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Iran Cannot Solve its Azerbaijan Problem Through Intimidation

On January 27, 2023, an unprecedented terrorist attack was carried out against the embassy of Azerbaijan in Tehran, leaving the diplomatic mission’s chief of security dead and two others heavily injured. This attack marks the point of no return for bilateral relations between the two neighboring states, which have withered for some time. The diplomatic rift between Iran and Azerbaijan has been growing steadily since October 2021, when Iran first conducted large military drills involving sophisticated ground forces, including tanks and helicopters, along the Azerbaijani border. The war games prompted vocal criticism from state officials in Baku, notably from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

The Balance of Power Shifts

The main catalyst behind Iran’s bellicose rhetoric toward Azerbaijan is the profoundly altered regional geopolitical order that emerged from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijan’s decisive military victory over Armenia and the full restoration of its border territories with Iran dealt a major blow to Tehran’s ambition of retaining leverage over Baku. The consequences of its territorial gains have already manifested in closer relations between Azerbaijan and regional Iranian adversaries, including Turkey and Israel.

Hence, Iran’s 2021 military drills amounted to an implicit warning that Azerbaijan should curtail its interactions with Tel-Aviv or Ankara. Unsurprisingly, the move backfired. Tensions rose further when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted the next round of mass drills on the border with Azerbaijan in October 2022. According to the IRGC, Israel used the “territories of neighboring states to perpetrate attacks against Iran,” without providing solid evidence, and the military drills served as a deterrent to the budding relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran’s arch-rival.

After the most recent round of drills, Azerbaijani senior officials openly accused Iran of destabilizing regional security by pursuing a staunchly pro-Armenian position and pressuring Yerevan not to sign a final peace agreement with Azerbaijan, which would see Azerbaijan granted a corridor to its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenia’s Syunik province. From Tehran’s point of view, if Azerbaijan were to gain unhindered access to Nakhchivan—and therefore to Turkey—Iran would be cut off from its long-term strategic partner Armenia. Moreover, a strong Azerbaijani presence in Nakhchivan could trigger nationalistic sentiments in Iran’s northern territories, which are populated predominantly by ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Iran received far worse news in November 2022 after the Azerbaijani government announced its decision to establish an embassy in Israel. In January 2023, shortly before the Tehran embassy attack, the country appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel—exposing the failings of Iran’s intimidation strategy. Iran issued threats against Azerbaijan for enhancing relations with the “Zionists” via its state media, but was powerless to stop the move.

Indeed, appointing an ambassador to Israel became a clear sign of Azerbaijan’s retreat from its long-term balanced approach toward Iran. Unsurprisingly, such a shift came with a tragic cost; shortly after vocal threats and the designation of an ambassador, the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran was attacked by an Iranian citizen armed with an assault rifle. The attacker brutally killed the security chief and wounded others before being disarmed by another staff member.

Tension After the Attack

Undoubtedly the terrorist attack sparked international condemnation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also led to a spike in anti-Iranian sentiment among the Azerbaijani public. The fact that the terror attack occurred in the middle of the day, and in front of an Iranian police officer no less, led to speculation among the Azerbaijani public that the Iranian security services had been complicit in the incident. Video footage of the attack showed Iranian police officers allowing the obviously armed assailant to approach the embassy minutes before the shooting, completely discrediting the Iranian authorities’ version of events. The Iranian police also illogically claimed that the terrorist had attacked the embassy on “personal motivation,” though it is hard to believe that the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy happened based on personal motivations while tension between the two countries was building up. Suspicion about the attack’s true motives is particularly apt in Iran, with its rich experience of state-supported attacks against foreign embassies in previous years.

In response to the attack Azerbaijan shut down the embassy and evacuated its staff, demanding a proper investigation into the violence. Considering the heightened tensions between the two states, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan will re-open the embassy until it gets a satisfactory explanation from Iran regarding the details of the assault. The fact that Azerbaijan did not specify the timeline for the embassy’s re-opening also suggests that it will remain shut for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, Iranian statements dismissing “terrorist motives” in the embassy attack have signaled the regime’s reticence to investigate the incident thoroughly. Therefore, Baku is even more likely to pivot away from Iran and toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Baku has already entered into talks with Baghdad and Erbil concerning the establishment of a consulate-general in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Needless to say, the recent bombing of Iraqi Kurdistan region by IRGC forces also fueled anti-Iranian rhetoric there. Thus, President Aliyev’s tête-à-tête with Nachirvan Barzani, the head of the Kurdish region, at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference should not come as a surprise.

Through its aggressive regional policies, IRCG-perpetrated hostilities, and bellicose rhetoric spouted by the nation’s highest officials and leadership, Tehran has left itself with few viable options to bring about a diplomatic thaw with Azerbaijan. If this pattern persists, the relationship between the two countries will only continue to sour—further contributing to Iran’s pariah status throughout the Middle East and the world.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.

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