Why is There Now a Crisis in Relations Between Azerbaijan and Iran?

5 October 2021 — Origin: New Eastern Outlook

Author: Vladimir Platov 

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Recent weeks have seen a significant military escalation on the border between Azerbaijan and Iran. With belligerent statements made by both sides, Iranian troops are being transferred to the border with their northern neighbor. Explaining the move, Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Ground Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said: “We will not tolerate the presence of Israel in our back yard.”

Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel are indeed a constant irritation and tension to Iran, which is, in effect, in a state of undeclared war with Israel. Iran is frankly afraid that Israel will establish an outpost on its northern border, which will serve as a base for intelligence and special operations such as the drone attack in which Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated on January 3, 2020. With that attack in mind, Tehran has been particularly closely monitoring Azerbaijani troops’ use of Israeli-made drones, missiles, anti-tank missile systems and other weapons during last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are much deeper that they appear, like an iceberg, most of which is hidden from prying eyes.” These words of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev were contained in a telegram sent from the US Embassy in Baku to Washington, and became widely known following their publication by Wikileaks. The high level links between Azerbaijan and Israel – the two countries have exchanged visits by senior officials – are based on geopolitical and economic factors.

At the geopolitical level, Iran is the most important factor bringing the two states closer together. Azerbaijan’s relations with neighboring Iran are far from friendly. Azerbaijan accuses Iran of persecuting its ethnic Azeri minority, which numbers 20 million, while Tehran accuses Baku of using this population as a lever to interfere in its internal politics. As for the relations between Israel and Iran, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, they have been not merely cold, but openly hostile. This situation has long provided both Israel and Azerbaijan with a reason for adopt shared strategies against Iran. Thus, the two countries cooperate closely on intelligence sphere, and Israeli special forces train their Azerbaijani counterparts, including those serving on the border with Iran, while Israeli defense companies provide Azerbaijan with both military hardware and intelligence support which enables it to monitor Iran.

During the events in Nagorno-Karabakh last year, Azerbaijan used both Turkish Bayraktar drones, and also several hundred Israeli-made kamikaze drones, including Aerostar, Orbiter 2M, Orbiter 3, Orbiter 1K, Hermes 450, and Heron 1 models. In fact, a significant proportion of the military equipment and drones that led Azerbaijan to victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 were purchased from Israel.

It should also be borne in mind that Azerbaijan is a very important supplier of oil to Israel. According to a report by the US Energy Information Administration, 40% of Israel’s oil requirements are provided by Azerbaijan. According to the Israeli newspaper Hareetz, the Aliyev family has invested almost USD 600 million in Israel’s economy, in sectors ranging from healthcare to the stock exchange.

Azerbaijan’s Jewish population, numbering about 7 thousand and based largely in Baku, is particularly involved in promoting good relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. Nevertheless, despite the shared geopolitical and economic interests, Azerbaijan tries to avoid openly taking a pro-Israel stance – Baku is clearly afraid of an anti-Israeli reaction from the Muslim world as a whole. With this in mind, Baku has also supported pro-Palestinian projects and proposals in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Israel has greeted these initiatives with understanding.

However, the “Israeli factor” is not the only cause of the deepening rift between Iran and Azerbaijan. The increase of Turkey’s influence in the region is also clearly contributing to the tensions. Unfortunately, it appears that may influential political figures in Iran are may be dissatisfied with the results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the past this area played a strategic role in international power play, and Tehran was one of the countries with influence over the region. Until fairly recently Turkey’s influence in the region was limited – a situation that suited Tehran. But the balance has changed: following last year’s conflict most of Nagorno-Karabakh is now controlled by Azerbaijan, and Turkey has gained in importance as a major regional power. It was Ankara that was Baku’s main ally in that war, providing it with military hardware, including Bayraktar TB2 drones, as well as consultancy services and, according to some reports, foreign militants, who serving as mercenaries.  As a result, despite all Tehran’s efforts, Ankara has in effect deprived Iran from playing any role in the post-war reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, under the Shusha Declaration about Alliance, signed in June between Turkey and Azerbaijan, Turkey is permitted to expand its network of military bases in the disputed region.

Tensions in border areas have been further inflamed by the recent Unbreakable Brotherhood 2021 exercises held jointly by Baku and Ankara in Nakhichevan, and the Three Brothers-2021 in the Caspian Sea, in which the two countries were joined by Pakistan. The latter exercises were of particular concern to Tehran, which claimed that the use of this sea for military activities was a violation of the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, as countries other than the Caspian Littoral States, as named in the Convention, cannot have a military presence there.

In response, Iran deployed additional forces – two missile divisions and reinforcements from the 16th Tank Division based in Qazvin – to its border regions, stepped up drone surveillance of its north-western borders and put its air defense systems on high alert.

However, there are grounds for hopes that the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan will not escalate any further. Significantly, while troops were gathering on the borders, Kazem Sajjapour, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Baku. He expressed interest in the development of partnership and took part in negotiations with Azerbaijani and Turkish diplomats on future cooperation between the three nations. According to media reports, while in Baku he also participated in a number of meetings with representatives of local authorities, focusing on the reduction of tension between the two countries.

Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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