Azerbaijan is suddenly back in the news following the shooting down of a helicopter from the disputed Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh by the Azeri armed forces on 12 November. The incident has been followed by the launching of Azeri military drills involving more than 5,000 troops. This is serious and merits the attention it is receiving; but equally worthy of attention is the visit to Azerbaijan by Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani. Iran and Azerbaijan have traditionally been at odds, with the peculiarity that Iran has tended to favour Christian Armenia over Muslim Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Azerbaijan, for its part, has had close military, intelligence, and economic ties with Israel.
Arriving in Baku on 12 November for a two-day visit, Rowhani proclaimed: “We will support Azerbaijan in all international arenas as a friendly country and we are sure that, in the international community, Azerbaijan will also side with us as a fraternal, friendly, and neighbouring country.” He added that Iran is interested in expanding economic, cultural, political, regional, and international relations with Azerbaijan, and he then promised: “God forbid that Azerbaijan will face difficulties, but if there will be any difficult days, God forbid, Iran will surely side with Azerbaijan.”
Rowhani added: “Azerbaijan is our connecting bridge to Europe…”
The move by Iran towards better relations with Azerbaijan appears to be reciprocated, judging by the way in which the Azeri media has toned down its criticism of Iran since Rowhani’s election in mid-2013. There is also a Russian element in the rapprochement, which is interesting given the close relations between Russia and Armenia. Moscow, Baku, and Tehran are cooperating over a project to link Iran’s railway system to Russia via Azerbaijan. In September, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin highlighted the importance of the project at the Caspian Summit in Astrakhan.
Putin said: "The work on the western semicircle linking Azerbaijan and Iran should be completed in 2016. The aim is to link the main Caspian ports to cut freight transport times and costs considerably and thereby help to make our economies more competitive."
At the same summit, Rowhani told Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev: "The security and development of Iran and Azerbaijan are interconnected and we should not allow those countries that are against progress in Tehran-Baku friendly relations to disrupt such ties."