Playing With The Lion’s Tail: The Iran-Azerbaijan Crisis

On October 1, Iranian military exercises took place near Azerbaijan’s border. Countless armored vehicles, artillery units, drones, and helicopters flooded northwestern Iran in an exceptional show of force that has rattled Baku, according to Reuters. Iranian ministers and officials justify these ominous maneuvers as a response to Israel’s burgeoning alliance with Baku, and the lingering presence of ISIS terrorists Azerbaijan and Turkey imported into the Caucasus last year to fight Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. The joint military drills Baku hosted in September with Turkey and Pakistan, two of Iran’s major geopolitical rivals, have only heightened Tehran’s anxieties about being encircled by enemies. Azerbaijan’s imposition of a hefty road tax on Iranian trucks travelling into Karabakh last month, which could block Iran from crucial trade routes, has stretched relations between Tehran and Baku to breaking point, according to Al Jazeera. The making of a disastrous crisis is well under way in the South Caucasus.

Iran’s military grandstanding is prompting Turkey to expand its cooperation with Baku’s army. President Erdogan’s support for pan-Turkism, an ideology espousing the political and cultural integration of Central Asia’s Turkic peoples (which include Azerbaijanis and Iranian Azeris), continues to damage relations between Ankara and Tehran. In December 2020, while attending a military parade celebrating Baku’s victory, the Turkish leader recited a poem decrying the separation of northern Azeris in Azerbaijan from southern Azeris in northwestern Iran, according to Al Jazeera. This incendiary act infuriated Tehran and evoked memories of Azerbaijan’s fiercely pan-Turkic former president, Abulfaz Elchibey. Iranian authorities interpreted this affront as proof that Ankara intends to fracture Iran’s territorial integrity by promoting Azeri nationalism. This explains why Tehran has become so paranoid. As historian Olsi Jazexhi told Emerging Europe, the Second Karabakh War was a triumph for pan-Turkic solidarity. Baku and Ankara, emboldened by this successful partnership against Armenia, may decide to reunite the Azeri peoples by force. Tehran is showing-off its arsenal to deter these ambitions.

Pakistan has done little to leverage its mounting influence in Azerbaijan to ease tensions with Iran. As the New Eastern Europe asserts, Islamabad’s recent pledge to deepen military ties with Baku is cause for concern in Tehran. Pakistan’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite Riyadh’s genocidal campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, has driven a wedge between the two countries, according to geopolitical analyst Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal. Additionally, Pakistan’s failure to prevent Baluchi insurgents from crossing into southeastern Iran is angering Tehran. Terrorist attacks by Sunni Baluchi rebel groups like Jaish al-Adl have killed dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guards over the years, according to Reuters. Islamabad has proven to be an unreliable security partner and the presence of a Saudi ally near Iran’s border is exacerbating Tehran’s siege mentality.

Israel’s belligerence is also compounding the crisis. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has incessantly warned Tehran that Tel Aviv is planning a military intervention if Iran does not roll back its nuclear program, according to The Times of Israel. In August, Israeli officials announced that PM Naftali Bennett presented a strategy to President Biden that would inflict “death by a thousand cuts” on Iran, as stated in Axios. This inflammatory and reckless rhetoric has accomplished nothing but lend credence to Tehran’s gnawing fear: that Israel will use Azerbaijan as a base from which it can launch drones or missiles to attack the Islamic Republic, according to Middle East Eye.

If Tehran renews its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and other regional powers should stop provoking a nation still reeling from the impact of economic sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2018, the Trump administration imposed severe sanctions which decimated Iran’s oil exports and caused massive inflation. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech, estimates Iranian living standards fell by 13% in three years while prices increased by 41% in 2019 alone. A second round of devastating US sanctions, coupled with the spread of COVID in March 2020, caused poverty rates (already at 16% of the whole population) to skyrocket. Iran’s isolation, combined with the immense suffering wrought by COVID lockdowns and sanction-related privations, may push Tehran to overreact to any perceived threats either outside or within its borders.

Iran’s Azeri community, which enjoys numerous historical, linguistic, and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, could fall prey to unprecedented state repression—even though Iranian Azeris rarely embrace ethnic secessionism. Movements calling for an autonomous Azerbaijani province in Iran, like the Khiyabani insurgency of 1920 or the Soviet-backed Azerbaijan People’s Government of 1945-1946, were short-lived and failed to gain popular support, according to political scientist Ramin Ahmadoghlu. Professor Neda Bolourchi argues that even the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war did not inspire Iranian Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Zoroastrians, Jews, or Christians to rebel against the infant Islamic Republic. Yet Tehran’s willingness to clamp down on dissenting minority groups cannot be underestimated. In 2018, Amnesty International reported that Iranian security forces arbitrarily detained and tortured activists participating in Azeri Turkic gatherings. Outspoken Azeri Turks who voice concerns about the lack of opportunities to use or learn their own language are routinely stigmatized, mistreated, imprisoned, or subject to unfair trials. A similar fate may await many more Iranian Azeris if tensions do not dissipate soon.

The Aliyev regime could also exploit ongoing hostilities with Iran to suppress democratic foes, opposition members, and minorities. Azerbaijan’s victory against Armenia last year unleashed a wave of extreme nationalism and xenophobia throughout Azeri society, according to Transparency International. This intolerant and warmongering atmosphere would allow Baku to persecute, ostracize, or demonize “others” with impunity. In 2008, when Iranian-Azerbaijani relations hit a low point, Amnesty revealed that Azeri authorities jailed members of the ethnic Talysh community for supposedly spying for Iran (their real crime was to promote the Talysh language and culture). 2012 saw another spy scare end in the arrest of Azeris allegedly working for Iranian intelligence, according to Reuters. A crackdown on media freedoms and journalists ensued that year too, as noted by Human Rights Watch. Azeri authorities also weaponized the COVID pandemic to silence, harass, and detain lawyers or activists trying to criticize the government. To make matters worse, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture regularly finds evidence of a “generalised culture of violence among the staff of various law enforcement agencies” in Azerbaijan. Police brutality is so endemic that judges and prosecutors often ignore victims of torture. The only winner in a conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran is authoritarian rule.

Overall, responses to the Iran-Azerbaijan crisis thus far have been aggressive, insensitive, dismissive, and ill-informed. Complacency and indifference have convinced many observers that war is impossible, while certain actors are pouring fuel on the fire to ensure the worst outcomes. The international community must realize that even if a military confrontation never occurs, ordinary Iranians and Azerbaijanis stand to lose so much if tensions persist unabated. Proactive diplomatic exchanges between Tehran and Baku are essential to maintain peace and prosperity in the region. Dr. Bahrami, Iran’s former ambassador to Baku, once said in an interview that there are no other countries in the world that have so much in common. Now more than ever must diplomats emphasize this point to avoid disaster.

Iranian and Azeri diplomats must remind each other that their nations can achieve great things together through mediation, not intimidation. As Iranian foreign policy scholar Marzieh Kouhi-Esfahani demonstrated, bilateral economic cooperation has grown significantly since the early nineties. Careful negotiations resolved seemingly intractable issues. In 2015, talks between Iranian and Azerbaijani central banks culminated in the establishment of a joint bank with branches to be opened in each country. In 2016, Iran’s biggest automobile manufacturer, Iran Khodro Company, partnered with the Azeri Azermash Company to open a car factory in Azerbaijan. Production capacity is approximately ten thousand cars per year and business is booming. Energy collaborations are bearing fruit as well. In December 2020, Azeri and Iranian ministers agreed to construct a hydroelectric plant at the Khoda Afarin Dam. The Head of Iran’s Presidential Office Mahmoud Vaezi told the press that this venture should kickstart the development of more joint projects, such as railway lines and power stations, according to Caspian News. All these achievements are in jeopardy if hostilities get worse.

Finally, as Centre for Strategic Studies researcher Vali Kaleji suggests, Iran should help Azerbaijan demine territories liberated during the Second Karabakh War. Studies estimate that clearance teams need over a decade to remove all unexploded ordinance. The Iranian army has extensive experience in this domain. The Atlantic Council reports that sixteen million landmines still plague Iranian provinces neighboring Iraq today, three decades after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s ambassador in Baku, has stated Iranian companies will help demine liberated areas mostly free of charge. Humanitarian efforts such as these heal the wounds of war and will hopefully encourage long-term reconciliation between the two nations.


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