For the first time in decades, Iran conducted a military exercise on the southern bank of the Aras River at its border with the Republic of Azerbaijan last week. The drill was in fact a sign of new political tension between Tehran and Baku that emerged for the first time since Azerbaijan’s independence. While Iran and Azerbaijan have experienced tumultuous relations over the past 30 years, the current situation has given rise to concerns about the depth and level of possible reciprocal reactions.
Given the experience of the past 30 years and the current situation, what are the main crisis factors in the relations between the two neighboring countries?
Tehran-Baku relations have long suffered from a communication failure. Both sides are very skeptical about the intentions of the other side in their country. While Baku is largely concerned about the possibility of Iranian religious influence among the country’s Shiite majority and putting pressure on Azerbaijani government, on the other side, Tehran is also concerned about Baku’s provocations among Iran’s multi-million Azeri community and believes that Baku is trying to influence the population to put pressure on Tehran. It’s remarkable to know that both sides strongly deny such an intention. However, the level of media espionage is such that on both sides, it is not possible to make any policy about the neighboring country without considering this issue.
Third parties and efforts to expel Iran from the Caucasus
Given the situation of mutual distrust, the space has become very conducive to the influence of third parties. Both in Tehran and Baku there are different parties that do not want relations to improve between the two neighboring countries. By exploiting this atmosphere of mutual distrust, they try to incite sedition and aggravate tensions. A notable example of this is Armenia’s constant attempts to make Tehran pessimistic about Baku and Israel’s attempt to portray Tehran as evil in Baku. It is noteworthy that this distrust of the Caucasus against Iran is not limited to Azerbaijan, and in recent weeks we have seen that Georgia has also taken an unusual attitude towards Iran. This situation indicates that some third parties are strictly trying to expel Iran from the Caucasus.
Extremist nationalists and Anti-Otherism
On both sides, some media and political actors are engaging in dramatic misinformation about the other side. While some of them are affiliated with third parties to disrupt Tehran-Baku relations, some are influenced by the growing wave of extremist anti-other nationalism on both sides. The nationalist movements in Baku used to introduce Russia as the number one enemy of the Azerbaijani people and engaged in anti-Russian sentiments. Now it seems that Iran has replaced Russia. These groups are trying to regain and revive some of their lost political prestige by fomenting an anti-Iranian atmosphere by distorting the history and disregarding the common historical moments of the two countries.
The situation is similar in Iran. In recent years, a kind of Iranian nationalism that portrays Turks and Arabs as enemies and “other” to the Iranian people has peaked. In this regard, Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan naturally being the best excuses for creating a tense media atmosphere. These groups have always harped on the betrayals of Baku and Ankara to Tehran, magnifying the possible threats and trying to portray the Iranian identity based on militancy with these countries. Irrational and extremist behaviors in the face of the minor problems are the most obvious features of this group.
The similar feature of both extremist nationalist groups in Baku and Tehran is that both sides are inciting their governments to make territorial claims against the other country. Although the politicians on both sides are attempting to remain wise while speaking in such an atmosphere, extremist groups on both sides disturb people’s peace and placidity by territorial claims against the other side. While extremist nationalists in Baku believe that the Azerbaijani government has the right to support separatism in Azeri areas of northwestern Iran, similar groups in Tehran also believe that Tehran should take action to re-annex the Caucasus to Iran! Needless to say, the expression of these issues will radicalize the relationship and jeopardize the possibility of rational decision-making in the field of public policy.
The other and likely most important feature of these extremist groups on both sides is resorting to fake news. For instance, as we get closer to the first anniversary of the new Nagorno-Karabakh war, claims are being made that the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey have decided to occupy the southern province of Armenia and cut off Iran’s transit access to Armenia. The volume of this story-making was such that some analysts without any doubt on the roots of the news started to analyze the strategic consequences of this action for Iran. The news coverage was so successful that even the extremist groups called for a pre-emptive strike by Iran to protect its transit route to Yerevan.
Israel and constant sedition against Iran
The most important factor in the recent political conflict between Tehran and Baku is Israeli movements and provocations. While Israel – according to the Iranian side – illegally uses the territory of Azerbaijan for espionage actions against Iran, the Israeli ambassador in Baku, in an action against diplomatic rules, tries to blackmail Iran in the media. George Deek, the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan, neglecting his official mission, has repeatedly attacked Iran through video clips and tweets that he publishes. The volume of actions and provocations by the Israeli ambassador to Baku against Iran is such that Tehran blames Azerbaijani government for the blackmail. Although some unofficial information indicates that the Azerbaijani government warned the Israeli ambassador, it seems that the main mission of Israel’s diplomatic mission to Baku is to consider disrupting relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. In this regard, it seems that the Israeli ambassador will not refrain from any non-diplomatic action to achieve this.
What’s the solution?
Undoubtedly, the current situation is not promising and will not result in anything but affecting the stability and peace in the region. The continuation of the existing tension, in addition to heavy blows to the Tehran-Baku bilateral relations, will lead to issues such as disruption of transit traffic in the region for both Moscow and Ankara. The continuation of the existing tension, in addition to the heavy price on Iran-Azerbaijan bilateral relations, will lead to issues such as disruption of international transit in the region for both Russia and Turkey. Iran and Azerbaijan are both in the main regional corridors in the directions of north-south and east -west and they can use this trump card to put pressure on each other and impose political costs on the third parties. Therefore, Tehran and Baku should start serious political negotiations as soon as possible, and convey their mutual ambiguities to each other directly and openly. The direct negotiation between the two sides will undoubtedly calm down the political atmosphere and will also pacify public concerns about the consequences of the recent tensions.
Another action that is urgently needed in both Tehran and Baku is government and public opinion pressure to control extremist nationalist groups that play a major role in disrupting bilateral relations.
On the other hand, in such circumstances, Turkey and Russia, as two influential countries in regional relations, must show an active and influential role in the existing tensions. In the coming weeks we have the anniversary of Erdogan’s initiative to establish a six-party platform for countries in the region to pursue the South Caucasus issues. However, no practical action has been taken by any of these countries to establish the platform. In the absence of such active regional mechanisms that will lead to a win-win game for all countries in the region, it is obvious that external players including Israel, the EU and the US are trying to create a crisis in regional order that has considerable expenses for Iran, Russia and Turkey and to prevent regional order. In a situation wherein Armenia, which has overcome the political crisis on its domestic policy, and Iran, a government that considers regional cooperation as its main foreign policy priority has come to power, it is clear that it is time to take action in pursuit of extensive and deep direct communication between regional powers.