Azerbaijan-Iran Relations Deteriorate Amid Shifting World Dynamics
Author: Josephine Freund
Apr 18, 2023
With Azerbaijan’s most recent expulsion of certain Iranian diplomats, it has become clear that Azerbaijan-Iran relations have entered a new period of undeniable tension. The bad blood between the two neighboring countries has been brewing for some time now and has come to a head in 2023. On April 6, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Iranian Ambassador Seyyed Abbas Mousavi and informed him that “four employees of the Iranian Embassy were declared persona non grata by the Azerbaijani government due to activities incompatible with their diplomatic status and that contradict the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; those persons were ordered to leave the territory of Azerbaijan within 48 hours.”
This year’s incidents leading to such tension began with the January 27 attack by a gunman on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran that resulted in the death of the embassy’s head of security, as well as serious injuries of other embassy staff. Further to this incident, on March 11, an Iranian warplane provocatively flew along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, between the regions of Zangilan and Bilasuvar, and allegedly encroached on Azerbaijani airspace.
Although Iran’s MFA denied that it bore responsibility for these incidents, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it would no longer buy Iran’s excuses, and took action both rhetorically through official statements and with arrests. While Iran deemed the attack as merely an individual acting on a personal vendetta, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev rejected Iran’s explanation and instead called it a “terrorist attack.”
The January 27 embassy attack resulted in Azerbaijan detaining seven people supposedly involved in the attack and further arresting 39 people due to allegedly being a part of an Iranian espionage network. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs explained that those arrested were "posing as believers, made propaganda for Iran on social networks, and abused the freedom of religion in the country, carrying out the assignments of the Iranian special services."
The attacks did not stop there, however, and on March 28, Azerbaijani lawmaker and Member of the Milli Majlis Fazil Mustafa, known for his criticism of Iran, experienced an assassination attempt in Azerbaijan. According to Turan News Agency, the attack on Mustafa is believed to have been carried out by Iranian Secret Services. This is, in part, due to a Telegram announcement, posted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Telegram Channel, 30 minutes after the attack stating, “Fazil Gazanfaroglu (Mustafa), an Azerbaijani MP known for his anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic statements, has been murdered.” Azerbaijan swiftly arrested four people suspected of being involved in this attack.
With denials of involvement in all of these provocations from the Iranian government being flimsy at best, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it will no longer give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and with this, has ushered in a new chapter of open tension between the two countries.
Iranian aggression toward Azerbaijan is undoubtedly both a symptom and a cause of a reshuffling of alliances in the region, as well as a shifting of global dynamics, resulting in new partnership blocs. While Israel-Azerbaijan relations for quite some time now have been growing, their productive cooperation recently progressed, as Azerbaijan officially opened its embassy in Tel Aviv on March 29. Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Jeyhun Bayramov visited Israel for the occasion. In a joint press conference with Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, the two Defense Ministers were a united front against Iranian aggression.
Cohen stated “Israel and Azerbaijan share the same perception of the Iranian threats….The Iranian ayatollah regime threatens both our regions, finances terrorism, and destabilizes the entire Middle East.” Further, Bayramov cosigned this statement with emphasis of the importance of the Azerbaijan-Israel partnership, highlighting Azerbaijan’s gratitude for support in its military ventures, hinting at drones as well as the Iron Dome missile interceptor technology provided by Israel.
Since, then the two countries have demonstratively nurtured their relations through high-level visits, ignoring complaints from Tehran. Following the significant show of partnership through the embassy opening and visit from Bayramov in March, Cohen arrived in Baku on April 18 for an official visit. Further, there has been speculation that the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, will visit Baku in May. About the deepening of the Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership, the Azerbaijani Ambassador in Israel, Mukhtar Mammadov, stated, “Azerbaijan has been providing the State of Israel with up to 40 percent of its oil demand, and we now want to go beyond that….I truly believe that there are much more opportunities between Azerbaijan and Israel in the field of trade, economics, agriculture, technology and other fields.”
As Azerbaijani relations with Israel have continued to bloom into a productive partnership, Iran has increasedly turned into a dangerous and meddlesome actor not only in regional politics, but also on the world stage. This can in part be attributed to its change of administration as well as internal strife. The more hardline tactics of Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi have resulted in both turbulence within Iran’s civil society and the deterioration of diplomatic decorum.
Throughout Raisi’s term that began in 2021, Iran has ramped up its hardline stances on religion, as well as increased use of capital punishment. The death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd, at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police, sparked a groundbreaking series of protests in September 2022 that reached all of Iran’s 31 provinces, and still yet have not fully died down. Iran’s population is comprised of many different ethnic minorities, and these protests have demonstrated the discontentment of many of these communities. Notably, Iran has a considerable ethnic Azeri population, making up around 16 percent of Iran’s total population. The protests, which have called for a complete overhaul and even dissolution of Iran’s theocratic government, were met with fierce punishment from the Raisi government. The current administration has seen the rise in power of the IRGC, and this has resulted in intense crackdowns on protests as well as on minorities. In January and February 2023 alone, the IRGC executed at least 94 people. The chilling responses to unrest on its own soil is a demonstration of how threatened the current Iranian government feels: threats to its current status quo are coming both from inside the country and also from rapidly changing regional dynamics.
Following the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Azerbaijan-Iran relations were an unexpected casualty. While the war ended with major territorial gains for Azerbaijan, Iran lost out on its drug trafficking channels throughout the disputed area. Following the war, President Aliyev provided details on Iranian interest in the disputed region: "Over the past year, after Azerbaijan had regained control over the 130-kilometer (81-mile) section of the state border with Iran, which was under the control of Armenia for about 30 years, and thereby blocked a drug trafficking route from Iran through the Jabrayil district of Azerbaijan to Armenia and further to Europe, the volume of heroin we have seized in other sections of the Azerbaijan-Iran border has doubled compared to the same period of previous years.”
While both the Iranian and Armenian governments denied such activity, the U.S. State Department in its International Drug Control Strategy for 2021, stated, "Due to the long- standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for almost the entire 2020, neither Armenian nor Azerbaijani customs services worked along the Araks River, separating Iran from the Armenian-controlled territories of Fizuli, Jebrail, and Zangilan, which made it possible to freely transport through these territories drugs in Armenia.”
With the growing volatility of Iran both within and outside its borders, it looms larger as a bigger threat not only to regional stability, but also to global safety. While the U.S. strategy has maintained a cautious outlook toward gradual engagement with Iran, the more aggressive the country becomes, the better it would be for the United States to recognize the concrete threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests. For this reason, enhancing a security partnership with Baku would align with U.S. short- and long-term interests.
Iran through its actions has shown that, like Russia, it seeks to consolidate its regional clout through destabilizing diplomatic progress. With speculation that Armenia has been receiving drone technology from Iran, and through Iran’s endeavors to maintain its hand in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, the character of its strategy poses a direct threat to regional reconciliation efforts.
There does seem to be an emerging understanding in the U.S. State Department over the importance of promoting Azerbaijan’s security endeavors so as to strengthen its outpost against Iranian encroachment. On March 22, during a Q&A portion of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that “Azerbaijan has a long border with Iran, which needs defending.” His statement marked an important step in recognizing that the United States and Azerbaijan face a common security threat from Iran, and that strengthening resolve against that threat is a vital step forward.
As discontentment and unrest unfold in Iran, the bolder and more aggressive Tehran is a worrisome actor on the world stage. Iran’s numerous recent attacks and provocations against Azerbaijani national security and territorial integrity seem to have provided Azerbaijan no choice but to delineate a new chapter of more openly tense diplomatic relations with Iran. At the same time, Azerbaijan and Israel have recently poured attention into nurturing their diplomatic relations and endeavors. While this comes much to the chagrin of Iran, these relations nonetheless have so far proven productive, especially in the fields of defense and energy security. The United States in the past has been somewhat reticent to strongly engage with Azerbaijan regarding Iran, and certainly needs a more comprehensive approach in its relations with Azerbaijan, in particular with Azerbaijan’s standing with Iran. However, as Washington’s historic ally Israel has demonstrated its urge to deepen cooperation with Baku, that could eventually lead to an enhanced U.S. security policy with Azerbaijan.