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Tense Iran-Azerbaijan relations run counter to the national interests of both countries

October 6, 2021 at 5:05 pm

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov (R) meets with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baku on December 20, 2017 [TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP via Getty Images]

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have fluctuated in recent years, with the Islamic Republic’s policy toward the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War increasing tension. After the end of the Second Karabakh War, the process of rebuilding the liberated areas of Karabakh was accelerated and it was hoped that Iranian companies would be able to participate in some important projects in these areas. Due to the common ethnic and religious roots of Azerbaijan with Iran, Iran’s policy towards Baku is closely scrutinised by Iranians.

It was reported by the State Custom Committee that, based on the calculations by APA-Economics, between January and August 2021, the value of the trade exchange between Iran and Azerbaijan was 25.4 per cent higher than the trade value in the same period last year. The value of Azerbaijan’s exports to Iran was 14.6 per cent less than it was in the previous year. Azerbaijan’s imports from Iran reached witnessed a 30.3 per cent increase.

New tension

Recent tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan began last summer and peaked in the last days of September. In August, after Iranian trucks left Azerbaijani territory and went to the Armenian-dominated Nagorno-Karabakh region, Baku expressed its dissatisfaction with Iran. On 11 August, it was declared by the Foreign Ministry that Baku had sent a note of protest to Tehran in relation to the illegal trucks sent by Iran to the Karabakh region in Azerbaijan. The Iranian ambassador, who was invited to the Foreign Ministry, was provided with information regarding the illegal entry to Karabakh of Iranian cargo vehicles. The ministry stated that the protest note had been an expression of their opposition to Iran’s vehicles, which continuously went in and out of the Karabakh region in Azerbaijan without Baku’s official approval. 

Despite Azerbaijan’s official protest, the shipment of goods to the Armenian-controlled region of Karabakh (Khankendi) continued, which caused the Azerbaijani police to stop and detain Iranian trucks. It was reported by Armenia’s National Security Service on 12 September that Iranian vehicles were stopped and checked by Azerbaijani police near the village of Eyvazli. As the controversy with Armenia regarding ‘land corridors’ exacerbates, Azerbaijan hinders Iranian truck drivers from passing through its territory with the aim of providing goods to Armenia and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh occupied by ethnic-Armenians. On 15 September, this controversy heightened when it was affirmed by Azerbaijan’s internal affairs ministry that they had detained two Iranian trucks.  The inspection of Iranian trucks in the occupied areas of Qaraba led to an official protest by the Iranian government, and this issue was repeatedly raised on social media.

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Some Iranian military experts believe that any escalation of tensions in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, which may lead to war, will damage the Azerbaijani economy. Whether or not Azerbaijan prevents the entrance of Iranian trucks and releases imprisoned Iranian drivers, today the armed forces of Iran and Azerbaijan are at the highest level of military tension which, even if it does not lead to a full-scale war, could cause economic damage to Azerbaijan.

Some Iranian officials consider the good cooperation and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan as being against Iran’s national interests and national security and introduced military exercise of Iranian military forces on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border as a warning to Azerbaijan about the possible presence of Israel in the country. Matthew Bryza, former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, believes that after the victory in the 44-day war, the opposition among the Azerbaijani Turks in Iran to the policy pursued by Tehran intensified. Iran is aware of this. Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan military exercises were also welcomed by Turks in Iran. That is why Iran is trying to tell the local Azerbaijani Turks not to be inspired to cause unrest. Azerbaijani Turks living in Iran during the Azerbaijani-Armenian war held demonstrations in the south of Iran in support of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani Turks in Azerbaijan and Iran, who revolted against the Armenian occupation of Karabakh, demonstrated unity.

Israeli-Azerbaijani relations have become an excuse for Iran’s policy against Azerbaijan. In line with its national interests, Azerbaijan has established good military and economic relations with Israel, and the two sides intend to increase the level of relations in all areas. This is similar to Iran increasing its relations with Armenia during the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev declared that despite his country’s warnings to Iran to stop the transportation of goods to Nagorno-Karabakh—which is an ethnic Armenian enclave, internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory—Iran did not take them into consideration. Meanwhile, the statements of the Iranian Supreme Leader’s representative in Ardabil Province, Hassan Ameli, and some members of parliament against the government of Azerbaijan, increased the level of tension between the two countries. The holding of a joint Turkish-Azerbaijani-Pakistani Special Forces military exercise in Baku was also one of the reasons for holding an IRGC manoeuver on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. A few days ago, the Revolutionary Guards sent military equipment to the border areas of Iran and Azerbaijan, holding military exercises in the region.

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Iran has stated various reasons for the military exercise, including military training and border protection. However, it did not hesitate to emphasise that the target of the manoeuver and military presence on the northwestern border is Israel. The common religious and ethnic roots of Iran and Azerbaijan must always be considered by both the military forces of Iran and the government. Foreign policy is the arena where the national interests of each country are realised in relation to a multitude of diverse and contradictory actors from whom each country seeks its greatest benefit. Reducing tensions in the region and maintaining stability and security are in the interest of both countries. With the possible lifting of sanctions, the two countries can cooperate in a shared field in the Caspian Sea.

To reduce tensions in the region, Iran can play an active role in regional stability and security by adopting new geopolitics in the region after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and improving relations with Azerbaijan. Cooperation between Iran and Azerbaijan with other countries in the region is a necessary condition for creating stability and security in the region. Each country can have diplomatic and political relations with other countries in line with its national interests and these relations should not face opposition from neighbouring countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.