Since the armed attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran, tensions have risen to new highs. Baku immediately withdrew its diplomatic staff, except a handful of security personnel. However, diplomatic relations are still intact as the Azerbaijan consulate in Tabriz is still operational. Baku views the embassy attack as part of Tehran’s wider policy of intimidation whereas Iran dismisses it as nothing more than a “distressed” individual’s crime.
At least this is the official line established and reinforced by repeated media interviews of the attacker, Yasin Hosseinzadeh, who claims that his Azeri wife went to the Azerbaijan embassy a year ago but never returned. His attack on the embassy was undertaken in an effort to recover her. Yasin’s assertion, aired by Iranian state media, that his two children were in the car as he stormed the embassy – was proven false after surveillance footage was released by the Azerbaijan government. If his wife really escaped to Baku with the embassy’s help, Hosseinzadeh could have traveled there quite easily through taking advantage of the visa on arrival facility available to any Iranian citizen. The cover story is too thin. Not only did the security guard let the attacker enter the premises but also never intervened after gunshots were fired inside. Iranian law enforcement officials took over half an hour to arrive at the scene.
Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said on January 30, “Emotional decisions regarding ties between the two countries is what their enemies and ill-wishers of the Islamic world, especially the Zionist regime, want.”
To the contrary, Azerbaijan opened its embassy in Israel in January despite warnings from Iran. Tehran sees its northwestern neighbor becoming an Israeli outpost where the “enemy” not only maintains listening posts but also allegedly has military advisors.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan (MOFA) indirectly blamed Tehran for the attack, “We are of the opinion that the recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign against our country in Iran led to such an attack against our diplomatic mission.”
On February 1, Baku was more vocal in airing its frustration after Tehran attempted to block the condemnations of the Non-Aligned Movement’s (NAM) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) regarding the January 27 attack.
Azerbaijan’s MOFA stated, “We condemn this provocative step of Iran and state that it must comply with its international obligations. Azerbaijan will use all relevant international platforms to widely condemn the terror act against its Embassy and punish the perpetrators of the said act.”
In his condolence call to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi promised “a comprehensive investigation.”
In a country where a suspect’s access to legal representation is a privilege rather than a right, repeated interviews of Hosseinzadeh on Iranian state media raise questions and suspicions about the saga. Azerbaijan’s media, prominent politicians and analysts are accusing Iran of being behind the January 27 attack. It is unlikely that Tehran’s investigation will be acceptable to Baku.
In a climate of state-led hate speech against Saudi Arabia, its embassy in Tehran was set on fire in 2016 by zealots. No loss of life occurred as the embassy was empty, however, Iran did not punish anyone for the breach.
For Azerbaijan, the recent attack marks the transition to an unprecedented period of tension in already discordant relations between Baku and Tehran. For the ongoing months-long protests, Iran has blamed foreign actors including Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Shiite majority neighboring countries have not been Seeing Eye to eye for one promotes a theocratic sectarian worldview while the other safeguards a secular identity. Since Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Iran finds its geopolitical significance diminished. Armenia agreed to establish the Zangezur corridor between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchevan exclave. Even though Yerevan has been reluctant to deliver on its promise, Azerbaijani officials have interpreted the pact as meaning the corridor will be a sovereign highway, something that angers Iran, which sees it as a vulnerability on its border. As a cautious move, Iran opened its consulate on October 22 in Armenia’s Syunik Province from where the Zangezur corridor will pass through. Baku is confident that Yerevan will have to eventually give in. Tehran has conducted multiple combined military drills in the region to reflect its readiness to fight against any change in its bordering regions. Russia and Turkey will both benefit from the highway while Europe and Israel are already Azerbaijan’s gas customers.
In the context briefly outlined above and the mysterious circumstances of the embassy attack, Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan are set on a downward trajectory. While their interests already conflict on a host of issues, with the inclusion of additional geoeconomic and geostrategic dimensions, Iran might have to fight a war it never imagined and was never prepared for. Despite its deep strategic ties with Israel, Azerbaijan does not want to be its proxy battleground. Baku will have to tread extremely cautiously, as reflected in deciding against severing relations with Tehran after the January 27 attack and keeping its consulate in Tabriz operational.