Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are in the deepest crisis in recent years. The reason was the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. After that, Baku actually accused the neighboring country of terrorism and evacuated the staff of the diplomatic mission, which is considered a harbinger of war in world politics.
The hunt for “Iranian agents” also began in the Transcaucasian republic, 39 people were detained.
What is known about the attack on the embassy
The attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Iran took place on the morning of January 27. A man with a machine gun then ran into the building of the diplomatic mission. In the room, he opened fire, resulting in the death of the head of the security service of the embassy, Orkhan Askerov, and two more employees were injured.
The President and Foreign Ministry of Iran expressed condolences in connection with the incident. According to the official investigation, the cause of the tragedy was a family conflict. The attacker, a 50-year-old man, during interrogation said that his wife went to the Azerbaijani embassy last spring and did not return.
According to him, he asked several times to meet with the ambassador, but he was refused all the time. Law enforcement agencies found out that in fact the woman, a citizen of Azerbaijan, had left for Baku.
The Azerbaijani media almost immediately began to talk about the involvement of the Iranian special services in the attack. Discussed, including a video filmed on the street at the entrance to the embassy. The footage shows that the attacker seemed to wave his hand to the policeman, who did not interfere with the man with the machine gun.
The Azerbaijani authorities also did not support the Iranian version of what happened. President Ilham Aliyev called the attack a terrorist act. The country’s Foreign Ministry reported that the embassy had already been threatened earlier, Baku demanded to strengthen security measures, but Tehran ignored all requests. Representatives of the deputy corps were not at all shy in their expressions.
“Iran is known as a country that supports terrorism. There are big doubts about the objective investigation of the terrorist attack,” said Sevinj Huseynova, an MP from the ruling party of Azerbaijan.
What happened after the attack
Relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply. The Embassy of Azerbaijan in Iran suspended its work; all employees were evacuated to their homeland by a special flight. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry recommended that its citizens avoid traveling to the Islamic Republic.
Baku also said that Iran is preventing “the exposure of the terrorist attack at the global level” – it is preventing the submission of documents and discussion of what happened in the Non-Aligned Movement and at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.
A video has also been circulated on social networks, which shows how a coffin with the body of a deceased embassy employee is being delivered on board an Azerbaijani plane. The footage shows how Azerbaijani Special Forces push back Iranian soldiers and lift the coffin on their shoulders.
In turn, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan announced a special operation against “Iranian agents”. It is known about the detention of 39 people, among them several media workers. These people allegedly tried, on the instructions of the Iranian special services, to incite inter-religious hatred and destabilize Azerbaijani society, including acting in mosques and social networks.
What contradictions do Iran and Azerbaijan have
Many contradictions have accumulated in relations between Baku and Tehran. One of the conflicting issues is related to the situation in Iran of the Azerbaijani national minority. According to various estimates, there are 25-35 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, this is the largest national minority in the country.
Periodically, their rights and status becomes the subject of heated discussions. So, at the end of November 2022, Ilham Aliyev said that Iranian Azerbaijanis are “part of our nation.”
Another important issue is Azerbaijan’s foreign policy ties. Baku works closely with the worst enemy of the Islamic Republic – Israel. In just 10 months of 2022, the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to $1.2 billion.
Baku supplies the Jewish state with oil and refined products, buys high-tech weapons – dual-use electronics, attack and reconnaissance drones, navigation and optics systems, precision-guided munitions.
Recently, the parties have ceased to be shy and decided to formalize the relationship. In 2021, the trade representation of Azerbaijan in Israel was opened. In October 2022, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz paid an official visit to Baku. A month later, the Azerbaijani authorities announced their decision to open an embassy in Tel Aviv.
In Iran, Israel ‘s activity is treated with hostility. Azerbaijan borders on Iran by land and the Caspian Sea, for the Israeli special operations forces the Transcaucasian republic is ideal as a springboard. Theoretically, Israel can use the territory of Azerbaijan to deploy drone operators, refuel its fighter jets, as a base for sabotage groups.
Another controversial issue is the Zangezur corridor project. Azerbaijan wants to lay a direct road to the Nakhichevan exclave and further to Turkey. The route should pass through the Syunik region of Armenia. The implementation of the project can cut off Iran from Armenia, and therefore interfere with Tehran’s trade with the EAEU countries.
In addition, the construction of the corridor will lead to further strengthening in the Turkish region.
Iran’s concern increased after large-scale clashes took place on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia (outside of Karabakh) in September 2022. Baku has shown that it is ready to resolve the issue by force. Tehran said at the time that it would not tolerate border changes. The opening of an Iranian consulate in the administrative center of the Syunik region, the city of Kapan, was a visible evidence of Armenia’s support.
In response, the Armenian Foreign Ministry promised to open its consulate in the city of Tabriz, which is considered the capital of Iranian Azerbaijanis.
After that, Iran and Azerbaijan began to flex their muscles. In October-November, Baku and Tehran held army exercises in the border areas and exchanged tough statements. Iranian MP Mohammad Safai explained that the maneuvers are a message to all ill-wishers. According to him, any action against the Islamic Republic “will cost the enemies dearly.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that Baku was forced to start exercises “to show that we are not afraid.” “We will do our best to protect our way of life, the secular vector of development of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis, including Azerbaijanis living in Iran,” he said.
What the experts say
Experts assess the prospects for Iranian-Azerbaijani relations differently. Vladimir Novikov, head of the Caucasus department at the Institute of CIS Countries, says that Baku is becoming more and more active.
- After the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan, as they say, felt its strength. Acts actively, even aggressively. It enjoys the support of Turkey and is increasingly asserting its rights and claims. Tehran is also worried about the fate of its own Azerbaijanis: the stronger Azerbaijan, the closer its ties with Turkey, the higher the threat of separatism inside Iran, the interlocutor notes.
Novikov believes that relations between the two countries will continue to deteriorate: “Perhaps, all contacts between Baku and Tehran will be broken. I do not rule out a military escalation. As an option – a clash on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border in the Nakhichevan region.
Iranologist, researcher at the Center for the Study of the Countries of the near and Middle East Vladimir Sazhin says that Iran was weakened by a powerful wave of protests.
- Probably, Baku and Ankara believe that Tehran is not in a position to dictate its will in the South Caucasus. I do not think that it will come to a direct military clash. But the ideological and propaganda wars will take on ever sharper forms, he believes.
Deputy Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Skakov says that the prospects for bilateral relations depend on the general situation in the region and in the world.
“We see clouds gathering over Iran. There is evidence that the protests in the country were provoked from outside; at the end of January, drone strikes were carried out on the territory of Iran. A further aggravation of the situation cannot be ruled out. If it happens, then Azerbaijan can join the broad international anti-Iranian coalition. I do not predict one-on-one clashes between Baku and Tehran. Still, both countries have strong instincts for self-preservation, the expert emphasizes.”
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