Iranian Diplomacy: As reported in the media, Iran has summoned its ambassador from Baku. What reasons were behind this move?
Afshar Soleimani: Tehran summoned its ambassador from Baku because of demonstrations that took place outside the Iranian embassy in Baku and insulting remarks made against the Iranian Supreme Leader, and also because of insults to Islamic sanctities and the non-reaction of the Azerbaijani government to these types of actions. Insults made against the Supreme Leader were clearly intentional; an act which was irrational and unfriendly. However, the intention behind insults against Islamic sanctities is unclear.
It must be noted that certain clerics and groups in Iran have recently shown reaction to the news of a parade in favor of homosexual rights and in support of homosexuals from different countries around the world before the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. In response to these reactions in Iran, some officials, MPs, political parties, and students in Baku condemned what was said in Iran, and certain slogans were chanted against the Islamic Republic. This is while Azerbaijani officials have announced on numerous occasions that homosexuals have not had and will not have demonstrations in this country and they have expressed their surprise about Iran’s remarks in this regard. Ali Hasanov, an official at the Azerbaijani President’s office, has called this claim a “rumor” spread by Iran and has said that Iran is looking to disrupt the upcoming music competition.
ID: What has Azerbaijan’s reaction been to Iran’s protests?
AS: Azerbaijan has shown very extreme reactions to these comments and has accused Iran of interfering in its internal affairs, and it states that Iran is envious of Azerbaijan’s progress. The Azeris also find it strange that Iran, that claims to be concerned about religious issues and the support of Muslims, has united with Christian Armenians and helps them and shows no reaction to the destruction of mosques and religious and historical sites in Azerbaijani regions occupied by Armenia. It seems that the majority of people in Azerbaijan generally have a negative opinion about the Iranian government. In addition to this, Azerbaijan considers itself as a supporter of the rights of Iranian Azeris and expresses discontent with regards to the neglect of these rights and the fact that Iranian Azeris are not given the possibility to study in their mother tongue.
ID: The Eurovision Song Contest has been one of the issues that has recently been a cause of dispute between Iran and Azerbaijan. Why has this competition been such a sensitive topic, and why does Azerbaijan insist on holding this event there?
AS: The Azerbaijani government considers itself a secular European country, and it is a member of the European Council and all of its activities, including sports and music competitions, are in the European framework. The Eurovision Song Contest is organized by European countries and the winning country each year is given the privilege of holding the competition the following year. Azerbaijan came in first place last year and it is therefore the host of this year’s competition. This country considers this a great opportunity to better introduce itself to the public and to accelerate its convergence with Europe, so that it can take advantage of Europe’s potential in order to solve any future problems it might have to deal with. However, the opposition to the government believes that these types of actions do not help with convergence. They believe that as long as there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan and opposition groups face difficulties and limitations regarding freedom of speech and holding demonstrations, these fronts will not show Azerbaijan to be a free and democratic country. The opposition has tried to take advantage of the publicity surrounding this competition and hold meetings in protest to the government and make its demands. But even though the opposition groups were rather small, they were still not given this opportunity.
ID: This is not the first time this year that relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have faced problems and one side or the other has expressed its discontent. What is the root of these problems in your opinion?
AS: The root of current disputes between the two countries can be found in their historical, religious, cultural, and security differences, as well as the differences in their foreign policies and governmental structures. The methods that have been utilized in the past five years are not only useless in reducing problems, but they might also lead to an increase in tension and differences.
It seems that in order to reduce bilateral differences, diplomacy must be strengthened and both countries must make use of their experienced and skilled experts who know the domestic and foreign policies of both countries and international relations well.