Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran-Azerbaijan Rift: Historical and Geopolitical Factors

Given the shared gas fields and supply lines for exporting energy sources, the Iran-Azerbaijan rift have had a major impact on the world's energy markets.

Iran-Azerbaijan Rift
An Azerbaijani national flag flies next to the medieval Khudaferin Bridge in Jebrayil district at the country’s border with Iran. STRINGER/ AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

An armed assault on an Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran by an Iranian national identified as Yasin Hosseinzadeh in January 2022 resulted in the death of one person and the injury of two embassy security personnel.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs vehemently denied any political or terrorist motives for the attack, claiming that the assailant’s actions were exclusively motivated by personal and familial matters.

According to this account, the primary cause of the assault may have been preexisting issues between the attacker and his Azerbaijani wife.

Bilateral relations deteriorate in the wake of the incident

The official Iranian account is not shared by the Azerbaijani government or media. The attack, according to the Azerbaijani Parliament, was motivated by Iran’s anti-Azerbaijan media campaigns. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs further asserted that Iran has disregarded earlier demands to safeguard the security of the mission.

Hostile attitudes of Iranian politicians toward Azerbaijan were framed in the days following the attack by the Azerbaijani media as intentional provocation. The Iranian government was accused of deceiving and misleading the public by attributing the attack to familial or personal reasons, according to the Azerbaijan News Agency, which also claimed that the attacker was associated with specific Iranian Revolutionary Guard groups. Additionally, a number of prominent Azerbaijani officials concluded that the assault had been planned by Iranian officials.

The Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran was shut down as a result, with its staff members fleeing Iran. Azerbaijani officials demanded the identification of those in charge of the attack’s planning and arrangements. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Iranian envoy to discuss their displeasure with Iran’s campaigns, and a spokesperson for the ministry accused Iran of being responsible for the assault.

Frequent mishaps and crises between the two countries

The attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran has turned into a predicament that runs the risk of sparking a significant political row between the two countries. Recurring tensions over the past two years highlight the ongoing strain in Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan.

In August 2022, a “Shiite extremist” group stormed the Azerbaijani Embassy in London, hoisting religious banners on the balconies. Azerbaijani officials accused Iranian authorities of encouraging the attack by supporting religious Azerbaijani Shiite groups that oppose Baku’s secular orientation.

Months prior to the attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in London, Azerbaijani authorities decided to close Shiite religious institutions in Baku belonging to the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As a consequence, the Iranian government forbade Azerbaijani warplanes from using their airspace to transport supplies to the Nakhchivan area.

These political crises frequently result in border military tensions, as seen with Iran’s impromptu military maneuvers in October 2021. Azerbaijan’s initial response was a military warning; subsequently, in an effort to deter Iranian threats, it escalated the situation by conducting joint military exercises with Turkey on Iran’s border.

The two nations, which have a 765-kilometer land border and a shared view of the Caspian Sea, contend with a number of geopolitical issues. Given the shared gas fields and supply lines for exporting energy sources, the ongoing hostilities between the two have had a major impact on the world’s energy markets.

These tensions result from geopolitical, economic, and historical factors, leading to contradictions in the interests of the governments in both Iran and Azerbaijan.

Security-related incidents are not the main cause of tension; rather, they are a consequence of long-standing discrepancies. As a consequence, it is anticipated that these discrepancies will have an impact on Iran and Azerbaijan’s relations for an extended period of time.

Azerbaijan’s sensitive location and geopolitical complexities

Azerbaijan is situated on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, bordered by Iran to the south and Russia to the north. The nation shares a short frontier with its ally Turkey and tense military borders with Armenia to the east. Azerbaijan finds itself at the center of a complex web of regional and global interests related to the market for energy resources and the maps of supply chains.

Azerbaijan’s geographic position grew increasingly significant as the conflict in Ukraine emerged. Russia needs additional pipelines to export its gas, and Europe requires Azerbaijani gas to make up for Russian gas’s interruption increased. In order to strengthen its position as a hub for the redistribution of gas, Iran has recently started looking to Russia for increased gas imports, raising sensitivities related to Azerbaijan’s geopolitical role.

Azerbaijan has maintained a balanced foreign policy with all international poles in light of this reality, which is rife with both risks and opportunities, to prevent engagement in any conflicts that could jeopardize its interests. Given its substantial economic ties to Russia as a former Soviet Union member, it has maintained a favorable relationship with Vladimir Putin’s government.

Additionally, Azerbaijan has deepened its strategic alliance with Turkey, with whom it shares ethnic affiliations and a shared history. Additionally, Azerbaijan strengthened its ties with Western nations by striking important energy agreements with Europe over the past year when the continent was in desperate need of gas.

However, due to its concern over the Iranian regime’s ambitions in Azerbaijan’s strategic location and concern over Iranian interference in the country’s political system, Azerbaijan has been unable to establish stable ties with its southern neighbor, Iran. Despite having a large percentage of Shiite Muslims (85%), Azerbaijan’s law is explicitly secular, adopting the historical Turkish model. Iran has repeatedly attempted to influence the Shiite majority in Azerbaijan by expanding the support of Azerbaijani religious organizations loyal to Tehran.

Authorities in Azerbaijan are wary of Iran’s attempts to create an environment loyal to its regime within their country by wooing the Shiite population and fostering an Islamic political environment that adopts Iran’s proposals. Azerbaijan is also increasingly worried about Iranian attempts to dominate and interfere in its affairs due to the increased importance of its geographical location and gas reserves.

In order to strengthen its position against Iranian attempts, Azerbaijan has strengthened its ties with its longtime ally Turkey given the ethnic ties. In order to decrease pressure, Azerbaijan has avoided inciting the Russian government while maintaining a consistent openness toward Western nations.

Relations with Armenia and Israel

Concerns with Iranian-Armenian relations and Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have exacerbated all of these historical and geopolitical variables. In order to get around the blockade put in place by Turkey in the west and Azerbaijan in the east, Armenia profits from a close strategic alliance with Iran. Iran also gains from this relationship in order to circumvent Western sanctions, especially in the area of energy resources.

Iran and Armenia are separated by a narrow 44-kilometer border, and Iran has declined to alter the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in any way that would prevent Iran from maintaining contact with Armenian territory. This Iranian stance unequivocally states that Tehran wishes to keep the territorial routes that are currently open with Armenia.

Azerbaijan views these Iranian-Armenian relations with great apprehension, especially given the history of armed conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan believes that Iran’s relationship with Armenia has become the main support element against Azerbaijan, which in turn benefits from significant support from Turkey.

Despite Iran’s claims of neutrality in the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani officials believe that Iran seeks to limit and encircle the country by providing military and economic support to their opponents in Armenia.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan restored its political and economic ties with Israel in the 90s, and since then, the two nations’ economic ties and cooperation have expanded. In November 2022, Azerbaijan made the decision to establish an embassy in Tel Aviv, making it the first Shiite-majority nation to do so.

Bilateral relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are an additional source of tension between Baku and Tehran. Iran considers Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan a strategic military and security threat to Tehran, as Israel seeks to create a foothold on Iran’s northern borders. Iranian officials have frequently asserted that Israeli security and military troops are on Azerbaijani territory, which they view as a violation.

Despite the historical causes of the present crisis, neither party has, as of yet, indicated any intention to move toward a significant military conflict. The crisis is still being managed diplomatically and politically, and it is anticipated that sporadic and rapid occurrences and responses will persist. Since Turkey is Azerbaijan’s primary ally, it is anticipated that it will continue to act as a mediator to defuse the situation and keep Azerbaijan from any significant or widespread aggression.

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