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Close Relations with Armenia Factor in Azerbaijan Not Waiving Visa Requirements for Iran Citizens

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, Today’s Zaman reports.

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.”

“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.

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.