Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 16 Issue 6
Author: Amir Mojtahedi
The recent Azerbaijani military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, culminating in the capitulation of Stepanakert, coupled with the subsequent meeting between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Nakhchivan, has engendered heightened concerns within the international community, notably within Iran.
The perceived threat of a potential military escalation in the Armenian Syunik Province, next to the Islamic Republic, has accentuated the need for a comprehensive inquiry into the historical, sociocultural, and political dynamics underpinning the relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan.
This report endeavors to undertake a meticulous examination of these facets with the purpose of ascertaining the likelihood and circumstances under which Baku and Tehran might find themselves in a collision course, potentially leading to a confrontational scenario in the future.
Azerbaijan-Iran Relations Between Tensions and Geopolitical Dynamics
Azerbaijan was under the control of the Persian Empire until 1828, and then it was handed over to Tsarist Russia thanks to the treaties of Turkmenchay and Golestan. Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have always been tense after the start of the first Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (1992-1994).
Tensions between Tehran and Baku reached their peak after the attack on the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Tehran on January 27th, 2023. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described what happened to his country’s embassy in Tehran as a pre-planned ‘terrorist attack’, prompting Baku to close its embassy in Tehran.
Condemning the armed attack on the entrance of the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, Iran announced the arrest of the assailant and the investigation of various aspects of this incident, which found that this attack had family and personal motives.
Today, frictions between the two countries are so high that Iran and Azerbaijan now accuse each other of planning an attack on their respective soil. Azerbaijan’s security services arrested 19 people who, according to Baku’s official statement, Tehran sent to destabilise the Azerbaijani national security.
Likewise, after the attack on a Shiite shrine in Shiraz on October 26th, 2022, Iran’s intelligence services clearly accused Baku of being behind the operation in cooperation with the Islamic State jihadist cells based in Afghanistan. While it is difficult to assess the veracity of these accusations, they illustrate a willingness on both sides to shift responsibility for escalating diplomatic tensions to the other.
At the same time, experts also mentioned deeper reasons for the deterioration of the situation. Baku was not satisfied with Iran’s position regarding the Zangezor Corridor (a direct road from Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan region and then to Turkey).
According to the plans of Baku and Ankara, this route should pass through the Armenia Syunik region and concurrently have an extraterritorial status, i.e. leave Yerevan’s jurisdiction. Tehran believes that this project threatens Iran’s relationship with Armenia and also the entire Eurasian Union. In addition, the construction of this route will lead to the strengthening of Turkey’s role in the region and contrast with the Islamic Republic’s firm strategy against changing the historical regional borders.
In this context, it is also important to examine the issue related to oil export pipeline. Iran considers the recent developments in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline region as a threat and, therefore, Tehran has presented several alternative proposals to avoid this infrastructure and allow exports through the Persian Gulf.
Undeniably, the Iranian government has attempted to improve its precarious position in the Caspian region by proposing the construction of the main export pipeline through its territory, transferring Caspian oil to the Persian Gulf and taking control of the Caspian Sea, including Azerbaijan’s oil exports.
If Iran-US relations improve, drastic changes may occur in the process of Caspian oil development and, as US Senator Sam Brownback recently noted, “South Caucasus will lose its opportunity to flourish as an oil producer and as a pivotal transit point from east to west.”
Another controversial issue is Azerbaijan’s close relations with Israel. Baku sells oil and oil products to the Jewish state and buys high-tech weapons, attack and reconnaissance drones, and high-precision navigation and optical systems.
Tehran interprets this activity as hostile. Considering that Azerbaijan is an Iran’s neighbour by land and the Caspian Sea, Israeli special operations forces might exploit the South Caucasus, especially the Azerbaijani territory, as an ideal springboard for attacking the Islamic Republic.
Israel is the main factor in the escalation of relations between the two Muslim neighbours since Tel Aviv is trying to penetrate the region to damage the historical relations that bind their countries together in this region.
Tehran-Baku’s Cooperation and Opportunities
Despite the tense situation between Tehran and Baku, discussing the war between these two countries can be pessimistic because many reasons might prove the contrary. The two countries do not share only 618 kilometres of border, but they are both members of Muslim and regional organisations such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), factors which show their solidarity geographically and religiously.
In addition, Deep historical, cultural, religious and ethnolinguistic ties have led to the formation of extensive relations between the two countries. They also have profound and close commonalities based on Islam and Shiism, as well as common Persian culture and language.
Iran and Azerbaijan have the largest percentage of Shia population in the world. While most of the population of the Middle East region is mainly Sunni, Shiism finds its root in the history of both countries from the very beginning.
All this has provided the ground for the closeness of the citizens of the regions on both sides of the border. Also, the recent increase of Iranian tourists in Azerbaijan confirms the possibility that the two countries will develop bilateral sociocultural relations.
Furthermore, Tehran and Baku have close economic relations. At the end of 2022, the volume of business transactions reached $688 million, which was 13% more than the previous year. Iran exports chemical products, construction materials and agricultural products to Azerbaijan, and buys equipment, food and clothing.
Iran is the eighth largest exporter to the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan accounted for 19% of Iran’s total trade with the Caspian Sea countries in the first 9 months of 2022 (March to December). The volume of business is also increasing.
Analysing the transit roads and transportation, Iran is the only Azerbaijan’s direct and low-cost transit route to reach the Persian Gulf, the Oman Sea, the Arab world, and Pakistan, which has a close and strategic partnership with Baku.
At the same time, Azerbaijan is also a key part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which is Iran’s main transit and trade route with the heavily populated western regions of Russia, Georgia and Belarus. Astara border crossing is the major transit route between Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia. On average, a truck crosses the Astara border every seven minutes.
The Azerbaijan-Iran transit route has recently become more important because of the Ukraine war, extensive Western sanctions against Russia, and the preferential trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which is being upgraded to a free trade agreement.
Another factor is the relations between Tehran and Baku with Armenia and Israel. Both Azerbaijan and Iran are concerned that deteriorating relations could prompt the other to seek closer engagement with their respective rivals in Yerevan and Tel Aviv.
Examples include the visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to Tehran in October 2021 and July 2023, during the period of heightened tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, and recently, Baku’s decision to approve the establishment of an embassy in Tel Aviv in March 2023.
Rising tensions seem to have acted as a catalyst for these decisions, clearly showing how Tehran and Baku are using the Armenia-Israel cards to balance threats and deterrence. In this scenario, Russia tries to play a balancing role in the relations between the two countries.
Considering the current situation because of the Ukraine conflict, Moscow perceives a conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan as more pressure on the Kremlin’s blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad).
Also, for the European Union, a clash between the countries will have a negative effect and should be avoided since Azerbaijan is Brussel’s strategic partner in supporting EU Energy Security Strategy and natural gas imports’ diversification.
Although Baku closed its embassy in Tehran, leaders from Iran and Azerbaijan maintain consistent communication to normalise bilateral relations. This ongoing diplomatic engagement serves as a mitigating factor against potential escalations that could lead to a regional conflict.
Various international stakeholders possess vested interests in averting a military confrontation between Baku and Tehran, underscoring the broader implications of stability in the region.
Amidst the threats that loom, there are promising avenues for collaboration in areas such as culture, religion, and tourism, which hold the potential to foster improved relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.
Against this backdrop, vigilant monitoring of developments in the Armenian Syunik Region and the evolving dynamics of Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation in defence and regional policy within the Caucasus is imperative, given their potential to catalyse situations that may draw Iran into the fold.
Despite the fact that the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have been derailed for some time, the possibility of a war between the two countries is quite pessimistic. The two countries have many cultural and economic commonalities and it seems unlikely that they will sacrifice it for political interests.
Despite the closure of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Tehran, diplomatic channels through the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Tabriz, the Embassy of Iran in Baku and the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Nakhchivan are still open.
Also, Tehran has clearly stated that they are not interested in confronting Baku. Nevertheless, it is still too early to talk about the prospect of a complete elimination of tension between countries.
The most important demand of Tehran from Baku is that Israel should not use the territory of Azerbaijan against Iran. Tehran has warned that it cannot ignore what it considers a security threat caused by the growing relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Baku should try to convince its southern neighbour that its relations with Tel Aviv are similar to those with Ankara and do not pose a threat to Tehran. The tensions between the parties can only be resolved through negotiations at the highest level.
In recent weeks, face-to-face contacts between Azerbaijan and Iran have recently increased, the parties are discussing political and economic issues. Recently, Baku and Tehran agreed to accelerate the implementation of joint transportation projects.
On the other hand, Turkey and Russia, which have become increasingly close to Iran after the Ukraine war, can act as mediators. Just like China, which played an active role near Iran and Saudi Arabia, now Russia and Turkey can play the same role near Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.
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