HomeMiddle EastFrom the streets to the border: Iran’s growing paranoia toward Azerbaijan

From the streets to the border: Iran’s growing paranoia toward Azerbaijan

On Dec. 31, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had a phone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov, in which he emphasized that improving relations with neighboring countries, including Azerbaijan, is a priority for Iran’s foreign policy. This statement indicates a desire on the part of Tehran to de-escalate the bilateral situation, following a bout of saber-rattling with Azerbaijan this autumn. Nevertheless, tensions between the two countries remain high.

Mounting tensions

Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have been strained since Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia. However, the situation dramatically worsened in the last few months, with Iran holding two large-scale drills near the border with Azerbaijan and accusing Baku of colluding with its enemies and interfering in its internal affairs. The potential realization of the Zangezur overland transport corridor, which is pushed by Baku and would link Azerbaijan’s western provinces with the Nakhchivan exclave via southern Armenian territory, has also caused Iran to feel threatened. Iran fears that this corridor could cut off its access to Armenia and further separate it from the South Caucasus region, except through Azerbaijan.

During the military drills in October, codenamed Mighty Iran, Iranian forces practiced setting up pontoon bridges and crossing the Aras River, part of which forms a section of the border between the two countries. It marked the first time that Iranian forces had conducted such exercises. “I worked with three previous Iranian presidents — with President [Mohammad] Khatami, with President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and with President [Hassan] Rouhani. And never, during all these years, did we have anything similar to what we have now,” President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan proclaimed, expressing frustration with the current Iranian government in late November.

Veering into taboo territory

To Baku’s mounting ire, Iranian state media has also started to openly question the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan during recent months. As Azerbaijanis make up the largest ethnic group in Iran, raising questions about the borders between Azerbaijan and Iran was seen as akin to opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the past. Both countries understood that casting a shadow over the legitimacy of the borders could be perceived as a threat to each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, with the potential to escalate into a military conflict. However, this understanding has been increasingly challenged by Iran. In an interview aired on state TV on Nov. 4, members of Iran’s parliament who are of Azerbaijani ethnicity raised doubts about the validity of the established borders between the two countries. Iranian state media also amplified disinformation campaigns on social media claiming that residents of Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region had appealed to join Iran — using language and tactics similar to the disinformation campaign launched by Russia prior to its invasion of Ukraine. In an article published by the Tasnim news channel (linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC), Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, made a thinly veiled claim to Azerbaijanis living outside Iran’s borders.

The threat of Iranian proxies

Tehran has also employed asymmetrical tactics to signal and exert influence on Azerbaijan. After decades of experience, Iran’s playbook in this space is quite simple: letting IRGC proxies, the so-called “axis of resistance,” shoulder the burden of fighting against Iran’s enemies. Since 2012, Iran has shifted its deterrence strategy against the United States and its regional partners from a focus on “mosaic defense” — a doctrine emphasizing attritional warfare against the invading force — to a more offensive “forward defense” doctrine, which advocates fighting opponents outside of Iran’s borders to prevent potential attacks on the country. This strategy has been demonstrated through the use of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to compensate for Tehran’s strategic loneliness.

As in some Middle Eastern countries, Tehran sees Azerbaijan’s majority-Shi’a population as fertile ground for propagating its narratives and creating local proxies to influence Baku’s decision-making. Most recently, the emergence of the Hezbollah-like Huseyniyun armed movement, which aims to topple the government and establish a theocratic Karimah state in Azerbaijan modeled after Iran, indicates the lengths to which Tehran is willing to go to challenge Azerbaijani statehood from within. These networks of influence come directly from the IRGC playbook.

Sectarian disconnect

However, the likelihood of Iran-backed proxies gaining meaningful support from the local population in Azerbaijan is very low due to a range of factors, including the secular nature of the Azerbaijani state and society. Illustratively, IRGC-directed forces inside Azerbaijan have so far failed to undermine the wider national discourse, which sees Armenia as the aggressor against Azerbaijan. This has proven problematic for Tehran. In order to prevent Azerbaijan’s rise in the region, Iran had long prioritized its relationship with Armenia, even at the expense of sectarian unity with the Azerbaijani Shi’a population. Yet Azerbaijani society is keenly aware of these strong ties between Tehran and Yerevan, which significantly handicapped the Islamic Republic’s ability to gain an ideological or political foothold in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s response to Iranian assertiveness

Baku has taken strong measures to push back against Iranian assertiveness in the region in recent months. In November, Azerbaijan’s special forces held their own military exercises on the border with Iran. President Aliyev emphasized that the drills were conducted to demonstrate that Azerbaijan is not afraid of its southern neighbor. To really drive the message home, Azerbaijan also held joint military exercises with Turkey in December. The exercises, called Fraternal Fist, involved Azerbaijani tanks crossing pontoon bridges over the Aras River near the border with Iran, thus mirroring the Iranian maneuvers from October. The Turco-Azerbaijani drills were overseen by high-ranking Turkish military officials, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of the Military Staff Yaşar Güler.

Azerbaijan also detained 19 people, alleging that they were working for Iranian intelligence services. According to the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, these individuals were flown to Syria by Iran for military training and then intended to be used as proxies to carry out sabotage activities against the Azerbaijani state. In addition, Azerbaijani news channels named 14 individuals believed to be part of Iran’s special services and accused them of entering parts of Karabakh under the control of Russian peacekeepers in order to train Armenian separatists in sabotage against Azerbaijan.

Externalization of Iran’s internal crisis

The relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan has always been fraught, but nationwide anti-government protests in Iran added a new level of complexity to the current state of affairs. Facing widespread public discontent, the Iranian regime has chosen to shift the blame for the internal legitimacy crisis of its own making onto external forces. The ruling regime in Iran is adamant that these protests are being organized from abroad, and it has pointed the finger at Azerbaijan as one of the culprits. At its core, the accusation of foreign interference is a convenient way for the Iranian regime to deflect attention from its own failures and fostering a “rally around the flag” effect, which could help mitigate public frustration. In this way, escalating tensions with neighboring countries serves as a kind of “safety valve” for domestic tensions.

While this tactic can provide temporary relief in domestic politics, it carries significant risks for Iran’s regional standing. Turning Azerbaijan into a scapegoat could lead to further instability and unrest within Iran. Namely, Tehran’s fear that Baku will use Iranian ethnic Azerbaijanis to destabilize the internal situation could create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the regime, wherein Azerbaijan becomes more involved in Iran’s domestic affairs as a result of Iran’s own actions. As part of a tit-for-tat strategy, Baku has already started openly talking about the fate of the Azerbaijani minority in the Islamic Republic, which it largely avoided doing in the past. “We will do everything in order to protect our lifestyle, the secular development of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis, including Azerbaijanis in Iran,” President Aliyev declared in November.

Emerging Russia-Iran alliance

As Iran has escalated tensions with Azerbaijan, the latter has also moved to strengthen its security partnership with Israel by announcing the opening of its embassy in the Jewish state. Israel and Azerbaijan have had a close relationship for almost three decades; but while Israel has had an embassy in Baku since 1993, the reverse had heretofore not been the case. The decision to open one is an important part of Azerbaijan’s strategy to counterbalance the regional axis between Iran, Armenia, and Russia.

Russia’s blunder in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s growing need for Iranian drones and missiles have provided Iran with an opportunity to increase its influence in the South Caucasus. Just recently, the Biden administration sounded the alarm over an emerging military partnership between Tehran and Moscow, warning that this tightening relationship “poses a threat not just to Ukraine, but to Iran’s neighbors in the region.” Both Russia and Iran are worried about the growing Western presence in the region, which they see as a threat to their own regional ambitions. In October 2022, after the European Union decided to deploy a monitoring capacity to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which was upgraded to a two-year monitoring mission in January 2023, Moscow and Tehran expressed concern about the Western presence in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin sees potential cooperation between Azerbaijan and the West to alter the status quo in Karabakh as a challenge to Russian standing in the South Caucasus — one far more significant than increased Iranian influence in the region. It is possible Russia hopes that Iran’s growing pressure on Azerbaijan will distract Baku and use up its resources, thereby undermining its ability to challenge Russia’s already weakened grip on the region.

Potential consequences

Domestic turmoil in Iran and Russia’s blunder in Ukraine have added further complexity to the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran, with both sides viewing each other’s actions as a threat and responding with countermeasures. This self-reinforcing dynamic has created a spiral-like situation and increased the likelihood of conflict. A potential armed clash between Azerbaijan and Iran could have far-reaching consequences for the wider region that would likely draw in other powers, such as Turkey and Russia. It remains to be seen if cooler heads can prevail.

 

Ayaz Rzayev is a former Frontier Europe Initiative fellow, a PhD student at the School of International Studies, University of Trento, and an expert at the Topchubashov Center, an independent think tank in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Mahammad Mammadov is a Research Fellow at the Topchubashov Center, an independent think tank in Baku, Azerbaijan, and an adjunct lecturer at Khazar University.

Photo courtesy of Tabnak via Wikimedia Commons


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