Azerbaijan-Iran Relations Further Deteriorate as Iran Flies Warplane along Border
Author: Josephine Freund
Mar 20, 2023
On Saturday, March 11, Azerbaijan summoned its Iranian Ambassador to Baku after an Iranian warplane flew close to, as well as crossed over, the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. This provocation on Iran’s part toward Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity comes following an increasing series of similar suggestively threatening actions on Iran’s part, which have only ramped up in 2023.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on this move, indicating the level of deterioration of bilateral ties between the two neighboring nations: “The flight of a military aircraft for more than half an hour near the territories of Azerbaijan is a provocation and unfriendly behavior towards Azerbaijan…. We strongly condemn the Iranian side for such a provocative step, call on them to provide an appropriate explanation, and refrain from such provocative steps in the future.”
When Iranian Ambassador in Azerbaijan Abbas Mousavi was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, he was informed that an Iranian warplane had flown along the Azerbaijan-Iran border between the regions of Zangilan and Bilasuvar for 40 minutes. While the warplane’s flight was threatening in nature, this event does not come as much a surprise following October’s “Mighty Iran” military drills along the Aras River that marks the Azerbaijan-Iran border, as well as the more recent attack in January on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran in which a gunman opened fire on the embassy, killing the Azerbaijani mission’s Chief of Security.
Perhaps in reaction to growing positive relations between Iran’s foe, Israel, and Azerbaijan, Iran claims that it is wary of Azerbaijan’s allowing Israel to open a Mossad branch in Azerbaijan and launch attacks on Iran through supposedly constructing an airfield to launch attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites. However, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador in Israel, Mukhtar Mammadov, has wholeheartedly rejected these claims: “Azerbaijan, from the start, has declared that it will not interfere in the internal matters of other countries and will not allow its territory to be used against other countries…. This is because we expect other countries not to interfere in our internal matters.”
Naser Kanani, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, criticized Azerbaijan’s decision to summon Ambassador Mousavi, while simultaneously claiming that the warplane incident was misinterpreted: “We have relations with Azerbaijan in the field of defense, even the embassy is working actively, our military attaché is working there…. They could have applied to the Iranian embassy and our military attaché over the issue. There would have been an exchange of ideas, and the misunderstanding could have been resolved.” The public responses to the incident from both MFAs are emblematic of the increased bad blood between Azerbaijan and Iran.
The rising tensions between the two neighboring countries has been made especially clear through the rhetoric used in official government statements. As suspicion rises from both sides, the path to swift resolution seems dim, especially as both countries double down on demonstrating their military capacities.
Iran, especially through its military, has been pursuing a thinly-veiled campaign against Azerbaijan, and this can be attributed in part to its own internal strife. Widespread problems within Iran’s government, especially about women’s and ethnic- minority rights, came to a head through mass protests and demonstrations in 2022. Even though the protests have since been largely quelled by the government, demonstrations have continued, and the tension between Iran’s population and the government has been made clear. Iran especially has had to monitor the resentment concentrated in its northern region, which is home to a large ethnically-Azeri population and is known historically to have been ‘southern Azerbaijan.’ This has become a bigger source of alarm for Iran as the Azerbaijani government has put out official statements in support of the Azerbaijani minority groups in Northwestern Iran. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev explained about Azerbaijani military drills conducted in response to the ’Mighty Iran’ drills: "We had to conduct military exercises on the Iranian border to show that we are not afraid of them. We will do our best to protect the secular lifestyle of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis around the world, including Azerbaijanis in Iran. They are part of our people." He also maintained that such aggression of Iran toward Azerbaijan is quite new.
While Azerbaijan has generally maintained cordial, working relations with Iran, it has shown recently that it will not tolerate Iran’s threats, especially to its border security. Even with such tensions mounting between Azerbaijan and Iran, it is in both countries’ bests interests to maintain positive, diplomatic relations with each other. Although for now, this possibility has become less likely for the near future.