Iran and Azerbaijan Are Now More Than Frenemies


The semblance of cordiality and friendliness between Azerbaijan and Iran has now dissipated.   Not just their respective media outlets but also their politicians and diplomats have embraced  a less than cautious tone. No recent development can be singularly blamed for the  escalating animosity between the two countries. The simmering tensions between the two Muslim-majority neighbors started to surface  ever since Azerbaijan began to assert its rights. Its unquestionable victory in the second war with Armenia disturbed the favorable status quo for unsuspecting Iran. After the Russia-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and both agreeing on a corridor to Nakhichevan, political and military friction began to soar between the two  neighbors.  

Earlier in January,  the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s propaganda video went viral on social media that showed  Iranian soldiers crossing the Aras River on the Khudafarin Bridge and invading Azerbaijan. The clip’s release coincided  with Baku’s appointment of its maiden ambassador to Tel Aviv. Iran has been warning Azerbaijan against opening its embassy although Israel has had an embassy in Baku since 1992 and remains  Baku’s vital strategic and economic partner. Azeri  President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to appoint Deputy Minister of Science and Education Mukhtar Mammadov  as the country’s ambassador  to Israel reflects  the significance of relations between Baku and Tel Aviv.

In November 2022, Azerbaijan announced the opening  of its embassy in Israel. The same week, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran.  Both agreed to develop a new trade corridor, double Iranian gas exports to Armenia, and extend their gas-for-electricity swap deal. Around the same time, Baku unearthed an Iranian intelligence plot to use Azeri citizens to conduct subversive acts in or against Israel. Azerbaijan arrested 19 citizens whom it accused of being trained and funded by Iran. Religious extremist literature was recovered from the cell members.

The Azeri security service stated that the Azeri citizens,  recruited by Huseyniyyun – a banned armed outfit – were organized by a different armed group known as the   Muslim Unity Movement. They had been brainwashed in Iran, sent to Syria for weapons training and then returned to Azerbaijan.  “On the territory of Syria, they were involved in military exercises, learning the use of various firearms and combat tactics,” the Azeri Ministry of Interior  statement said.

 The Huseyniyyun Brigade was a brainchild of none other than the assassinated General  Qassem Soleimani. Tohid Ibrahimbeyli, an Azeri exile living in Iran and one of the founders of Huseyniyyun, was  Soleimani’s eyes and ears in Azerbaijan, hence,  the group’s  commander too. A person named Yunis Safarov, a militia operative and  a resident of Ganja, a city in Azerbaijan, launched an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the city’s mayor  in 2018. Not only did  Safarov receive  training in Syria but also fought for Iran and Bashar al-Assad before being assigned to  operate in Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani court sentenced  Safarov to life imprisonment and is serving his  sentence in an Azeri prison. Azerbaijan’s claims of Iranian interference in its society and affairs are built on solid ground. Though its narrative of promoting peace and development continues, Tehran is investing in its militias and other options to penetrate Azeri territories.

In October 2022, the IRGC carried out large-scale military drills along the Azeri border, a protest largely against  the Nakhichevan corridor as its construction  would mean that Iran’s role as a transit state would end.  Baku remained undeterred and responded with a special forces drill. Iran also opened a consular office in Kapan, the capital of Armenia’s  Syunik region.

Since the start of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and especially after the protests that flared up in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini,  Iran is feeling  the heat. Certain Azerbaijani politicians and some segments of the Azeri media have spoken about the repressed Azeri-Turk population  of Iran. This Iranian minority  had no qualms in expressing their jubilation over Armenia’s defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They expressed  sentiments of uniting with Azerbaijan and held protests to demand that Tehran  reverse its policy of supporting Armenia amid the conflict. During the current  Iranian protests, the sentiments of Azeri solidarity and the rejection of the clerical government  have soared on both sides of the Aras River. Over 14,000 Iranians have been arrested for protesting, including public intellectuals, journalists, artists and activists.

Azerbaijan is not only strengthening strategic partnerships with Turkey and Israel, much to Iran’s dismay, but also materially supporting Ukraine. Iran, on the other hand, has strengthened its relations with Moscow by providing military aid. In March 2023, Iran’s air force may receive its first batch of two dozen Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, to be followed by other types of military wherewithal.

The  Iranian national uprising has  further exposed fault lines in Iranian society and polity, especially exposing the grievances and bad blood present among Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Ahwazis and Balochis. High  morale after the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijanis are content and pleased with their country, and are not looking to join Iran. Even if the ongoing protests are brutally crushed,  more are likely to follow given the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and heightened human rights violations. 

Turkey’s and Armenia’s relations are normalizing slowly but steadily. After its refusal to host the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s wargames, Yerevan snubbed the Kremlin in an unprecedented manner. It is an opportunity for Azerbaijan and Turkey to improve relations with Armenia, and distance her from Iran and Russia’s influence and dependence.

Given the volatility of ties, skirmishes between Iran and Azerbaijan in the coming months are not unlikely at all. 

Editorial Team