Despite visa free travel for Azeri citizens and dynamic trade, long mutual borders and some shared interests, Iran and Azerbaijan do not seem to be able to get along. Good Azeri-Israeli relations, political and criminal intrigue, Azerbaijan’s cooperation with the West, and the fact that Azerbaijan, due to its Soviet legacy is more secular than the Islamic Republic of Iran are often cited as the roots of the two countries issues with each other. But perhaps the true root of trouble lies in geography; whether it be physical, cultural or political which has allowed for these other problems to ferment.
In many cases, a common religion, shared history and a like language can help two states build diplomatic relations; even Azerbaijan and Iran have used such cultural links to build closer ties with other states. But when it comes to Azeri-Iranian ties, shared heritage (something usually cherished between states), becomes the problem.
Being a small, landlocked and very new country that had never before existed, Azerbaijan wants to assure that it is given due legitimacy by all. The fact that modern Azerbaijan was once part of its much older and larger Iranian neighbor only complicates this task for the developing state wedged in a no man’s land of sorts between the back ends of three world powers who see it as in their sphere of influence. Just under a third of Iran’s population is of Azeri descent and along with Persian, speaks the Turkic Azerbaijani language. Iran’s Azerbaijanis live in the “Batis Azerbaijan” province, or “West Azerbaijan” which the Republic of Azerbaijan’s entire Southern border is shared with, leaving room for the question “why isn’t Azerbaijan just part of Iran” to be asked.
Iran, an Islamic republic which because of its fundamentalist nature views itself as morally superior, has both the 18th largest land area and population in the world. This, combined with the fact that economically challenged Iran’s largest minority is Azerbaijanis leaves Iran in a strange position where it both feels threatened by little Azerbaijan and like it has a rightful sphere of influence that includes Azerbaijan and therefore more of a right to secure its interests there than elsewhere. At a late 2012 hearing in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, expert witnesses testified that in order to preserve its territorial integrity, Iran had been taking actions aimed at destabilizing the titular states of its minorities in hopes that such actions will prevent emigration or the formation of separatist groups. It is believed that Iran supports Armenia in its attempts to maintain control over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh in hopes of achieving this supremacy over Azerbaijan, a foreign policy choice that is most certainly not appreciated by Baku. Iran’s hulking size and population make Azerbaijan extra uneasy about Iran’s intentions and what it can potentially do.
Geography is not the only thing laying strain on Azerbaijan and Iran’s relations. Western sanctions against Iran have encouraged Tehran to turn to the international criminal underworld for revenue. In recent years, domestic Azerbaijani law enforcement have caught Iranians engaged in drug trafficking and collusion with terrorist organizations, according to the experts that spoke in front of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Afghan Heroin now not only flows through Central Asia and Russia to Europe, but also through Iran and the Caucasus.
Western sanctions against Iran have made Azerbaijan somewhat reluctant to open up to its southern neighbor and have made Iran more likely to be “insistent” in pursuing bilateral opportunities, even if they are not something that Azerbaijan is interested in. Azerbaijan was recently in talks with Turkey on a visa free regime. Having caught wind of the negotiations, Iran then threatened to cut off critical supply routes to the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxchivan if Azerbaijan did not consider a like visa regime with Tehran. Much to its frustration and dismay, Azerbaijan canceled visa negotiations with Turkey as a result of the Iranian threats, leaving all three neighbors in a losing situation.
Geographic conditions, a cultural divide and economic despair have done great harm to Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, and through analysis of recent Iranian actions towards Azerbaijan, one could deduce that Iran may see the relationship as beyond repair. In 2012, three men accused of planning to attack a Jewish school in Baku were found to have received the arms to do so from Iranian intelligence officers. In recent months, the Azerbaijani Communications Ministry blamed recent cyber-attacks against the country on Iran and also arrested 22 people who had received extensive intelligence training in Iran who were conspiring to attack the US and Israeli embassies. The fact that the diplomatically “rude” Iranian disruption of Azeri-Turkish visa negotiations, two attempted Iranian backed physical attacks and Iranian cyber-attacks against Azerbaijan all occurred within such a short period of time shows that Iran no longer feels that the effort it takes to foster fruitful relations with Azerbaijan is worth what is being returned and perhaps a point of no return has been crossed with Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijani government.
However, harsh treatment towards Baku could be Tehran’s way of showing Azerbaijan that a good relationship with Iran is something that Azerbaijan does not want to throw away or take for granted. After all, while Iran was behaving in a somewhat civil manner towards Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan buddied up to the West, did not follow suit when Tehran waived the visa regime for Azerbaijani citizens, was found to be discussing the possibility of hosting Israeli warplanes capable of striking Iran with Jerusalem and continued to fall deeper into “Jahalliyah”. It could be argued that Tehran has always been somewhat “anti-Azerbaijan” and it is therefore factually incorrect to say that Iran’s harsh actions towards Azerbaijan is a way of showing dissatisfaction with Azerbaijan’s choice of allies and a recommendation that it should work to get on Iran’s good side.
Although there is dialogue on the issue, and more states (that get along with each other) than just Iran and Azerbaijan are involved in the issue, questions surrounding the demarcation of the hydrocarbon rich Caspian Sea strain relations between the two nations. As boundary negotiations flounder, Caspian littoral states fish for maritime defense solutions in case politics bring the water in the world’s largest lake (the Caspian) to a boil. Iran’s general approach is to militarize its share of the sea, while Russia’s is to seek out cooperation with other Caspian littorals such as Kazakhstan who is preparing for an Iranian strike on Western oil rigs in its waters in the event of armed conflict between the West and Iran. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have been very open to negotiations and have both accepted American aid and advising services on military maritime matters.
It does not look like Azeri-Iranian relations are going to change. Poor bilateral relations aren’t producing any red hot conflict that needs immediate addressing, the West is only strengthening sanctions, the two governments have very solidified ways of doing things and tensions have geographical and historical roots which give them a chronic nature. However, there are presidential elections in Iran today. Perhaps the results will bring change to how Baku and Tehran do business. Even if no great change is to come, Baku is watching the polls as closely as Tehran and the new government will have a chance to write the future of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations.