Azerbaijan and Iran have deep historical, cultural relations. They share a border of about 760 kilometers. Since Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, ties between Baku and Tehran have been neighborly but at times difficult.
War in 1992 and the consequent Armenian occupation of its territories preoccupied Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Occupation of the territories of a fellow Muslim country did not disturb Iran, which seemed to stand closer to Armenia. Iran’s stance throughout this period was not well received by Azerbaijan.
In the autumn of 2020 when large-scale fighting broke out, Azerbaijan inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Armenian side and took back the majority of its territories. Iran remained silent. Only towards the end of the conflict, it took a more visible stance, stating that the territories over which fighting was taking place belonged to Azerbaijan.
This war brought to the surface, once again, several issues of irritation for Iran.
-Victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia was overjoyed by ethnic Azeris in Iran. They demonstrated their support in city centers. They also staged protests demanding the closure of the Iran-Armenia borders.
Estimates of Azeris in Iran vary from 15 to 25 million, out of a total population of around 85 million. They mostly live in northwestern parts, with Tabriz and Urumiya being major Azeri cities. Some refer to this area not as north of Iran but south of Azerbaijan. Within this scope, the rise of nationalist sentiment among its Azeri population did not appeal to Iranian authorities.
-Turkey’s contribution to Azerbaijan’s war effort was a major factor in its victory. Very close ties between the two Turkic countries, which are popularly referred to as “one nation, two states”, were even further consolidated.
Victory parades in Baku, with the participation of Turkish army units and the leaders of the two countries standing next to each other on the podium, must have been not so pleasant sights for Iran.
Another actor who also contributed to the Azerbaijan war effort was Israel. These two countries have developed close relations over the years. At one point in the past, President Aliyev stated that relations with Israel are very diverse and especially strong in the field of the defense industry. These ties have been disturbing Iran for some time.
On top of all that, the outcome of the war had a bearing on Iranian trade activities. Throughout the occupation of Karabakh, Iran used to transport food, fuel, and other items to Karabakh and Armenia and also to other parts of West Asia, unhindered and through occupied Azeri land.
This all changed when Azerbaijan took back its territories. Iran’s transport routes were affected. They wanted to continue as if nothing had changed. Azerbaijan reminded the Iranians of the new circumstances. Iranians did not pay attention and it is said that they even attempted to cheat their way by putting Armenian plates on Iranian trucks.
Azerbaijan, as a sovereign state, continued its controls and imposed a “road tax” on Iranian trucks moving through its territory. In the process, some Iranian lorry drivers were detained. There was a case of a heroin seizure. Azerbaijani authorities also expressed concern about the possible transport of military equipment.
Iran must have felt under pressure on a number of fronts, especially in its home territory and what it considers as its “backyard”. Iran revealed its dismay and demonstrated its readiness.
Foreign Minister Abdullahian stated Iran’s objection to the presence of the “Zionist regime” near its borders.
In reference to a Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan trilateral military exercise (Three Brothers 2021) which was held in September in Baku, Foreign Ministry of Iran stated that “these military exercises violated international conventions banning the military presence of countries other than the five states which border the Caspian Sea”.
In October, Iran started military exercises along its borders with Azerbaijan. The Iranian commander of Land Forces also voiced Iran’s stance against the “Zionist State” near its borders. In addition, he expressed concern about the presence of fighters (from Syria) that he claimed were brought in to Azerbaijan during the fighting over Karabakh.
Azerbaijan reacted in a cool manner. In an interview with Turkey's Anadolu Agency, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed his surprise about Iran’s reactions and steps.
Other major regional actors, Turkey and Russia, have kept silent. They are observing and probably expecting the flare-up to die out.
It seems that things are blown out of proportion and we may be following a case of being lost in translation.
In the case of the transport issue, it is a matter of adapting to changed circumstances and respecting the decisions of a sovereign state. Iran’s perceptions of threat on home ground and vicinities may be more complicated but again, diplomacy, goodwill, and cooperation are the remedies.
These recent developments have once again served as a reminder of the relevance and importance of regional cooperation.
Up until recently, Karabakh was an obstacle for most multinational cooperation efforts in the region. Now, this obstacle has been removed and the political environment is ripe for this kind of cooperation.
For many years, Turkey has been desirous to create regional cooperation platforms.
One such mechanism, Turkey-Iran-Azerbaijan Trilateral Meetings at the level of Foreign Ministers was established in 2010. Even though dates have not been set yet, the next meeting will be in Tehran. It would be a good opportunity to take up issues of contention.
Recently, Turkey came up with the idea of a six-party cooperation format, which included Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran. There is no progress on that yet, but the proposal has been made.
In any case, such inclusive and cooperation-oriented initiatives should be encouraged as they offer countries a good opportunity to exchange views on bilateral and regional issues and explore possibilities of cooperation in various fields. Regional mechanisms could also complement and support bilateral efforts to overcome problems as in the case of the recent Azeri-Iranian situation.