Background of Iran-Azerbaijan Tension

Background of Iran-Azerbaijan Tension
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

The first critical test of President Ebrahim Raisi's promise to establish good relations with neighbours, who came into office on August 3, was Azerbaijan. Iranian officials made some negative statements, and the close relationship Turkey established with Azerbaijan created discomfort in Iran during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted 44 days during the reign of his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, and came to an end on November 10, 2020, with a Russia-brokered peace deal. In fact, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, made an ill-mannered statement referring to the poem that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited at the Victory Parade in Baku and made it clear that Iran is not satisfied with the equation in the South Caucasus.

Developments on the Iran-Azerbaijan Border

In this period, which has been exactly one year since the operation launched by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27, 2020, to liberate its territory occupied by Armenia, it is seen that Iran has created a new tension through the discourse and actions it has developed against Azerbaijan. Last August, Azerbaijan detected that various Iranian vehicles were entering and leaving the Karabakh region without permission. Thereupon, on August 11, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador to Baku and gave a diplomatic note. Despite the warning, Iranian trucks have continued to enter the region. Then, Azerbaijan took a slightly stricter stance and set up a checkpoint on the Gorus-Gafan road, which connects Iran to Armenia, on August 25, it started inspections on the grounds that two Armenian soldiers attacked an Azerbaijani soldier in the region. While the tension was expected to be lowered through diplomatic means, it heated up. The fact that the special forces of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan held a joint military drill called "Three Brothers 2021" on September 12 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, increased the criticism in Iran. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh targeted both Turkey and Pakistan saying that "according to the Caspian Sea’s legal conventions, the military presence of non-littoral states in this sea is illegal”. In response to the tripartite exercise, Iran announced that it would launch a maneuver on its borders with Azerbaijan, called "Khyber Conquerors". Based on this, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has hardened his rhetoric against Iran in an interview he gave to Anadolu Agency on September 27 and remarked that “First of all, I have to say every country can carry out any military drill on its own territory. It’s their sovereign right. No one can speak for that. But when we look at the past, we see that this never happened. Why now, and why exactly on our border? These questions are being asked by the Azerbaijani public, not me. All Azerbaijanis in the world ask this.”

Iranian Discontent With Israel and Domestic Political Balances

Considering that the new President Raisi delivered positive messages to Azerbaijan, the question of what factors stirred up the tension between Azerbaijan and Iran becomes even more critical. It should firstly be noted that Iran's primary concern for the South Caucasus is the Israeli presence. According to the Israeli media, in August 2021, Azerbaijan is in negotiation with Israel to purchase 2 billion worth of weapons. In addition, Azerbaijan opened a trade representative with diplomatic status in Tel Aviv, Israel, in the same month. The fact that a similar process is taking place with Azerbaijan after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates started diplomatic relations with Israel with the Abraham Accords signed in August-September 2020 raises concerns in Iran. In this case, Azerbaijan will be the second Shiite majority state to open an embassy in Israel after Bahrain, a situation that politically overshadows Iranian influence on the Shiite world. As a matter of fact, that naming its maneuver with reference to the Battle of Khaybar that took place between Muslims and Jews in 629 reflects the perception of legitimacy that Iran wants to create in the Islamic World.

Iran, especially the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is aware of the drawbacks of extreme Persian nationalism, which has been influential in the country for a while, and tries to exit through an intense anti-Arab and anti-Turkish discourse turning into hate speech against Turks during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. While Iran left unanswered why it supported Armenia instead of Azerbaijan, the rising of offending discourses towards Turks in Iran turned the Nagorno-Karabakh War from a foreign policy issue into a domestic one. For this reason, it is desired to unite the crystallized masses in the country against Israel with reference to the history of Islam. As a matter of fact, Supreme Leader Khamenei, in his speech at the graduation ceremony of military students in Tehran, which he attended via video conference on October 3, touching upon the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, stated that the problems should be solved without the interference of foreigners, referring to Israel.

Another important point in this context is that mostly the Iranian army (the Artesh) elements which were established in the Pahlavi Period, appeared in the maneuver rather than Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is important in terms of domestic policy balances in the country. Since the IRGC, which has influence in the Shiite world through the "axis of resistance" discourse, does not want to give the impression that it fights against predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan. Therefore, it is possible to say that the latest maneuver is a reflection of domestic political competition in Iran. Considering the high support the IRGC has given to the Raisi government, it is observed that it did not want to cause Raisi any trouble in these first months of his office. However, certain elements within Iran who are uncomfortable with Raisi’s emphasis on cooperation with neighbours want to undermine this process with some of their discourses and actions.

Is Regional Cooperation Possible?

While the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan is increasing, the region needs cooperation rather than conflict. In this context, the six-country regional cooperation platform proposal that President Erdogan brought to the agenda during his visit to Baku on December 10, 2020, comes to the fore. This initiative, in which three Caucasian countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) and non-regional actors Turkey, Russia and Iran are envisaged to take part, was first introduced in 1999 by then-President Suleyman Demirel at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting held in Istanbul. The question of what should be done to materialize this proposal, which has not been realized for more than twenty years, was also brought up during the closed doors conference titled “Azerbaijan-Turkey-Iran Trilateral Relations” hosted by the Center of Analysis of International Relations affiliated to the Presidency of Azerbaijan and attended by İRAM. The conference was attended by delegations from three states, and constructive suggestions were set out. Key points discussed at this meeting were the necessity of ensuring mutual trust, focusing on direct channels of communication, initiating the institutionalization process as soon as possible by forming sub-working groups. It seems unlikely that the six countries will come together in the near future; however, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan can form a joint mechanism. As a matter of fact, during the bilateral meeting held on September 23-24, in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, foreign ministers of three countries welcomed the holding a three-way meeting between Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan in Tehran.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Iran's negative rhetoric towards Turkey over the Zangezur Corridor overshadows the potential for tripartite cooperation. There has been observed negative news in the Iranian press on this corridor that will be established as part of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement and will provide a link between Turkey and Azerbaijan. It is apparent that Iran wants to play a role in the reconstruction of the liberated areas from the occupation and perceives Turkey as a rival. However, the dominance of anti-Turkey rhetoric under this illusion not only poisons bilateral relations but also complicates regional cooperation opportunities. In this context, it is noteworthy that Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan paid a visit to Iran on October 4.

It is necessary to evaluate Mirzoyan’s visit within the context of a new one that was reflected in the Armenian press a few days ago. According to the news, the Armenian Defense Minister met with the Iranian Ambassador to Armenia and the military attaché of the Iranian Embassy in Armenia on October 1. The parties held a consultation on military cooperation. If these allegations are true, Iran’s attitude cannot be considered as mindful of regional cooperation. However, adapting constructive discourse and action will accelerate joint projects such as the Rasht-Astara railway and the Khodaafarin Dam between Iran and Azerbaijan in the short term. In the medium and long term, it will pave the way for multilateral cooperation. Therefore, a regional policy in which diplomatic mechanisms are active will serve the interests of both Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.