Past and Present of Iran-Azerbaijan Tension

Past and Present of Iran-Azerbaijan Tension
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As the meetings that we held with the deputies, academics, and experts from the two countries in the recent period demonstrate, relations with Iran have risen to the top of the agenda for Azerbaijan, at least as much as relations with Armenia. Although the tension between the two countries has visibly increased after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, these tense relations have a long history.

Historical Background

The historical relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, which was established in 1918 as a modern nation-state, go back quite a long way. While the origin of the name Azerbaijan reveals this past, in the modern period, there have been debates between Persian/Iranian nationalists and intellectuals living in the Republic of Azerbaijan about which geographical region is Azerbaijan exactly. Iranian nationalists argue that the Azerbaijan region is historically the southern part of Aras, which is an inseparable part of Iran and the homeland of a sub-Persian ethnicity (Azeri) that has lost its authentic identity. In addition, they insist that the north of Aras is registered as the Aran region in historical geographical texts. In line with this, the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918 got significant reactions from Iran, which even proposed to change the name of Azerbaijan to Azadistan (The Land of Freedom). This discussion regarding geographical boundaries and naming is very similar to the debates between Greece and Macedonia in the recent past. There have been discussions over historical and cultural figures such as Shah Ismail or Nizami Ganjavi, like the ones regarding Alexander the Great, and both parties own these and similar figures. Those who want to understand the Iranian perspective on this issue can take a look at the book titled Iran: The Construction of National Identity, edited by Hamid Ahmadi, which is also available in Turkish. 

Although the collective memories of Iranians regarding Azerbaijan were shaped around the ideal of historical Iranian lands left to Russia with the Treaty of Turkmenchay, the Soviets' capture of Baku in 1920 and the annexation of Azerbaijan to the USSR left Iran with a bigger problem. The occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan by the USSR in the Second World War and the formation of autonomous republics by the Russians deepened Iran’s anxieties. During this period, the country under the rule of the Pahlavi Dynasty tried to protect itself from Soviet expansionism by developing close relations with the West, but it could not form a special relationship with the Azerbaijan region. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created both opportunities and problems for Iran. While the country got rid of the military-political threat of the superpower on its borders, the South Azerbaijan discourses and Turkish nationalist policies of the new Azerbaijani elites, led by Elchibey, were met with concern by Iran. Meanwhile, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia created a significant opportunity for Tehran. The war and occupation provided benefits for Iran in several ways. The first of these is the collapse of Elchibey's administration, known for its Turkish nationalist identity and anti-Iran rhetoric, with the impact of the dynamics brought by the war. As a result, a new Azerbaijan emerged under the leadership of Heydar Aliyev, who came to the fore with his more realistic and rational behavior. Secondly, the halt of the war after the occupation of approximately 20% of Azerbaijan's lands had placed Azerbaijan in a constantly passive and weak position, and it continued until the end of the 1990s. Even though the Baku administration, which has expanded its power and wealth thanks to the increasing oil revenues and international energy agreements in the 2000s, and Tehran have had problems regarding some issues such as the sharing of the Caspian Sea, the occupation of Karabakh has always been a shackle around Azerbaijan’s ankles. So much so that Iran's unbalanced "cultural" activities in Azerbaijan were condoned in order not to attract the reaction of Tehran. Throughout the process, one of Tehran's main opposing discourses against the increasing Turkish nationalism in Iran has been "Baku, which cannot cope with Armenia of two million”. 

The Turning Point:  Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

The extreme reactions from Iran as a response to the war that took place in 2020 and resulted in victory with Türkiye's active political and psychological support should be evaluated in the context of this background. During and after the war, the Iranian press started to publish suggestions such as creating a safe zone by entering the occupied lands, providing military support to Armenia, or establishing and supporting armed groups affiliated with Iran in Azerbaijan. Iranian officials have repeatedly declared that they will not allow the closure of Iran’s borders with Armenia, that opening the Zangezur Corridor will result in Iran being bypassed from the regional equation, and that they will not allow foreign powers, especially Israel, to settle on their borders. In this context, they held consecutive exercises on the borders of Azerbaijan. Moreover, Türkiye has had its share of accusations, and some publications in Iran have claimed that Ankara has created a NATO/Turani corridor on Iran's borders. After the war, one of the important changes in the 30-year-old Iran-Azerbaijan relations has been that the Azerbaijani authorities, especially Ilham Aliyev, adopted a harsher discourse against Iran, and they used a sort of rhetoric targeting the Azerbaijani Turks in Iran by leaving the defense position behind. Azerbaijani media has also returned to the long-forgotten “South Azerbaijan” discourse, and the emphasis on 30 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran has started to be expressed on every platform. However, when attention is paid between the lines of Mr. Aliyev's statements, it can be clearly seen that these statements are reciprocity rather than threats.

In light of all these, the attack on Azerbaijan's Embassy in Tehran on Friday, January 27, 2023, with automatic weapons and the late intervention of the security forces further strained the relations between the two countries. Azerbaijan, claiming that it was a terrorist attack, evacuated the embassy employees from the country, along with the body of the security chief who lost his life, and brought the incident to the agenda of international institutions and society. On the other hand, Iran claimed that the incident resulted from personal enmity. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited the wounded staff at the hospital, and a military ceremony was held in Tehran for the deceased Embassy employee. Nevertheless, due to the tense background and the significantly inadequate performance of the Iranian security forces during the attack, Azerbaijan does not accept Iran's statements and insists that the attack is the last link of hostile rhetoric and behavior towards Azerbaijan for the last two and a half years.

Responsibility of Ankara

The uncertainty of the future of the unipolar world that emerged after the Cold War has accelerated regional developments. The side effects of the Ukraine War, which is understood to be getting deeper and deeper between the West and Russia, are closely related not only to NATO and Russia but also to the South Caucasus region. Indeed, Iran's unpreparedness for the Karabakh War and its subsequent inability to stomach the developments are mainly related to the Russian role in Iran's regional influence. Although Iran has pursued ambitious, expansionist, and sometimes confrontational policies in the Middle East since the 1979 Revolution, it has pursued much more cautious diplomacy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which Russia has seen as its backyard, even after the collapse of the USSR. As the flexible stance Iran followed during the Tajikistan civil war revealed, the most critical factor behind this situation has been to carry Iran’s relations with Russia to a strategic dimension in the new period. As a matter of fact, Tehran has had a close relationship with Moscow since the early 1990s, including issues such as nuclear and military technology. However, the fact that Russia, for different reasons, adopted an attitude that would weaken Armenia in Karabakh greatly disturbed Iran, which saw Yerevan as a proxy power for itself. Fortifying its victory in the military field with its steps in energy and diplomacy, Baku will now take more comfortable steps on issues blocked by Tehran's invisible veto, such as relations with Israel, it will be able to carry its relations with Ankara to strategic dimensions, and will turn into a bridgehead country in international energy and logistics projects. It means that the conjuncture has completely changed in the context of the problems pointed out at the beginning of the article, the problems that have historical roots but whose discussion was postponed due to the occupation. A powerful and wealthy Azerbaijan will create a troubling example of comparison for Tehran, which is struggling with many economic and political problems at home, as seen in the Persian Gulf countries. In addition, the rapid formation of a young but dynamic international structure such as the Organization of Turkish States also excites the Turkish community, which constitutes at least one-third of Iran's population, which has been organizing large protests for different reasons in recent years. For the solution to this sensitive process, Iran should first accept the victory of Karabakh and its political consequences, keep the discourses against Azerbaijan and Türkiye at a certain level, and take part in regional cooperation that are starting to form in the Caucasus and Central Asia by using its relations with Ankara, which provides a space to Iran to talk about all kinds of issues, including its security concerns. Through the 3+3 proposal they put forward after the war, Türkiye and Azerbaijan have shown that they are willing to take part in such a win-win formula for Tehran. Although responding to such constructive proposals with military exercises and media campaigns won the appreciation of nationalist circles in the short term, it is obvious that Iran, which is trying to deal with many problems at home and abroad simultaneously, will not ensure its national interests in this way. On the contrary, such a stance will open up space for foreign infiltrations into the region.