How did the PACE winter session go for the Azerbaijani delegation?
The Azerbaijani delegation is very active in all sessions. According to the results of last year, Azerbaijan is in third place, the activity of our participation is 88%. And this time we went as a full delegation (12 members) for the first time, and everybody actively participated. Previously, due to COVID-related restrictions all delegations used to be reduced.
By the way, in your speech you supported Ukraine and said “Glory to Ukraine”. Maria Zakharova was even asked a question about this, but she refrained from commenting on your statement. Was this a personal initiative or the initiative of the whole delegation?
Legally, this statement is not considered as support for Ukraine or a speech aimed against Russia. Strictly from a legal standpoint, as victims of a long-lasting occupation, we support the norms of international law. We advocate adherence to the principles and norms of international law, the integrity and inviolability of borders, the sovereign equality of states. It is a question of principles, not a choice between the parties. We condemn aggression and occupation. I always speak at my own initiative, no one limits me, I make my own choices, I choose my own words, and I decide for myself when to vote, both in Azerbaijan and in PACE. Zakharova is right in her own way; after all, I am in the opposition and they work with the government. There is nothing to comment on here.
The environmental protest on the Lachin road has been going on for more than 50 days now. Its causes are well known and much has been said about it. What scenarios could you predict here as to how the events might unfold further?
It is difficult to predict anything right now. The main thing is that the demands are fair, and we also know the context, which is much broader than the environmental campaign itself. Obviously, this is a citizen initiative, the public has the right, and so on. But the political root of the problem is that Armenia is not fulfilling the conditions of the trilateral agreement, there are still illegal Armenian armed groups in Karabakh, which means that the Russian peacekeepers are not fulfilling their part of the obligations either, because they should have facilitated the withdrawal of the Armenian armed groups. Moreover, it was clear that the communication was being established between the Azerbaijani authorities and the Armenians in Karabakh. Suddenly Ruben Vardanyan shows up, dismisses the people with whom the Azerbaijani side had established contact, announces his political ambitions; moreover, he even outdid Pashinyan in his rhetoric, because Pashinyan does not speak so zealously. Formally, Vardanyan has allegedly renounced Russian citizenship, but this does not change anything in our understanding. Vardanyan was clearly sent by Moscow, because the result is evident, the communication is broken. Moreover, he has no right to represent anyone. So what if he is Armenian? He is not from Karabakh, he is not even from Armenia.
Do you think it is possible that Vardanyan is aiming for Pashinyan’s chair?
It is quite possible. What is there for a billionaire to do in Karabakh? If he came there, it is with a much more long-term goal. And this is an added risk for us, because we do not want Vardanyan or anyone else, even someone from the opposition, to displace Pashinyan, because there are already established contacts in place, there are negotiations and working meetings. Yes, there is no concrete result yet, but the process is important. And judging by what Vardanyan did in Karabakh, cutting off the communication, he is a destructive element to us. And, of course, he is not a legitimate representative, so we are not going to talk to him. Next: of course, the Lachin road is the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, and Baku has the right to know what is transported through it. This is why a security checkpoint, police and customs checkpoints will probably be set up there in the future: Azerbaijan has every reason to believe that the Armenian side uses the Lachin road to bring in weapons and ammunition and people who should not be there under the guise of transporting “food” and other “humanitarian” cargoes.
By the way, Russian peacekeepers have also done this on more than one occasion, specifically, they let into the territory of Azerbaijan in the area under their control not even just Armenian officials, who have no right to be in Karabakh without Azerbaijan’s permission. A vivid example is the illegal visit to Karabakh of the mayor of Paris, then French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse. All these illegal actions violate our sovereignty. All this creates more risks for us and gives us grounds to raise claims, against the Russian side as well. We won the war quickly, but peace cannot be settled as quickly.
Our relations with Iran have deteriorated; they are tense. What can you say about the terrorist attack on our embassy: what was its goal? The Iranian side has yet to give a coherent explanation. Nevertheless, we already know for a fact that the double security rings in the diplomatic area of Tehran was deliberately weakened so that the terrorist could freely enter our embassy and begin to kill.
A terrorist attack is a serious crime that requires a thorough and meticulous investigation. I am not going to speculate now on the motives and goals. But the fact that the Iranian side at least violated the Vienna Convention is an undeniable fact. This is absolutely obvious. Protecting embassies, diplomatic personnel and their families is an obligation of the host country, and the fact that our embassy was attacked is, of course, an oversight on the part of Iran. If it was only an oversight, that is. Be it as it may, it was a terrorist attack, and it is quite possible that it was organized by the Iranian authorities, at least with their connivance, because even the video footage showed that the guards were practically doing nothing. The shooter could have been anyone, a mercenary, a fanatic… That changes nothing. A terrorist attack is not a domestic crime, where the perpetrator can be caught, investigated and punished. There are always masterminds behind a terrorist attack, and our goal now is to expose and punish them. Knowing the nature and structure of power in Iran, it is safe to say that the trail goes all the way to the top, to the political leadership of this country.
Iran essentially has no leader, and all the protest movements going on in the country are controlled by “invisible puppeteers”, very wealthy people who prefer to remain in the shadows. So, when you say political leadership of the country, do you mean the IRGC?
This was the idea since the founding of the Islamic Republic, it is clear even from the name itself: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. This is a completely separate agency, subordinate to Khamenei personally. They do not report to the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Defense, but exclusively to the Ayatollah, the religious leader of Iran, and it is a very well-funded and well-armed fanatical military organization.
After the meeting in Tashkent the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran seemed to have thawed a little, but this terrorist attack has upset the balance again. Don’t you think that relations between the two countries have gone completely downhill and a normalization is unlikely in the next few years? Besides, Iran is essentially bombing Ukraine by selling ammunition to Russia; it benefits from the ongoing war. What is your prognosis for the situation in the light of all this?
Iran thus aids the aggressor and is an accomplice to this crime. Moreover, the attack on our embassy is by no means the first incident of this kind. Iran has already committed similar attacks in various countries. And since we are talking about the terrorist attack on the embassy, it is appropriate to mention a similar attack on the US embassy: in 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was seized by an anti-American mob and 66 diplomats working there were taken hostage. The attack was supported by Iran’s new Islamic government. The attempt to free American diplomats through an armed special operation failed. The hostages were released only in 1981 after negotiations. Note that the capture of American diplomats and the failed attempt to free them by force led to a complete severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, and those relations have not been restored to this day.
The security forces in Azerbaijan are conducting operations against the Iranian spy network. Is the Iranian “fifth column” capable of destabilizing the situation inside the country?
Iran has always been a destabilizing factor. Iran has no creative force in Azerbaijan. We cannot say that Iran has supporters in the form of political parties or support among the electorate, whose votes these parties could gain and come to power: Iran has never had such a creative force, and there are many explanations for this. But Iran has a destructive power, of course. We have seen this power in action more than once, too: the spreading of religious fanaticism, the financing of various activities and organizations of this kind. We have seen it more than once in Baku, and in Ganja, and in our southern, the most Shia-minded, districts. Iran has always been doing this kind of work. Our government took various approaches to this for a long time, no active measures were taken because we did not want to anger Iran, figuratively speaking, because at that time our territory was under occupation, there were many added risks. We needed at least stable relations with that country. But Iran started provoking us first, we were not the ones who triggered this situation. See for yourself: Iran pulled troops to our borders, conducted several major military exercises, practicing “the tactics of crossing the Araz River”. And where would they go across the Araz? Only to Azerbaijan. What conclusions should we draw from all this? The President of Azerbaijan made some harsh statements, but it still ended in a terrorist attack on Azerbaijani territory, because legally an attack on an embassy is considered an attack on the country this embassy represents. The fact that Azerbaijan is now taking action to eliminate the Iranian spy ring shows that Azerbaijan has a free hand now. First of all, we are stronger, we have taken back our lands, we fully control our borders with Iran. And now we are dealing with other challenges. That is why the government has chosen to take more drastic measures against the circles that Iran has formed and maintained in our country.
Many are voicing different versions about the “hand” guiding the terrorist. And one of the most common versions is that of an “Armenian hand”. After all, Iran and Armenia have excellent relations, despite the difference in religion. What do you think?
I cannot make assertions, but I cannot rule anything out either. Without a thorough investigation, it is impossible to say anything for sure. There could be many more interested parties, and that could be anyone. But all this is nothing more than political speculation. An investigation will show who was really behind it, and what goals were pursued, who ordered it and who executed it. The investigation will show it anyway, but political conclusions can already be drawn now. Azerbaijan did the right thing by pulling the entire embassy staff out of Tehran, and this is a very serious political decision, which shows that we are not only cutting off diplomatic relations, but we have also significantly lowered the level of communication. Now diplomatic relations between our countries are possible only at the level of foreign ministers and above, because Azerbaijan is no longer represented in Tehran.
An even bigger “gauntlet” is the lack of an appropriate response from the Iranian side. They do not want to assist the investigation, making excuses about “domestic motives” of this crime.
You are right, and this once again confirms the validity of the idea that the terrorist attack was organized in the Iranian power circles. Who exactly did it, which wing of the government—these are just details. But there is attributive logic, when consequences can be attributed to a single cause. In this case, the attributive logic suggests that the responsibility lies with the official authorities of Iran.
The peace talks with Armenia are at a standstill. We see this country now turning to the West like a weather vane, now drifting toward Iran or Russia.
The situation is by no means at a standstill; the process continues, albeit not as quickly as many would like. A peace treaty can take a very long time to prepare. There are examples when countries normalized their relations without having signed a formal peace treaty. For example, there is still no peace treaty between Russia and Japan, but relations between these countries—at least before the Russian invasion of Ukraine—were normal, with trade and everything. If a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia is an end in itself, we must understand that it will take many years for us to come to an agreement and sign something. If the goal is step-by-step normalization, the opening of communications, the establishment of personal contacts, etc., then we must assume that all this can happen without an official treaty. Once again, I do not agree that this is a standstill, this is just a difficult process, it is understandable. Armenia has not yet come to terms with its defeat, it has not even been able to assess the extent of its defeat, because Armenians have not yet got rid of the obsession with being right in this context. Moreover, the internal political situation in Armenia is very complicated, it significantly hinders Armenians from making an obvious, clear political choice. Besides, what surprises me is that Pashinyan is for some reason considered a pro-Western politician, but how exactly is this manifested? I am not quite sure, to be honest. See for yourself: there are two Russian military bases in Armenia, all its borders are controlled by Russia, most of its economic assets belong to Russian state-owned companies. How can Pashinyan pursue a pro-Western policy in this environment? If Armenia had not initiated a conflict with us from the outset, it would now be a truly independent state. I must say, this is the irony of Armenian history in the last 30 years. They started fighting for independence in the last years of the Soviet Union and ended up even more reliant on Moscow. Armenia was much more independent in the Soviet times than it is now.
Don’t you think there will be a war to coercion with Armenia this year?
I cannot say that there will be a war, but I cannot rule it out, because the situation in the region is very tense indeed. We have to handle the issue of the illegal Armenian armed groups in Karabakh somehow. It seems that they do not want to go away quietly, and this gives our country a cause to use military force, because the casus belli is still there. Iran is a separate issue, we do not need a war with this country at all, we certainly have no intention of starting one. But if Iran attacks us, we have the right to self-defense. Still, wars happen, wars are always inevitable, and we must always be prepared for them, we must be able to defend ourselves.
Translated from Minval.az