Vestnik Kavkaza, Russia
Feb 27 2013

Mikhail Belyaev, exclusively to Vestnik Kavkaza

Less than ten months are left before the presidential elections in
Azerbaijan. Considering that the South Caucasus is characterized by
many geopolitical contradictions between regional and global powers and
unsolved international and inter-ethnic conflicts, this political event
will have an important consequence: the country steps into a phase of
internal and foreign political risks; despite the fact that Azerbaijan
is the most economically and politically stable state in the region.

On the one hand, it is connected with intensification of internal
processes ahead of the presidential elections on October 16th, 2013.

Despite the absence of the united opposition as an alternative
to the current authorities headed by Ilham Aliyev, activeness of
the opposition entities and pro-governmental groups will increase

Foreign players can play a significant role in these processes,
especially Russia, the USA, Turkey, and Iran. These states won't
officially interfere with Azerbaijani internal policy, but they
will try to find levers of pressure on Azerbaijan, considering the
pre-election process a good opportunity for influencing its foreign
and internal policy.

Due to Azerbaijani multivector policy, it managed to maintain the
fragile system of checks and balances between the West, Russia,
and Iran, trying to solve the problem of Armenian occupation of
Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other regions.

A pause in Russian-Azerbaijani contacts at the top level appeared
for several reasons. On the one hand, after Vladimir Putin became
President for the third time, Moscow is stepping away from the active
mediation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and intensification
of Russian-Armenian military cooperation within the CSTO. We saw
withdrawal of the Russian troops from the radio-location station in
Qabala and Azerbaijani-Turkish decision on building the gas pipeline
TANAP which is aimed at improvement of Europe's energy independence
from Russia. It confirms that Baku didn't get the expected support
from the Kremlin and turned its head to the West in the sphere of
the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

However, distancing from Russia can lead to an undesirable situation,
considering Azerbaijani tense relations with the other regional power -
Iran. Baku might appear to be "unfavorable" for both important players
in the region. Thus, this situation increases chances for interior
destabilization ahead of the presidential elections.

At the same time, Russian-Iranian relations are multisided and often
contradictory. There is objective coincidence of interests between
Moscow and Tehran in the sphere of the Syrian conflict. As for the
Iranian nuclear program, Russia is much more moderate and this is
explainable. Firstly, Russia is a global power and is responsible
for peace in the world. It cannot be interested in proliferation of
nuclear armament. Secondly, nuclear Iran would definitely expand its
influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Thirdly, Iran which
has huge energy resources, but experiences tough sanctions cannot be
a competitor for Russia in the energy market.

The situation in the South Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, should be
considered in the context of regional interests of Moscow and Tehran.

No secret that Russia and Iran are historic rivals in this region. Two
Russian-Iranian wars which ended in 1828 determined influence
spheres between Russia and Iran before the USSR's collapse. After
three independent republics appeared in the South Caucasus, a long
rivalry between Russia and Iran became acute.

Iran uses the Shiah theme for spreading its influence in Azerbaijan
- the majority of Azerbaijanis are followers of Shiah Islam. The
positions of Shiah Islamists are very strong on the Absheron peninsula
- the Iranian spiritual authorities are playing the leading role
in their support. It is unacceptable for Azerbaijan. Relations
between official Baku and official Tehran have been close to
direct confrontation in recent years: Iran is jealous about close
Azerbaijani-Israeli defense cooperation, while Azerbaijan is annoyed
with Armenian-Iranian strategic partnership. Big scandals, arrests
of radical Islamists terrorist groups which seem to be controlled by
Iranian forces in Azerbaijan, the murder of the Azerbaijani writer
after the Iranian's ayatollah's fatwa, the arrest of two Azerbaijani
poets in Iran, and so on - all these events fueled the situation.

However, in recent weeks scandals seem to stop. Azerbaijan set free
some accused Islamists, Ayatollah pardoned Azerbaijani poets, the
number of negative articles in the mass media reduced, and certain thaw
is visible between Azerbaijan and Iran. In late February Azerbaijani
President Ilham Aliyev personally welcomed the secretary of the
Supreme Council of National Security of the IRI, Seid Jalili.

FarsNews reported that Azerbaijani President confirmed that Azerbaijan
would support the Iranian peaceful nuclear program. Jalili stressed
that Iran stood for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
only within territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Probably this maneuver of Baku toward Iran is tactical and is connected
with Azerbaijan's desire to see neutral attitude of the south neighbor,
if not support, during the pre-election campaign.

However, long-prospect approaching to Tehran would enable Azerbaijan
to make further political maneuver in relations with Russia and Turkey.