleum temporarily stopped its exploitation. This violation was against NATO’s interest in Black Sea region. In August 2001, a Turkish Air Force division called the “Turkish stars” had a demonstration in Baku which was attended by Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. Turkey is a historic NATO member. Many experts stated that with that jest Turkey protected NATO’s and Azerbaijan’s interest in the region against Iran. Azerbaijan’s NATO membership would increase Azerbaijan’s bargaining power on the issue of legal status of Caspian Sea.
The Azerbaijan-NATO partnership increases Azerbaijan’s security against its neighbors like Armenia and Iran. The Azerbaijani army and its regional importance are not the same as they were in 2001. Azerbaijan’s pro-west policies and its partnership with NATO include the country in the West’s sphere of interests. Projects like the Trans-Anatolia gas pipeline and the Nabucco pipeline also serve this purpose, as they are very important for Europe’s energy security and for Azerbaijan’s increasing importance in the region. Thus, any threat to Azerbaijan’s national security coming from Iran or Armenia is in conflict with the West’s/NATO’s regional interests.
Expanding the Azerbaijan-NATO partnership will make it harder for Iran to show its muscles against a smaller neighboring country (Azerbaijan). Iran’s recent regional policies show that it has ambitions to have control over the region. A possibility of three NATO members in the region—Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—would undermine Iran’s regional policy.
* The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position, or opinions of The Streit Council.