Main Image Credit The Aras valley, on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. Courtesy of Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo
As diplomats from Iran and Azerbaijan work to defuse tensions between the two countries, is the region headed for greater polarisation or integration?
Since late September, relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have deteriorated markedly. Following Azerbaijan–Turkey–Pakistan trilateral military exercises, Iran carried out military drills on 1 October near its border with Azerbaijan, which tested a locally manufactured long-range drone. Iran accused Azerbaijan of welcoming Israeli forces to the Iran–Azerbaijan border, which Baku has vehemently denied. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has slammed Iran’s military exercises near its border and accused Iran of colluding with Armenia on drug trafficking to Europe for over 30 years. The Azerbaijani authorities have blocked Shia websites ‘engaged in Iranian and religious propaganda’, such as Azeri Sahar TV. The Tehran Times panned this decision as a ‘volatile move by the Azeri authorities, clearly fuelled by ill-intended advisors’.
While the crisis in Iran–Azerbaijan relations is exceptionally caustic by contemporary standards, relations between Tehran and Baku are unlikely to be terminally severed. Throughout the post-1991 era, Iran–Azerbaijan relations have been inconsistent, but have solid economic foundations. Azerbaijani officials periodically perceive Iran as being more sympathetic to Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Iranian officials oppose Israel–Azerbaijan security cooperation, especially after Azerbaijan was viewed as a possible partner in a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear programme. However, trade between Iran and Azerbaijan reached $417 million prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which made Azerbaijan the fourth largest destination of Iranian exports. These economic links have allowed Iran and Azerbaijan to swiftly weather major crises in their bilateral relationship. In 2012, Azerbaijan carried out a wave of detentions against Iran-backed terrorists plotting to carry out attacks on the US and Israeli embassies in Baku. Relations swiftly thawed after Hassan Rouhani became Iranian president in 2013, and in April 2015, Iran and Azerbaijan announced their decision to establish a joint defence commission.
An escalation of Iran–Turkey tensions in the South Caucasus could have a sweeping impact on regional geopolitics
The current standoff between Iran and Azerbaijan appears to be mirroring past trends. On 13 October, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian agreed to resolve their diplomatic crisis through dialogue. On 21 October, the Azerbaijani authorities released two Iranian truck drivers who were charged with illegally entering the country and accused of violating Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. These drivers passed through territory that was recaptured by Azerbaijan during the October 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and were trying to avoid customs duties on their way to Armenia. This suggests that Iran and Azerbaijan will work around their differences – despite the recent war of words over Azerbaijani media censorship – and return to the state of cold peace that characterised Rouhani’s second term as president from 2017–21.
Even if Iran–Azerbaijan relations eventually improve, the long-term geopolitical impact of this month’s standoff is uncertain. One scenario is a continued intensification of tensions between Iran and Turkey in the South Caucasus, which would impede the progress of intra-regional integration projects. Within Iranian foreign policy circles, there are concerns that the Turkey–Azerbaijan axis is seeking to encircle Iran and to foment unrest among Iran’s Azeri ethnic minority. Turkey’s perceived insensitivity to these concerns is a sore point for Iranian officials. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recitation of a poem in December 2020, which lamented the division of Azeris along the Aras River and implicitly supported pan-Turkism, sparked a fierce backlash in Tehran. Erdogan’s recent jibe that Iran would not risk an escalation with Azerbaijan due to its own Azeri population was lambasted by the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who called Iran a ‘paradise of tribes’. As Iran and Turkey remain at loggerheads in Syria and northern Iraq, where Ankara claims Tehran is supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party, these tensions could severely undermine Iran–Turkey relations.
An escalation of Iran–Turkey tensions in the South Caucasus could have a sweeping impact on regional geopolitics. Although Iran presented itself as a potential mediator during the October 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Tehran was widely believed to be a quiet backer of Armenia during that conflict. Armenia was a lynchpin of Iran’s duty-free trade with Russia and West Asia, and the pre-war balance of forces in Nagorno-Karabakh suited Tehran’s commercial interests. Since tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain high, as both countries trade accusations at the International Court of Justice and engage in periodic border skirmishes, Turkey is concerned by stronger Iran–Armenia relations. As Pakistan was a participant in the trilateral drills which set off the Iran–Azerbaijan standoff, Tehran–Islamabad relations could also suffer. Iran’s allusion to foreign interference in the Taliban’s September offensive on the Panjshir Valley, which hinted at Pakistani assistance, suggests that Iran and Pakistan are not wholly aligned on the situation in Afghanistan.
An alternative scenario is that the dissipation of the Iran–Azerbaijan crisis paves the way for deeper intra-regional integration. In Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Zangezur Corridor concept, which links the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic to the rest of Azerbaijan via Armenia’s Syunik province, has gained traction since the October 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. While Armenia opposes the creation of this corridor, the project has inspired Turkey’s recent efforts to de-escalate tensions with Yerevan. These efforts have accrued some momentum, with Armenia allowing Turkish Airlines flights to Baku to pass through its territory and both Erdogan and Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan expressing support for a normalisation of ties, but a full-fledged rapprochement remains elusive.
Russia’s growing concerns about insecurity in the region ensure that it would seek to prevent a new conflict in the Caucasus
To complement the tentative de-escalation between Turkey and Armenia, Russia has stepped up its efforts to promote intra-regional integration. On 6 October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to create a 3+3 format in the Caucasus, which would consist of the three Caucasian states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the three ‘big neighbours’, Russia, Iran and Turkey. This format, which was announced during Lavrov’s meeting with Abdollahian in Moscow, would address security, economic and transport issues in the Caucasus, and would be complemented by Iran’s ratification of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which calls for non-interference. Although Abdollahian raised Iran’s grievances towards Azerbaijan with Lavrov, Russian officials insisted on the need to prevent a military buildup in the South Caucasus and lamented ‘provocative exercises’, which was an implicit critique of Iran’s 1 October drills on its border with Azerbaijan.
Russia’s 3+3 format was positively received by Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, but has been met with greater scepticism in Armenia and especially in Georgia. Russia’s unwillingness to insert itself into South Caucasus conflicts, which was exemplified by its reticence about fulfilling its treaty ally commitments in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and its role as a guarantor of peace in Nagorno-Karabakh will drive its commitment to this project. Russia’s growing concerns about insecurity in Central Asia, which will see it cooperate with Iran and Turkey on the spillover from Afghanistan, also ensure that it would be interested in preventing a new conflict in the Caucasus.
Although relations between Iran and Azerbaijan remain tense, tensions between the two countries are likely to de-escalate in the weeks ahead. Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the dissipation of this crisis will lead to heightened regional polarisation or tentative progress towards intra-regional integration.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Samuel Ramani