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Azerbaijan-Iran Tensions Resurrect Long-Term Disputes

World Politics Review

Iran and Azerbaijan have had a volatile diplomatic relationship ever since Azerbaijan gained its independence 20 years ago. But even against the backdrop of their bumpy history, the deterioration in relations over the past few months has been swift. Azerbaijan’s recent moves to strengthen its alliance with Israel have certainly exacerbated tensions with Iran, but they are not the only cause of conflict. In addition to the two sides’ history of mutual suspicion, violent disagreement over sovereignty and each other’s choice of regional diplomatic partners are also prominent causes of strife. 

A central source of long-term tension between the two neighbors is the legal status of Iran’s ethnic Azeris, who comprise 16 percent of Iran’s population. Although some ethnic Azeris in Iran have dual citizenship, Azerbaijan sometimes claims sovereignty over all ethnic Azeris and has at times commented on legal issues affecting Iran’s Azeri minority population. Recently published school textbooks in Azerbaijan even relabeled Iran’s northern border province “Southern Azerbaijan.” When Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, gave a domestically uncontroversial 2011 speech describing himself as leader of all the world’s Azeris, the Iranian government took offense. The chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, dismissed the declaration as reflecting the “innate sense of inferiority” that Azeris feel toward Iran. The Iranian press portrayed Aliyev’s comments as irresponsible, accusing him of soliciting dual loyalties among Iran’s Azeri population. 

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has sporadically but unofficially suppressed Azeri-language publications and cultural organizations. More recently, Iranian officials have accused some Azeris who routinely travel between Azerbaijan and Iran of being spies for the Azeri government. As justification, officials point to Baku’s increased cooperation with Israel, Aliyev’s claim of sovereignty over Iranian Azeris and alleged recruiting by Western intelligence agencies in Azerbaijan, which Tehran says is widespread. Iran recently detained several Iranian Azeris suspected of cooperating with Israel in the killings of several nuclear scientists, part of what Iranian officials believe to be a wide-ranging espionage campaign. 

Meanwhile, fear of Iranian espionage is rising in Azerbaijan as well. The Azeri Defense Ministry claims to have discovered many Iranian agents engaged in planning violent counterespionage operations in Azerbaijan. The most publicized incident involved attempted assassinations of Israeli diplomats in Baku, which led the Azeri Embassy to formally complain to Tehran and resulted in increased Azeri-Israeli joint surveillance of possible Iranian terror threats. Last week, the Azeris detained several Iranian citizens as well as an Azerbaijani journalist working for Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency on drug charges. Azeri police are also investigating the December stabbing death of  Azerbaijani journalist Rafiq Tagi in Baku. Many Azeris believe that Iran killed Tagi, a critic of radical Islam and of Iran, in reprisal for his recently published criticisms of the country.   

Azerbaijan and Iran also diverge over their choices of strategic regional partners. For Iran, the major concern is Azerbaijan’s close working relationship with Israel and its growing friendship with the United States. While Azerbaijan’s economic and technological cooperation with Israel stretches back more than a decade, the two have recently accelerated security exchanges and military training. As a result, the Iranian Foreign Ministry now claims that Israel has turned Azerbaijan into a proxy state for espionage and military operations. The ministry also points to arrangements such as the Northern Distribution Network, NATO’s supply route to Afghanistan, as a sign that Azerbaijan has become a dangerous source of logistical support for Iran’s enemies. Last month’s announcement of a $1.5 billion arms sale by Israel to Azerbaijan greatly angered the Iranian government and prompted demands that Azerbaijan account for its choice of weapons supplier. 

For Azerbaijan’s part, the longest-standing source of diplomatic friction with Iran is the latter’s close economic relationship with Armenia. Much of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is colored by its conflict with Armenia over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku’s contention that Armenia is a belligerent neighbor. As a result, Azerbaijan’s relationships with other neighboring states are cultivated with an eye to Armenia. Linguistic and cultural ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan have been strengthened by both countries’ opposition to Armenian foreign policy goals. In fact, Azerbaijan’s friendship with Israel was bolstered in the 1990s by the support Israel offered to Azerbaijan during its war with Armenia. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s trade and energy accords with Armenia are a source of widespread anger in Azerbaijan. And Azeri officials maintain that if Iran has a right to trade with Armenia, then Azerbaijan can certainly buy weapons from Israel to protect itself against aggression in the disputed border regions occupied by Armenia. Pressed about the arms deal last week, Azeri Ambassador to Iran Cavansir Ahundzade assured Tehran that Israeli weapons would only be used to protect Azeri territory from Armenian occupation.
Efforts at addressing the sources of bilateral tensions are underway in both countries. Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi spoke of outside -- read: Western -- interests undermining Iran's “good relations” with its northern neighbor, while the Iranian Foreign Ministry still refers to the Azeris as good neighbors. Just this week, on March 7, the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan began a series of trilateral meetings in Azerbaijan’s Nakichevan border province. Among the topics they were expected to address were peacekeeping in the Caucasus and regional border-security concerns due to smuggling and terrorism, although Iran probably also pressed Azerbaijan to account for its dealings with Israel. 

Though useful, such conferences are unlikely to result in major changes in either side’s position in the short term. Nor would they contain the potential fallout were Azerbaijan even passively to aid U.S. or Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, which would be viewed by Tehran as an act of war. Azerbaijan has many important energy and infrastructure investments that will require additional security if tensions with Iran escalate, and it will be painfully close to the action should military conflict with Iran occur. 

Greg Caramenico is a journalist and analyst covering finance, science and energy policy, as well as Italy, Iran and the Levant. He has a master's degree in history from Vanderbilt University.