Azerbaijani-Iranian relations can be characterized by their particularity, even by the standards of the multifaceted and colorful region of the South Caucasus.
For many centuries, these two countries and two peoples were part of one state. After the Russo-Persian war in the early 19th century, the Gulustan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) peace treaties were signed, according to which large areas of the South Caucasus, including parts of modern Azerbaijan – Baku, Karabakh, Ganja, Shirvan, Sheki, Derbent, Juban and several of the Talysh khanates.
As a result, the Azerbaijani people were divided by the Russo-Persian border, but still retained unified historical and cultural ties, ethnic and social traits. Even today, the presidents of both states referring to each other as ‘fraternal nations’.
However, it would be a mistake to call relations between Iran and Azerbaijan warm. After the declaration of the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in May 1918, the Persian government presented a memorandum to the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) demanding the transfer of Azerbaijan to then-called Persia.
However, in April 1920, a portion of the 11th Red Army crossed the Azerbaijani border and established Soviet power, with which Persia had to come to terms. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran once again tried to get closer to Azerbaijan by supporting it in the Karabakh conflict.
Iranian military personnel were active in Azerbaijan, delivered arms where necessary and a common Azerbaijani-Iranian defense headquarters was established.
Despite all this, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has put Iran in an even more difficult position. Support for Azerbaijan could provoke a conflict not only with the Armenian community inside Iran (about 70,000 – 200,000 Armenians in the three main Armenian communities in Tehran, Iranian Azerbaijan and Isfahan), but also with Armenia.
This could have further been regarded as religious expansion and cause international condemnation. On the other hand, despite the interest in contacts with Armenia, in Iran, where Islam is the state religion, the government could not support Christians in the struggle against the Muslim republic.
Obviously, the Iranian leadership initially understood the dangers of military actions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and especially its consequences from the domestic political perspective, namely, what the Iranians call the “Azerbaijani factor”.
In Iran, there is no population census on an ethnic basis, but the approximate number of Azerbaijanis in Iran is estimated at 15 million or more. Taking into account the fact that the population in Azerbaijan itself is nine and a half million, the escalation of the conflict could lead to an uncontrolled influx of Azerbaijani refugees into the regions of Northern Iran: and the problems of the socio-political status of Iranian Azerbaijanis make Tehran fearful of a separatist movement in the region bordering Azerbaijan – especially since representatives of this nation have filled almost all echelons of politics, economy, and culture. True, Azeri officials in Iran are the most zealous conductors of modern Iranian Foreign and domestic policy.
All these factors forced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (by the way, also an ethnic Azerbaijani) to initiate a mediation initiative by inviting delegations from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Tehran for negotiations, where they even signed a communiqué on the basic principles of the peace agreement. However, almost at the same time, on May 8-9, 1992, Armenian armed formations took the city of Shusha, and a few days later the city of Lachin, opening a corridor for the communication of Karabakh and Armenia. This brought severe criticism to Iran, caused a serious blow to the image of Iran and its supporters in Azerbaijan and most importantly aroused suspicion among the citizens of Azerbaijan about the pro-Armenian policy of their southern neighbor.
And in Iran itself the situation escalated. In the administrative center of Iranian Azerbaijan, Tabriz, pamphlets were distributed with an appeal to support Azerbaijan, and the police even took measures to protect the Iranian Armenians living in the same region.
After the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party came to power, its leader, Abulfaz Elchibey, was suspicious of Iran. But this did not prevent Iran from sending troops across the border of Azerbaijan into the Nakhchivan area in order to protect the dams on the border of the Araks River and create several camps for Azerbaijani refugees during the fighting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the region.
Incidentally, this caused a sharp and critical response from Russia. Baku faced a choice – to allow the spontaneous growth of the conflict, or take into account the position of Russia, which was then made by the Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. Taking into account the presence of Russian troops in Armenia, this allowed Russia to restore its positions along the whole perimeter of the South Caucasian border of the CIS, and Iran lost the opportunity to influence the processes in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus as a whole.
Later, on May 16, 2005, Iran and Azerbaijan signed a non-aggression pact, prohibiting, in particular, both countries from stationing military bases on any territory hostile to the opposite side. And on February 1, 2010, Iran canceled the visa regime for Azerbaijani citizens, except for journalists. Tehran and Baku later signed an agreement according to which they promised not to act against each other’s interests, but this does not prevent them from conducting a propaganda struggle, often based on economic interests and contradictions of a political nature.
The leaders of Iran are dissatisfied with the fact that Azerbaijan attracts Western companies to develop its oil fields in the Caspian, which they consider controversial.
Iran has always been dissatisfied with the existing intra-Caspian borders and today it opposes attempts by Russia and Azerbaijan to establish the former Soviet-Iranian border in the Caspian.
In 1997, Iran addressed a letter to the UN Secretary-General, in which it protested against Azerbaijan’s seemingly monopoly of the maritime resources.
The national Iranian oil company NIOC has signed an agreement with Shell and Lasmo to conduct an exploration on the Caspian shelf which Iran considers its own. In response, Azerbaijan asserts that Iran included part of the shelf of the Azerbaijani sector in this project. In the spring of 1999, after the signing of new Azerbaijani-American oil contracts, Iran said that in the event of the division of the Caspian into national sectors, some of the contracted deposits could end up in the Iranian sector, and any work in this sector would be considered by Iran as a violation of its sovereign rights.
And after the incident of 2001, when the Iranian navy forced the Azerbaijani research vessel Geophysic-3 to leave the waters that Iran considered its own, some Iranian experts said that Azerbaijan, which in their words was operating on the Caspian Sea ‘too freely’, had received its first stern warning.
Baku officially stated that it would shoot down Iranian planes that invaded Azerbaijan’s airspace, to which Iran responded that all flights of the Iranian air force took place over Iranian territorial waters in the Caspian. The US expressed its readiness, if necessary, to provide political and military assistance to Azerbaijan, and the Turkish Air Force squadron “Turkish Stars” staged demonstrative performances in the sky over Baku.
After that, everyone realized that the Caspian Sea could become the site for the emergence of a large-scale conflict. In the final analysis, Iran’s position boils down to a policy of restraining US penetration into the Caspian. At the same time, Iran apparently believes that, in spite of mutually beneficial cooperation in the energy and military spheres, one can not recklessly trust Russia, which plays the Iranian card in its own interests.
In addition, instability in bilateral relations provokes the proximity of Azerbaijan to Israel and Iran to Armenia.
In September 2008, Azerbaijan signed an agreement with Israel on cooperation, as a result of which Soltam received a contract for the supply of mortars and ammunition, Tadiran Communications – a contract for the supply of communications equipment, and Israeli Military Industries – for missiles.
They talked about a wide range of reactive artillery, ways to modernize the old Soviet 122mm Grad systems, guidance systems for 122-300mm missiles and the means for launching them. About 60 Orbiter 2M and Aerostar drones were supplied, with the help of which, according to Baku, “the Azerbaijani army will expand its capabilities in the face of a possible conflict with Armenia and the growing power of neighboring Iran”.
Moreover, about 30% of the components for drones are produced in Azerbaijan by the company Baku’s Azad Systems Co, formed as a result of the agreements of the two governments.
In 2012, Israel’s sale of arms to Azerbaijan increased by $1.6 billion, and apparently will continue to grow – nothing to be surprised at. All of Israel’s foreign policy for decades has been built on a system of alliances with countries that have difficulties in dealing with opponents of Israel. So, Azerbaijan has enough levers to influence the situation in Iran and this is not the position of an individual, but of the ruling circles of Azerbaijan.
Iran cannot ignore statements such as the perhaps somewhat lofty phrase from a report by Heydar Mirza, an employee of the Center for Strategic Studies under the Azerbaijani President, who voiced at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies: “And if the founder of the current regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran returned from exile on Air France, then the next [founder] could easily disembark from an “Azerbaijan Airlines” plane.”
In light of such threats, the weakening of Azerbaijan is beneficial to Iran. And Armenia, which plays for Iran the role of the main channel of communication with the Christian world and an instrument of pressure on Azerbaijan, can become an important ally in this matter. Therefore, Iran in every way strives to develop economic relations with Armenia.
Today, Iran worries above all about the potential formation of a strong state in Azerbaijan and its secular character, negatively affecting the entire system of Iran’s state system based on the dominance of Islamic, religious values.
After gaining independence, Azerbaijan encountered waves of religious expansion from Iran, which resulted in radio and television broadcasts, the dissemination of literature, visits by religious preachers, the creation of various funds. Perhaps, Iran would consider it a great success for itself were it to be able to achieve the strengthening of Islamist sentiments in Azerbaijan, and, ideally, the transformation of Shiism into a state ideology.
But the probability of this is minimal.
For its part, Baku is unlikely to intentionally aggravate relations with Iran on the background of an unresolved conflict with Armenia. It is not interested in the appearance of yet another hotbed of tension – this time along its southern border. But in Azerbaijan they expect Iran to observe the rules of the game, principles of mutual respect and, at the very least, expect that Tehran will not use Azerbaijan for anti-American or anti-Israeli purposes.
Moreover, Azerbaijan can hardly be considered for Iran an easy target or a weak state in the region. Therefore, even in the presence of all these problems, both states try to emphasize the fraternal character of their relations, apparently adhering to the opinion that even “a misunderstanding can arise in the family”, as former Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mohammedbaghir Bahrami once said.