A senior Azerbaijani official has said a visa-free travel regime proposed by Turkey in 2009 had fallen victim to Iranian pressure on Azerbaijan, prompting the last minute cancellation of the deal between Baku and Ankara.
Ali Hasanov, head of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration's Social and Political Department, told a group of Turkish reporters in Baku on Monday that Iran had threatened to cut off the critical supply line between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic if Azerbaijan lifted visas requirements for Turks but not for Iranians.
“We do not have any concern with lifting visa requirements for Turks,” Hasanov said, adding, however, that “Iran strongly objected to that. They [Iranians] issued a threat to block the corridor linking Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan.”
Currently, the land transport connection to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with the rest of Azerbaijan is ensured only through the territory of Iran because of the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nakhchivan receives most supplies, including gas, trade and other services, from Azerbaijan via the Iranian route.
“If we waive the visas, we have to do it for both Turkey and Iran simultaneously. But I do not think the Azerbaijani government is prepared to undertake the visa-free regime with both countries at this time,” Hasanov explained. He said much of the concern focuses on the Iranian border, which, he said, is subject to heavy drug trafficking.
“About 300 tons of drugs make their way from Iran to Azerbaijan en route to Europe. We seize only five to 10 tons of these drugs, while the rest go undetected,” he said, complaining about the problems the illicit drugs create among Azerbaijani youth.
Last year Iran allowed visa-free travel for Azerbaijani citizens for one-month stays and began exerting pressure to get the same treatment for Iran. Azerbaijanis mostly travel to Iran for commerce with both Iranian merchants as well as their ethnic brethren in Nakhchivan.
Hasanov signaled that the national interests of Azerbaijan do not allow for an open-border policy with a big neighbor such as Iran.
“The political instability in Iran may trigger a huge influx of refugees to our side of the border. As you know, we are a small country, and we have to think of our national security,” he explained.
Thirty million ethnic Azeris live in Iran.
Although Hasanov did not mention them during the interview with Turkish reporters, other considerations may also play a factor in Azerbaijan's decision not to lift visa requirements for Iranians, analysts here in Baku argue.
The covert activity of Iranian intelligence services in Azerbaijan has been a source of concern for some time to Azerbaijanis, who suspect Iran of supporting radical Islamic political movements in Azerbaijan. According to intelligence gathering website STRATFOR, Iran has politically and financially supported the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), a pro-Iranian and religious Shiite opposition party officially banned by Baku. The leader of the AIP, Movsum Samadov, has called for the overthrow of the Azerbaijani government.
Tehran's close relations with landlocked Armenia and its continued business in supplying goods and energy needs upset Azerbaijanis as well, delaying any decisions to waive visa requirements for Iranian citizens.
The deal to lift the visas on a mutual basis with Turkey was almost finalized in 2009. The Turkish Foreign Ministry even announced that the official signing ceremony would be held during a December 2009 visit to Ankara by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. Despite widespread expectations, the visa exemption was not finalized during the visit. At the time, when asked for an explanation, Mammadyarov briefly said it was because the Azerbaijanis had yet to complete the relevant bureaucratic proceedings, although the Turkish side had.
Hasanov's disclosure of the behind-the-scenes politics concerning the last minute cancellation finally shed light on the main motivation for suspending the visa-free regime with Turkey. It appears Iran intervened in a last ditch attempt, asking for the same deal for Tehran and threatening to suffocate Nakhchivan if it was rejected. Azerbaijan had no choice at the time but to cave in to Iranian pressure.