Close in culture and different in an ideology, pro-western Azerbaijan and pro-Islamic Iran are going through new wave of tensions following a March 30 conference in Baku organized by groups seeking independence for Iran’s sizable Azeri minority, estimated to between 20 and 25 million and inhabiting Iran’s East and West Azerbaijan provinces.
A headline of the forum that translates into “Future of the Contemporary Southern Azerbaijan” was organized by the so-called National Liberation Front of Southern Azerbaijan and was attended by activists, academics, and former Azerbaijani officials. Current Azerbaijani government officials were reportedly not present at the conference.
Forum participants said that Iran faces a dire political future because of sanctions along with domestic and international pressure, and has experienced a heavy crisis since the beginning of 20th century. They predicted that the northwestern provinces, referred to as “Southern Azerbaijan,” will “inevitably” become independent. A participant was quoted by contact.az as saying that “If the Iranian government loses control, the National Movement is ready to take control of Southern Azerbaijan.” Activists of the National Movement also stated that they expect Baku to adopt a national concept or strategy with regard to “Southern Azerbaijan.”
Tehran’s reaction was immediate. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran and warned him that such provocations could “seriously damage the development of bilateral ties” between the two countries. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also expressed Tehran’s discontent with the failure of Azerbaijani authorities to prevent the event. A spokesperson of Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry stated that the ideas expressed at this conference do not reflect Baku’s official position. However, Mehdi Sanai, head of the Iran-Azerbaijan inter-parliamentary friendship group claimed that “anyhow, Azerbaijani authorities bear the responsibility for holding such an event,” and considered the “anti-Iranian” conference to constitute “interference in the internal affairs” of his country.
The diplomatic row continued with the unexpected proposal from Iranian MP Kamal Aladeen Firmouzan to conduct a referendum on returning Azerbaijan to Iran. Firmouzan claimed that there is a real desire and interest among Azerbaijani citizens to rejoin Iran. In addition, the Iranian parliament went further and announced on April 9 that MPs had started working on a bill to revise the Turkmanchay Treaty with Russia and re-annex Azerbaijan to Iran. According to the Turkmanchay and Gulustan treaties signed in the 19th century, the Persian and Russian Empires recognized Russian suzerainty over most of what is modern-day Azerbaijan and established the Aras River as the common boundary between the two empires, after Persia’s 1828 defeat in the Russo-Persian War.
Sanai commented on the initiative of Iranian MPs that, “these proposals, of course, are not a part of the official policy of our country, but it is a response to the actions of official Baku,” and recommended Azerbaijan to behave “correctly and with reserve” in relation to Iran.
Azerbaijan’s foreign minister says that he does not believe the recent call by a group of Iranian lawmakers for the annexation of part of Azerbaijan should be taken seriously. “I believe the Iranian government would never support senseless ideas that would never produce any results,” Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku. On April 22, Mammadyarov opened a new page in Azerbaijan’s development of bilateral ties with Israel, Iran’s number one enemy. He became the first Azerbaijani foreign minister to visit Israel in the 21 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. No documents were signed, but Mammadyarov met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
In order to balance the Israel visit, another high-ranking Azerbaijani official paid a visit to Tehran. On April 29, Azerbaijani National Security Council Secretary Ramiz Mehdiyev, who doubles as President Aliyev’s influential administration chief, flew to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other senior Iranian officials. Azeri observers believe that the trip was intended to calm an angry Tehran and demonstrate that Azerbaijan regards Iran as “a friend” in its foreign policy and will not allow Azerbaijani territory to be used by Israel and the U.S. in any potential attack against Iran.
Yet, following Mehdiyev’s visit, Tehran detained two Azerbaijani citizens without making accusations against them public. Ten days after the arrest of Khalida Khalid and Shamkhal Huseynov on April 30, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to two notes from Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry, stating that the detained Azerbaijanis are facing “charges of illegal actions while not specifying what is implied under illegal actions,” according to Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Elman Abdullayev. Iranian media has reported that Khalid, a researcher, was detained by employees of the Ministry of Information, Security and Intelligence of Iran (ETTELAAT) in Tabriz in the house of local Azerbaijani activist Mohammad Rashidi. She could face charges of espionage.
Vafa Guluzade, a former state adviser on foreign policy, believes that recent developments are related more to the internal political situation in Azerbaijan than to the country’s external relations. “…Before the presidential elections, Azerbaijani authorities aim to get support from Israel and through the influential Jewish diaspora – to obtain the support of the U.S. and European Union,” – he said. However, Guluzade also commented to Turan news agency that the authorities definitely believe that “the situation in the country is under control and that Tehran will not be able to take any destructive action against Azerbaijan.”