Azerbaijan and Iran: Cousins in Conflict
2012-10-08 by Richard Weitz
Azerbaijan shares extensive historical and cultural ties with Iran. In addition to about 500 miles of border, the two countries share common religious and ethnic ties.
Both Iran and Azerbaijan have majority Shiite Muslim populations, in contrast to most Muslims in the world, who belong to the Sunni denomination. About 25 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran, its largest ethnic minority, and easily twice the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Since 1991, these ethnic and cultural connections have proven to be trouble for the two countries’ relations.
In addition, Azerbaijan’s strongly secular government, its general orientation towards the West, and some of its energy and military policies have aroused Iranian hostility. Nonetheless, their economic and security interdependence has le Baku to limit its tensions with Tehran. Azerbaijan must send gas to its Nakchivan enclave via Iran in order to bypass hostile Armenian territory. Furthermore, Iran has a more powerful military.
Iran is home to a large number of ethnic Azeris reside in northern Iran, also known as “Southern Azerbaijan.” They constitute one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, whose members include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This region became a part of modern Iran after the Turkmenchay Treaty divided Azerbaijani Khanates between the Tsarist Russia and Iran. The region’s population is around 17 million and is significantly more religious than the secular population of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s independence rekindled old fears about separatist and independence movements there. Immediately after the World War II, Stalin tried to annex northern Iran to Soviet Azerbaijan in what many consider the opening act of the Cold War. The Republic of Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet president, Abulfez Elchibey, publicly advocated the unification of northern and southern Azerbaijan. Depending on how repressive Tehran becomes and how badly the national economy suffers from foreign sanctions, they might well prefer to join what some Azeri nationalists refer to as “Northern Azerbaijan” rather than remain as Iran’s largest ethnic minority.
Given the differences in the size and culture of the two populations, the Azerbaijani government is reluctant to show interest in reunifying the Azeri nation.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s close ties with Azerbaijan have at times strained ties with Tehran, which worries that the two countries are encouraging separatist sentiments among Iran’s large Azeri minority. It is hard to keep Turkish support for Azeri culture and nationalism in Azerbaijan from having any impact among Iran’s Azeris, though neither Ankara nor Baku formally support Iranian Azeri separatism.
The Iranian government seeks to curtail Azerbaijan’s influence in the region, such as by banning education in Azeri language. Tehran is also conducting a counteroffensive through its “Seher” TV channel, specifically aimed at propagating Iranian views in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Iran and Azerbaijan do share some common interests.
For example, Azerbaijan depends on Iran to supply its isolated enclave of Nakhichevan with energy and other supplies. Azerbaijan supplies Iran with gas in compensation. But Iran has manipulated this interdependence to exert pressure on Baku. For example, Iranian officials threatened to curtail gas shipments to Nakhchivan when Azerbaijan seemed prepared to establish a visa-free system with Turkey but not with Iran.
Iranian threats against Azerbaijan have sharply escalated in recent months.
Recent Iranian provocations towards Azerbaijan have included Iranian warnings that it would strike U.S. nearby allies in the event of an U.S. attack on Iran, recalling the Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan because of a visit by the Israeli president, allegedly trying to orchestrate the assassination of Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, and flying an Iranian warplane through Azeri airspace. The plane incident prompted joint Turkish-Azeri military exercises in Baku, which appeared to deter further military incursions from Iran.
In January 2012, Azerbaijan received 24 cyber attacks from Iran. The websites that were hacked were central government sites, such as the official website of the president of Azerbaijan (president.az), the country’s Communications Ministry’s website (rabita.az), the Interior Ministry’s website (din.gov.az, mia.gov.az), and the Constitutional Court’s website (constcourt.gov.az). A notice was placed on some of the sites accusing the Azerbaijani authorities of “serving Jews.” Iranians claim that Azerbaijan served as a transit route for Mossad agents who have assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists. In August 2012, Tehran began requiring that Azerbaijanis acquire a visa to enter Iran.
Furthermore, the Iranian Foreign Ministry have accused Azerbaijanis of assisting an Israeli-U.S. campaign to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists and complained about Israel’s selling Azerbaijan $1.5 billion in arms. Azerbaijani officials have argued that the purchase was not directed against Iran, that they would never allow foreign governments to use their territory to threaten Iran, and that they only sought foreign weapons and support to strengthen the Azerbaijani military’s capacity against Armenia, whose troops occupy Azerbaijani territory. Even so, in addition to drones, air defense systems, and a missile defense radar, Israel is also providing Azerbaijan Gabriel anti-ship missiles. Given that Armenia does not have a navy, these weapons would prove most useful against the growing number of Iranian warships in the region.
For their part, the Azerbaijani authorities worry about Iranian-backed religious extremists among Azerbaijan’s own predominately Shiite population.
Although the government banned the pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan in 1995, the party remains active underground and continues to attack the authorities’ secular policies, such as their prohibiting the wearing of the hijab in schools.
Azerbaijani officials claim that Iranian agents had recruited the suspects starting in 1999 to help Iran’s secret services gather intelligence on foreign embassies, organizations, and companies in Azerbaijan and stage attacks against them. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps supposedly trained them in espionage and combat techniques at military camps in Iran. Tehran has denied any effort to subvert Azerbaijan, but some Iranian officials claim to represent and defend Shia Muslims throughout the world.
When Baku hosted the Eurovision song contest in May 2012, a storm of vitriol erupted from Iranian clerics, railing against the “anti-Islamic” nature of the contest, especially a planned Gay Pride parade. In June 2012, an aide to Ayatollah Khamenei was refused entry at the Baku airport, an event that fueled an already intense public relations conflict.
Relations between the two countries reached a level where a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan Elman Abdullayev, warned Azerbaijanis that a “visit to Iran may be not safe for them.” This statement came after the Iranian authorities detained two Azerbaijani poets, Shahriyar Hajizade and Farid Huseyn, and initially did not allow Azerbaijani consulate staffs meet with them.
Iranian-Azerbaijani tensions have also related to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Iran and its territory have provided Armenia with a commercial lifeline for Armenia, allowing the country to circumvent to Azerbaijani-Turkey double blockade. Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have remained closed since the early 1990s, requiring that all international trade pass through Georgian and Iranian territory. Armenian-Iranian trade consists mostly of energy products, food, and chemicals. It is thought that Iran provides some arms to Armenia, partly to counter those weapons Israel provides Azerbaijan. Some Shiite fundamentalists in Iran want Tehran to adopt a more balanced or even pro-Azerbaijani stance in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, but thus far realpolitik has won out over any principle of Islamic or Shiite solidarity. Russian has also been warning that Azerbaijan might use the opportunity presented by an Iran-U.S. war to seize the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and other Armenian-occupied territories claimed by Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, it is hard to believe periodic media claims that Azerbaijani is plotting with Israel to facilitate an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Iranian military is much more powerful than Azerbaijani forces, and Iran could also intensify efforts to destabilize the Iranian government, blockade the Nakhchivan enclave, or launch a two-front war with Armenia, perhaps with Russian support.