Love-hate relationship between Azerbaijan, Iran on edge again -explainer

Azerbaijani media called on ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to try separating from Iran, reigniting tensions between the two countries.

Nakhichevan Mountains (photo credit: FUAD2006/CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Nakhichevan Mountains
(photo credit: FUAD2006/CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran may be on the rise again as multiple editorials in Azerbaijani media have called on ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to try separating from Iran, with Iranian officials warning against foreign efforts to disrupt relations between the two countries.

What’s the source of the tensions?

The Azerbaijani Caliber and Haqqin news sites have both posted analyses in the past week calling on ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to secede from Iran.

Both articles cited a Turkish report by the Turkish Yeni Safak news site, linked to the Turkish government, which claimed that a former Iranian diplomat named Ebulfezl Zuhtevend made "scandalous statements" about Turkey and Azerbaijan in audio recordings.

In the alleged recordings, Zuhtevend expressed concerns that attempts to create the Zangezur Corridor, which would link Azerbaijan to a region controlled by Azerbaijan called Nakhchivan. The two regions are split by Armenian territory which connects Armenia to Iran.

"The Turks want to take Zangezur as well. They also want to cut our few kilometers long border with Armenia. Khamenei made the necessary warning in this regard. But the Turks do not care about these issues," said Zuhtevend, according to Yeni Safak.

Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan (credit: NORDNORDWEST/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)/WIKIMEDIA)Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan (credit: NORDNORDWEST/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)/WIKIMEDIA)

"We cannot think of a strategic alliance or even a strategic partnership with Turkey."

Ebulfezl Zuhtevend, Iranian diplomat

"We cannot think of a strategic alliance or even a strategic partnership with Turkey. South Caucasus is our civilization area. The people of North and South Ossetia are of Iranian origin. Azerbaijan is a terrible phenomenon and a potential threat to us. Nakhchivan should be completely annexed to Iran. Nakhchivan is our Achilles heel. Armenians are allies of Iran," added Zuhtevend in the alleged recordings. "Azerbaijan should be annexed to Iran again. Unless it is annexed, it will afflict Iran like a cancer cell."

The Yeni Safak report cited Tabriz Research Institute (TEBAREN) President M. Rıza Heyet as warning that "The record is like a confession of Iran's defeat and its pro-Armenian policy on Karabakh. At the same time, it gives clues about the policy that Iran will follow in the future. This makes Iran a clear danger to the region."

How did Azerbaijani media respond to the alleged Iranian comments?

The Azerbaijani articles citing the Yeni Safak report expressed outrage at the alleged comments, claiming that Iranian officials were simply pretending in public to be friendly with Azerbaijan.

The editorial on the Haqqin site, which is linked to Azerbaijan’s security services according to Eurasianet, claimed that the alleged recordings show "the true goals of Iranian nationalism and Great Persian chauvinism, which is gaining more and more popularity among the political elites of Iran."

The editorial added that Iran "dreams" of redrawing the borders in the South Caucasus and annexing Azerbaijani territories. The writer pointed to Tehran's "pro-Armenian bias" as well and claimed that any manifestation of "Azerbaijani identity" is seen as "separatism nurtured by Zionism" and "strictly investigated."

The Haqqin article additionally warned that "the Azerbaijani state has enough mobilization force to protect the rights of its compatriots. The government of Azerbaijan has enough resources to support a new wave of the national liberation movement."

The Caliber news site, which is linked to Azerbaijan’s presidential administration according to Eurasianet, warned Iran against "playing with fire" with the ethnic Azerbaijani population in the Tabriz area in northern Iran.

The Caliber article called on ethnic Azerbaijanis to "spread their wings and demand independence."

"The time for independent South Azerbaijan has definitely come! For there is no need to live in a country whose government does not allow you to feel like a full citizen!"

Both the Caliber and Haqqin articles stressed that "revolutions" in Iran in recent years had originated in Tabriz.

How are government officials on both sides reacting?

Despite the articles in Azerbaijani media, Azerbaijani officials have stressed that relations with Iran are still strong.

"Our relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are good and developing," said Azerbaijan's ambassador to Iran, Ali Alizadeh on Sunday. "However, some forces are concerned about the good relations between our relations and are trying to create disagreements between the two countries, harm the friendship and brotherhood of our countries. However, they have never been able to achieve this and never will."

"The heads of state of the two countries are determined to develop relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. I believe that this is the main desire of the peoples and governments of the two countries, and our relations will develop further."

On Friday, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev met with Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Seyyed Abbas Mousavi and discussed economic relations and cooperation issues between the two countries, according to Azerbaijani and Iranian reports.

Mousavi also stated recently that "Iran is not opposed to the creation of the Zangezur Corridor," adding that such a corridor depends on a decision between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"Our principles are that a country cannot affect the national interests of another country, including its neighbors," said Mousavi, according to the Fars News Agency.

Officials from Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia are also expected to hold a tripartite meeting in order to enhance economic ties between the three countries, according to the Tehran Times.

Last week, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi claimed that a "third party" was trying to "create a misunderstanding, which is not in the interest of" Azerbaijan or Iran, during a meeting with the Azerbaijani attorney general, according to Iranian media.

Vahidi stressed that "third parties should not interfere in the proper relations between the two countries."

An article on the Iranian Donya-e-Eqtesad news site published on Monday expressed concerns that "the media close to the government, president and security institutions of Azerbaijan have increased their anti-Iranian propaganda."

"It seems that the Azerbaijani media, by turning some ethnic issues into a lever of pressure, are trying to prepare the ground for Aliyev's government to score points from Iran," read the article.

Salar Seifaldini, a senior researcher on Central Asian and Caucasus issues, blamed the rise in rhetoric on the Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek and a "Jewish adviser to the Baku government" for the tensions, in an interview with Donya-e-Eqtesad.

Iran again warns neighbors against working with Israel

Amid the rise in tensions, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Sardar Hossein Salami stated on Monday that "the presence of foreign regimes in the region cannot be tolerated, the Zionist regime is like a rootless tree that cannot manage itself," according to the Tasnim News Agency.

Salami added that "the territory and radius of our national security is as far as our interests extend."

The warning echoes similar warnings issued by Iran during tensions between the two countries last year.

Other recent spikes in Azerbaijan-Iran tensions

Last year, tensions spiked between Azerbaijan and Iran after Azerbaijan began targeting Iranian trucks with fines and arrests, and Iran moved military forces to the border and warned against Israeli influence near its borders.

Ahmed Ali Goudarzi, commander of Iran's Border Guard, claimed at the time that Israeli forces are present in "sensitive areas" in neighboring countries and conducting intelligence and espionage work, advising Muslim countries "not to allow this," according to Iranian state broadcaster IRIB.

The commander additionally claimed that Israel incited neighboring countries to take action concerning their borders or impose large tolls on heavy vehicles, an apparent reference to fees imposed on Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijan.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also claimed that Israel had a presence along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, saying "the Zionist regime has started provocative actions in our region through the territory of Azerbaijan. We consider some of the harsh statements made by the Azerbaijani authorities these days to be unconstructive."

Azerbaijan's State Border Service (SBS) rejected the claims, saying that Azerbaijan "does not need the support of foreign forces."

Mousavi had a hand in the tensions then, claiming in an interview with Al-Mayadeen news that there were 1,000 Israeli operatives and 1,800 ISIS ones in Azerbaijan and that Israelis with advanced equipment in Azerbaijan played a role in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Iran launched the “Conquerors of Khaybar” exercise amid the tensions near the border with Azerbaijan. The name was a seeming reference to the Battle of Khaybar in 628 CE, when Muslims, led by Muhammad, fought against the Jews there, eventually defeating and imposing a tax on them.

Iranian officials stressed that the exercise was meant to “send a message” to Israel and ISIS, warning that Tehran will take any action necessary to defend its borders.

At the time, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed shock at Iran’s decision to hold a military exercise along its border, saying it was the first time in Azerbaijan’s 30-year history of independence that this had occurred.

Close ties between Israel and Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan and Israel have close ties, with the president of Azerbaijan saying in a discussion with the Nizami Ganjavi International Center in May that relations with Israel were very diverse and were especially strong in the defense industry. “It is no secret that Azerbaijan has full access to Israeli defense industry products,” Aliyev said at the time.

Israeli arms, including the LORA missile and the Israel Aerospace Industries Harop suicide drone, were reportedly used by Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia in 2020.