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August 11, 2016 No.
6569

An Overview Of The Azerbaijan-Iran-Russia Trilateral Summit In Baku

On August 8, 2016, a first-ever trilateral summit between Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia convened in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku, at the initiative of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. It is worth noting that Putin included Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of Russia's defense industry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Energy and Resources Minister Alexander Novak, and the Russian oil company Rosneft's CEO Igor Sechin. 


Russian President Vladimir Putin with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Source: Kremlin.ru, August 8, 2016)

Trilateral Talks On The North-South Transport Corridor And The Caspian Sea

At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev signed a declaration calling for cooperation and joint efforts in combatting terrorism, resolving regional conflicts, collaboration on Caspian Sea projects, and develop ties in energy, transport and other areas. The North-South Transport Corridor project, a 7,200 kilometers marine, surface and rail route for moving freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia, was the trilateral summit's core topic. In a lengthy interview to Azerbaijan's state news agency AZERTAC, Putin stated that the project seeks to provide the optimal opportunities for conveying cargo from India, Iran, and the Gulf States to Azerbaijan, Russia and onwards to Northern and Western Europe. Putin added that in 2015, overall cargo traffic along the International North-South Transport Corridor involving the Joint Stock Company Russian Railways totaled 7.3 million tons, surpassing the 2014 level by 4.1 percent.

Discussing the project, Farhad Mammadov, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) under the President of Azerbaijan, said: "The North-South Transport Corridor has been discussed for a long time and is practically operational to the borders of Azerbaijan. A railway line from the Azerbaijani border to the city of Rasht is [all that is] left, which will be built in the coming years, and Azerbaijan will be a major investor... Since the beginning of this year [2016] the President of Azerbaijan adopted several decrees that facilitate and accelerate international transportation in the country's territory, which is essential for the transport track's competitiveness."[1]

The three sides also discussed the legal status of the Caspian Sea. On July 13, the Russian foreign minister held a meeting with the other Caspian Five (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan) foreign ministers. Lavrov said that the convention on the Caspian Sea's legal status may be signed in the first half of 2017. The Caspian Sea's status became an issue following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of new countries. Speaking to Sputnik's Farsi service, a geopolitics expert at Iran's University of Khorramabad, Ahmad Rashidinejad, commented on the issue: "To say that the solution to the legal status of the Caspian must be built on the basis of mutual concessions is not quite accurate. [Instead, the Caspian Five countries must work on] how to bring their positions as close together as possible, to have common interests and address common threats, to address security issues. For example, if we are talking about relations between Russia and Iran, we must consider the common interests of Russia and Iran. For Russia, the issue of a potential conflict with the West is an acute one. We see how at every step, NATO is getting closer and closer to Russia's borders... Iran, as Russia's southern neighbor in the Caspian Sea, and a regional power in its own right, can be seen by Moscow as a kind of 'security shield'... The U.S., European countries, Turkey and Israel, in contrast, are trying to interfere in the internal policy of some countries in the Caspian... The interests of Iran and Russia on resolving the legal status of the Caspian Sea coincide, since the countries face common threats and challenges in the region. Therefore, they come together here as allies, not as rivals."[2]

The final declaration, signed by Vladimir Putin, Ilham Aliyev and Hassan Rouhani, also mentions cooperation on security. According to Mammadov, security-related issues "are the cornerstones, because without them it is impossible to implement the economic projects fully."[3] The final declaration states: "The sides resolutely condemn terrorism in all its manifestations. They stress the importance of bilateral and trilateral consultations for exchanging views on the situation and working out effective counter-terrorism measures.. The sides admit that unsettled regional conflicts are a significant obstacle to regional cooperation and in this connection stress the importance of finding the earliest peaceful settlement by way of negotiations on the basis of principles and norms of international law and the decisions and documents adopted in compliance with them."[4]

The document also stresses the importance of resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly, including the Iran-initiated resolution titled "A World against Violence and Violent Extremism" (WAVE).  

Commenting on the meeting, Deputy PM Rogozin said: "These are common threats. And common threats should be repelled not only through solidarity, through such meetings and sincere discussions of ways of rebuffing challenges by political means, but also by physically getting stronger. And in this regards, both Azerbaijan and Iran are interested in Russia as the biggest exporter of high-quality and affordable weapons."[5]  

Putin-Rouhani Talks On Economic And Strategic Cooperation

Putin and Rouhani held also talks on bilateral cooperation. In his meeting with Rouhani, Putin said that Russia's and Iran's "friendly ties are growing stronger." Rouhani stressed instead that Iran will "never forget the positive role that Russia played in reaching the nuclear agreement," and Russia's role in implementing it. In his interview with AZERTEC, Putin emphasized the increasingly positive economic and strategic relations between Russia and Iran. Concerning the economy, Putin stated that in the first five months of 2016, the volume of mutual trade reached $855 million. He also divulged that a joint research group is studying the parameters for a possible agreement on creating a free trade zone between the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran, to give "stronger impetus" to Russia's and Iran's investment contacts. Meanwhile, Russia also supports Iran's pursuit of full Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) membership.[6]

Putin then added that Russian-Iranian cooperation "has already become strategic in nature," recalling that Iran's first nuclear power plant, Bushehr, was built on the basis of Russian technologies. Furthermore, plans for the construction in Iran of 8 more nuclear power units by Russian specialists have been agreed. "We will further assist our Iranian partners in implementing the Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program, including the processing of enriched uranium and the conversion of facilities to produce stable isotopes," Putin said.

The Russian President also mentioned that "large-scale joint projects" in the oil and gas sphere, and the aerospace and electric power industries are being developed. With reference to joint projects, Putin said: "Russia intends to grant two state loans to Iran to the amount of 2.2 billion euros to finance the construction of a thermal power plant near the city of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf coast and the electrification of the Garmsar-Ince Burun railway section in the north-east of the country."

Concerning joint cooperation in counter-terrorism, Putin said: "We consider it expedient to step up the exchange of information on the activities of international terrorist organizations. This is needed in order to more effectively curb the transit of militants, weapons and drugs via our territories." Putin then added that Russia is interested in strengthening partnership with Tehran in regional affairs. Putin said: "We consider it an important factor of maintaining stability and security across a large territory from Central Asia and the Caspian region to the Middle East."

On the sideline of the meeting, discussing the talks with Iran, Rogozin said that until now Russia has supplied to Iran half of the S-300 systems according to the existing contract.[7] Russia had committed to delivering S-300 to Iran under an 800-million-dollar 2007 deal, but the delivery was suspended to comply with UN sanctions against Tehran. In April 2015, President Putin signed a presidential decree on the delivery of the systems to Iran.[8]

It is worth noting that on the day of the summit Russian news agency Ria.ru published an interview with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpur. In the interview, Rahimpur said that Russia's and Iran's views on a settlement of the Syrian crisis coincide and reiterated Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, adding that Iran is ready to cooperate actively with Russia in Aleppo. He also mentioned that Iran and Russia will support Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stabilize the political situation in Turkey, since the Turkish people should define their own government rather than "third countries" (i.e. the U.S.). He also said that Iran's relations with Russia are very important for the security of the entire region.[9] It is also worth noting that the Russian embassy in Iran reported that the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov will visit Tehran at the end of August to discuss progress in the JCPOA's implementation with Iranian officials.[10]

Putin-Aliyev Talks On Nagorno-Karabakh

In the meeting with Aliyev, Putin discussed the settlement of the mostly Armenian populated Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Putin told Aliyev: "You mentioned Karabakh. This is really a problem that we got from our Soviet past. I know how acute this issue is for both Azerbaijan and Armenia. We will do everything possible so that Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a compromise acceptable for both sides, so that the peoples of the two countries win from this, and so that both countries feel that they have resolved this difficult issue in the interests of current and future generations."[11] On June 20, a trilateral meeting of the Russian, Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents took place in St. Petersburg, with the goal of normalizing the situation along the contact line in Nagorno Karabakh.

In the interview with AZERTEC, Putin said: "We often hear that Russia is trying to monopolize the work related to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and push other mediators aside. That is a misconception. The trilateral summits on the Karabakh issue with the participation of the Russian President - there have been more than twenty such summits - perfectly complement the efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, the US and France to settle this conflict. It should be noted that US and French representatives attended the concluding part of the abovementioned trilateral summit in St. Petersburg."[12] On August 10, Putin met with the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in Moscow.[13] During the joint news conference, Sargsyan said: "It is impossible to resolve such a conflict by seeking to address its consequences rather than its root causes. The core of the Karabakh issue lies in the struggle of the people of Karabakh for self-determination - an inalienable right of all nations in resolving such issues, which should be respected and guaranteed. This is what we discussed in detail with the President of Russia today... Each side should benefit from realistic, clear-cut and feasible solutions that are rooted in mutual respect and trust rather than hatred and xenophobia."[14]

During the Q&As that followed the joint news conference, a journalist asked Putin: "Do you think they [Armenia and Azerbaijan] are creating grounds for another round of escalation, with Azerbaijan obtaining a large number of weapons, whereas the supply of Russian weapons to Armenia remains, to put it mildly, questionable?" In his answer, Putin stressed that Armenia is Russia's ally and that is fulfilling its duties to supply Armenia with weapons. However, he added that a country like Azerbaijan is able to buy any weapon in today's global arms market. Putin said: "As for the weapons, we have a program on this with Armenia. Armenia is a CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] member and our ally. We have certain mutual obligations, and Russia has always kept its obligations, has always fulfilled them. In today's arms market, any country can buy almost any weapon. A country such as Azerbaijan, an oil-producing country of almost 10 million people with a fast-growing economy, as well as sufficiently large gold and currency reserves can, of course, buy weapons anywhere it likes. You see? Anywhere. However, I would rather not focus on the military side of things now. If we want to resolve this problem, we should use peaceful means."[15]

If on the one hand, Russia is engaged in crisis resolution, Russia on the other hand continues to sell weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. On April 12, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that the arms trade with the two countries was a way of excluding American and NATO from the region, and would serve as a "deterrent." Rogozin argued that if Russia stopped supplying its weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan, other countries would begin selling "weapons of an attacking, offensive type" to the region.[16] The Moscow Times also reported: " as part of an estimated $4 billion worth of deals over recent years, Azerbaijan bought tanks, infantry combat vehicles and artillery systems from Moscow. Under the latest deal with Armenia, Moscow is to provide Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, and handheld antiaircraft missiles, among other military equipment."[17]

Reactions To The Trilateral Meeting

Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs and Research Director at the Valdai International Discussion Club, said that Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia partnership strengthens Russia's role as a stability guarantor in Eurasia. He said that from a Russian point of view, cooperation with Iran and Azerbaijan is very important, due to the volatile situation in South Caucasus and the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may "heat up" again.[18]

Commenting on the trilateral meeting, Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies, said that he would not describe the summit as the creation of an Iran - Azerbaijan - Russia axis, since the meeting was "not aimed at the creation of any new organization." However, according to Sazhin, the trilateral summit was of strategic importance, as Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia play an important role in the Middle East and are an important factor "not only in regional, but also in global politics."[19]

Vedomosti's columnist Pavel Aptekar wrote that the trilateral summit, as well as the meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that took place in St. Petersburg on August 9, intends to signal the West that Russian influence in the Middle East is growing. The author states that Putin will try to establish a consensus between Iran and Turkey on Syria, to form a bloc against Western influence in the region.[20]

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Valdaiclub.com, August 10, 2016.

[2] Sputniknews.com, July 14, 2016.

[3] Valdaiclub.com, August 10, 2016.

[4] Tass.ru, August 8, 2016.

[5] Tass.ru, August 8, 2016.

[6]  Former Kremlin foreign policy advisor Sergey Karaganov writes: "In 2015, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization decided to admit India and Pakistan as full members and is now considering the possibility of admitting Iran and some other countries. Although the SCO is not very active yet, it has made one more step towards becoming the core of an emerging Greater Eurasia or even a community of Greater Eurasia. Cooperation between China and Russia may play a central role in it. In contrast to the model promoted by the United States, there will be no hegemon in the Eurasian community. China will be the economic leader, but other powerful players - Russia, India, and Iran - will be able to counterbalance Chinese influence. Objectively, the new center will serve as a counterweight to the West, which is seeking to consolidate its position, but this does not mean an automatic bipolar confrontation. Cooperation and rivalry will be dialectically combined." Globalaffairs.ru, August 1, 2016.

[7] Ria.ru, August 8, 2016.

[8] Mehrnews.com, August 9, 2016.

[9] Ria.ru, August 8, 2016.

[10] Ilna.ir, August 11, 2016.

[11] Tass.ru, August 10, 2016.

[12] Kremlin.ru, August 5, 2016.

[13] Kremlin.ru, August 10, 2016.

[14] Kremlin.ru, August 10, 2016.

[15] Kremlin.ru, August 10, 2016.

[16] Themoscowtimes.com, April 12, 2016.

[17] Themoscowtimes.com, April 12, 2016.

[18] Ria.ru, August 8, 2016.

[19] Valdaiclub.com, August 10, 2016.

[20] Vedomosti.ru, August 9, 2016.