As Azerbaijan’s neighbors, Georgia and Russia, commemorated the anniversary of the military conflict which erupted in August 2008, Azerbaijan showcased its foreign policy as both balanced and independent. Several high level presidential visits to Baku this summer indicate that the Azerbaijani capital is becoming the focus of regional geopolitical developments. While Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev visited Baku for purely economic reasons, more precisely to discuss energy issues, the visits of Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad drew most of the attention.
The visit by Peres was the highlight of the recent strengthening of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. Both countries enjoy growing trade, with Israel buying almost 25 percent of its domestic oil consumption from Azerbaijan. Baku is expressing increasing interest in Israel’s defense, agriculture, tourism, and information technology sectors. Indeed, the visit was symbolic not only in terms of bilateral relations, but also within the framework of the dialogue of civilizations, as he continued his trip by going to Kazakhstan, another moderate and secular Muslim-majority country, in an effort to strengthen Israel’s links with the Muslim world. Semyon Ikhiilov, the head of the Community of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan said that: “President Peres is coming to Baku to promote peace” (Trend News, June 23).
Yet, his visit to Baku drew much criticism from Iranian political circles. The Iranian leadership recalled its ambassador from Baku for “the clarification of some issues,” and some Iranian politicians and the military establishment made threatening statements towards Azerbaijan (Trend News, June 30). This was characterized by the Iranian side as “a sign of disrespect towards the Islamic world,” and a demand was made to close the Israeli embassy in Baku (www.day.az, June 30). The response from Baku was rapid, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov stated that the “Iranian reaction is very surprising to us. Iranian officials regularly meet with senior Armenian politicians, and Azerbaijan does not comment on these meetings” (Trend News, June 30).
Senior officials from the presidential office in Baku went even further in their response. The head of the presidential administration’s political department Ali Hasanov said “Azerbaijan has never interfered in the domestic affairs of any state, and it will not tolerate other countries interfering in its own domestic affairs. We have said to the Iranian side many times that cooperation with Armenia, which has occupied Azerbaijani territories, contradicts the solidarity of the Islamic world” (Aztv, June 4).
His colleague Novruz Mammadov, the head of the international relations department in the presidential administration added that “Azerbaijan is not pursuing any measures against the interests of Iran” (APA News, June 8). Similarly, some members of the Azerbaijani parliament expressed dissatisfaction with the severity of Iranian rhetoric. Despite this rather antagonistic exchange between Tehran and Baku, the visit of the Israeli president took place and was very successful. The Israeli Ambassador to Baku Artur Lenk, speaking at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku said that “relations between Israel and Azerbaijan can be an example for Israel’s relations with the Muslim world.”
Eventually, the Iranian ambassador returned to Baku. The head of the presidential administration’s department for political analysis Elnur Aslanov urged all sides to refrain from “political speculation regarding Iranian-Azerbaijan relations” (Novosti-Azerbaijan, June 30). Furthermore, Azerbaijan received another opportunity to strengthen its relations with the Muslim world by hosting the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. This was the first visit by the Syrian President to Baku, and it was portrayed in the media as being significant for Azerbaijan, since Syria is one of the major players in the region and it also hosts a large Armenian diaspora. Azerbaijani diplomacy, aiming at securing more support from the Islamic world over Karabakh, welcomed al-Asad to Baku, despite reservations in some Western capitals. 18 documents on bilateral cooperation were signed between the two countries and Asad expressed interest in buying 1 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Azerbaijan (Azertaj News, July 10).
The high profile visits by Peres and Asad highlight Baku’s increasingly independent course in its foreign policy, and its growing geostrategic importance in the region. The fact that Baku can host any world leader, despite pressure from powerful regional and other powers, points to the pragmatic, confident, and interest-based foreign policy of the Azerbaijani leadership. Richard Giragosian, a reputable Armenian political analyst and the Director of the Armenian Center for Strategic and National Studies in Erevan, said that “the recent visits of the Israeli and Syrian presidents confirm the strengthening of the strategic importance of Azerbaijan, and this worries Armenia very much”