BACKGROUND: Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan are bordering countries, and up to a third of the population of Iran is comprised of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Many Azerbaijanis share cross-border family ties and trade and cultural exchanges between the two Azerbaijani communities has developed since the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Tehran has been very open about the motivation for its hostility toward the Republic of Azerbaijan: Tehran assessed that an independent Azerbaijan could be a source of inspiration for its own ethnic Azerbaijani community to seek greater rights. Accordingly, Iran supported Armenia in its first war with Azerbaijan (1992-94), which resulted in Armenia occupying a sixth of Azerbaijan’s legal territory and the expulsion of close to a million Azerbaijanis from their homes. Iran cooperated with Armenia and profited from activity in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan throughout Armenia’s control of the regions. Iran also supported Armenia during the 2020 war between Yerevan and Baku: Iran served as the main conduit of arms and supplies from Russia to Armenia, as Russia and Armenia do not share a border.
In contrast to the common narrative among many journalists and think-tank researchers, Iran’s hostility is not motivated by Baku’s close relations with Israel. The timeline is clearly off: Tehran was hostile toward Azerbaijan from 1991, while cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan only began in 1995/1996. Ideology does not guide Tehran’s policies toward Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the key factors in Iran’s policy toward the states on its northern border are defensive – preventing events in the region from negatively affecting its national security and domestic political arena. Iran’s policy toward Azerbaijan is a reminder that Tehran’s declared policy of championing the rights of Muslims and Islamic solidarity does not guide the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Armenia occupied the lands of Shia Muslims and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homes, yet Tehran was very comfortable in openly cooperating with Yerevan.
Despite their fundamental differences, over three decades Tehran and Baku have tried to maintain cordial rhetoric, develop economic and transportation cooperation, and prevent all-out crises from emerging. However, there were several peaks in tensions. In 2001, Iran threatened a BP survey boat in a maritime border area of the Caspian Sea. In 2012, Baku thwarted an Iranian plot to kill the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and attack the Jewish school and other Jewish communal institutions in Baku.
In addition, Iran maintains clandestine ties to Islamic groups in Azerbaijan. For instance, Iran sponsors the Huseynyun brigades, which aim to overthrow the government of Azerbaijan and conducts regular television and other media broadcasts from Qom. Tehran models the Huseynyun brigades on other militias it sponsors in the Middle East, such as the Hizballah in Lebanon.
IMPLICATIONS: The 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War marked a deterioration in the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. In the 2020 war, Iran’s involvement in the conflict reached a new height, with Iranian forces crossing the border into Azerbaijan’s territory several times and disrupting Azerbaijani battlefield advances. On October 17, 2020, Iranian forces placed large concrete blocks on the road in a section in Jabrayil region, close to Zangilan, cutting the Azerbaijani forces in Zangilan from supplies and reinforcements. Iranian forces also crossed several times into Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan’s exclave bordering Iran, and also repeatedly blocked communications of Azerbaijani forces during the war while providing Armenia with information on Azerbaijani troop movements. During the war, tunnels were uncovered in the areas under Armenia’s occupation that likely were established with Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) provided technology.
Since the ceasefire in November 2020, Iran has continued to dispatch IRGC specialists to train the Karabakh Armenian forces in various tactics of subversion and sabotage. Iran also opened a consulate in Armenia in the town of Kafan, close to the border with Azerbaijan and an area of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tehran likely established this post in order to increase its intelligence gathering and provision and to support Armenia.
Iran also conducts policies aimed at preventing resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Accordingly, Iran has sent arms to Armenia and IRGC officers into Armenian-populated areas in Azerbaijan under the control of Russian peacekeepers. Specifically, Tehran seeks to prevent the opening of the Zangezur Corridor, which would eliminate Turkish reliance on Iran for transit and Azerbaijan’s dependence on Iran for its connection to Nakhichevan.
On May 2, 2023 in a meeting in Shusha, President Aliyev laid-out the factors in the recent decline in Iran-Azerbaijan relations. Aliyev stated that while Tehran formally recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, in reality Iran supported Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territories through “the active use of the territory of Iran by Armenia with respect to transportation, including transportation of military ammunition and equipment.” Aliyev described how following the war, Iran sent trucks into the Armenian populated areas of Karabakh: “we detected regular movement of Iranian trucks to Karabakh. That was absolutely illegal.” He further pointed out that Iran held several military drills at the border with Iran: “it was difficult to understand it because, during the times of occupation, they never had any military drills in that area…So, as always, we responded, and we had two military drills along their border. One, by our special forces … and second, with our ally, Türkiye, with Turkish F16s and Turkish special forces, it was not a demonstration. But it was a message that we can defend ourselves.”
Aliyev described the January 27, 2023 attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran as an act of state terror:
“Then this terror act on our embassy happened, and that ruined almost everything because there was video footage … it was a deliberate, organized act of terror to kill our diplomats and members of their families.. for 40 minutes, there were no police, no security officers, nothing.” President Aliyev added, “moreover, the same day, this person appears in the media. He gives interviews. Can you imagine a person who broke into an embassy of another country and killed one and wounded two, giving an interview, saying that he did it because of some other motives? And two days later, in Iran, he was declared mentally challenged to avoid any kind of legal prosecution.”
Aliyev accused Iran of state terror: “ this is serious; this is terror. And we think that this terror is organized on a governmental level.” Following the attack, President Aliyev ordered the closing of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran, and there have been reciprocal expulsions of Iranian and Azerbaijani diplomats (from the Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz, which has stayed open). In addition, Aliyev described a subsequent terror attack in Baku, which nearly killed a parliamentarian outspokenly critical or Iran, as Tehran “crossing a redline.” “After several days, that group was detained. So, our law enforcement agencies worked very efficiently … their whole network was disclosed. They testified that they received orders from Iran. This is crossing a red line.”
President Aliyev stated that there are several preconditions to any improvement of relations we Iran: “we first demand the extradition of some terrorists from Azerbaijan who found shelter in Iran. And we demand a transparent investigation of the terror attack on our embassy. You can now imagine that relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are at the lowest level ever. It is very difficult to predict whether they will remain on that level, whether they will go down or they will go up. It's very difficult to predict.”
Aliyev stated that “everybody in Iran, all segments of the establishment, should finally understand that the language of threats and terror will not work with Azerbaijan. The sooner they understand, the better we can see signs of normalization.”
CONCLUSIONS: This level of tension in Iran-Azerbaijan relations is unprecedented. The situation runs risks for both sides. With both Iran and Russia urging Armenia to avert concluding a peace agreement and border delimitation with Azerbaijan, conflict with Iran risks contributing to renewed flaring-up of military conflict and increase in terror attacks in Karabakh and throughout Azerbaijan. However, Iran also faces perhaps even greater risks. Tehran is facing since September 2022 almost unprecedented waves of anti-regime activity that threatens the stability of the ruling regime. The regime’s activity against the Republic of Azerbaijan further incenses large swaths of ethnic Azerbaijanis that live in the provinces of Iran adjacent to the border with Azerbaijan. Through its hostility toward Azerbaijan, Tehran risks an increase in the scope of anti-regime activity in Iran.
Tehran’s recent terrorist attacks indicate that Iran is targeting Azerbaijan, as it has in the past targeted Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among other, for regular assaults. In referring to these attacks as “terror organized on a governmental level,” the Azerbaijani president is one of the few world leaders willing to directly call out Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism.
Prof. Brenda Shaffer is a faculty member of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. She is a Senior Advisor for Energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. Her most recently published book is Iran is more than Persia: Ethnic Politics in Iran.