It remains unclear whether the alleged Iranian conspiracy to overthrow Azerbaijan’s government, exposed on April 7, belongs to either category. Given the amount of smoke generated by the two, there’s reason to suspect a fire somewhere.
Azerbaijan, having subdued Armenia in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and now defying its former guardian, Russia, is seeking to redefine its regional standing. With Iran in disarray from unrelenting civil unrest, the clerical regime’s ability to impose terms on its smaller neighbor is waning. With the third neighboring regional power, Turkey, essentially supportive of the country (with which it has a mutual defense pact) it might seem a propitious time for Azeri wing-spreading.
Does it matter? It matters an awful lot. Azerbaijan might be unfamiliar territory to most Westerners, but it’s oil- and gas-rich. That has brought Europeans flocking as they seek alternatives to Russian supplies. This new importance caps decades of work, including more than $84bn invested by BP alone. Pipelines now stretch northward and westward from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea, even as Russia and Iran eye the country as a route for north-south trade and sanctions evasion. Issues of war, peace, and trade have ramifications far beyond the South Caucasus.
The historical relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan is intricate. Iran postures as the guardian of Shiism, and Azerbaijan is predominantly Shia. Azerbaijan postures as the guardian of the Azeri nation, and Azeris account for as much as a quarter (or more) of Iran’s population. Authoritarian rule in Baku is chiefly threatened by Islamists, whereas resistance to Tehran often takes an ethnic nationalist bent. This dynamic renders the two nations uneasy neighbors. As Azerbaijan rises — bolstered by growing gas and oil sales to fund arms purchases from Iran’s arch-rivals, the US, Israel, and Turkey — and Iran grapples with mass dissent, relations were destined to deteriorate.
In September, this author reported on Azerbaijan’s assertiveness in the South Caucasus, capitalizing on Russia’s exposure in Ukraine as it tried to compel the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh. Shortly thereafter, Iran conducted extensive military exercises along the Azeri border. In October, Azerbaijan’s National Assembly voted to send an ambassador to Israel, which provides 70% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports in return for 40% of Israel’s oil imports (and is rumored, to Iran’s fury, to use Azeri air bases for surveillance and possibly more.) Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev later that month declared Azerbaijan would protect Azeris abroad, “including Azeris in Iran. They are part of our people.”
There have been numerous flare-ups and bad-tempered exchanges. This year alone, a lone gunman attacked Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran leaving one dead and volleys of heated words; following the Azeri ambassador’s arrival in Israel in March, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- (IRGC) affiliated Telegram channel threatened force to reclaim “North Azerbaijan province” for “the homeland.” That same week, Azeri authorities blamed Iran for an assassination attempt on an MP.
The foreign ministers of both countries convened on April 9 to defuse tensions. The disparity in power was evident in the respective state-run media: Iran’s semi-official Press TV framed the discord as a mere “misunderstanding,” while Azerbaijan’s state-owned press agency labeled Khamenei a “lover of orgy [sic],” a terrorist and a criminal.
Although the meeting of foreign ministers seems to have provided temporary respite, President Aliyev has a keen grasp of power shifts after 20 years as head of state, and the balance of power in the South Caucasus has undoubtedly shifted. Azerbaijan has demonstrated its ability to impose its will on Russia and has attained a decisive military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is now testing its strength against Iran, despite the mismatch in power and size (The Azeri population totals around 10 million, while Iran’s is closer to 88 million.)
Yet having reaped the benefits of confronting neighbors to the west and north, Aliyev has good reason to push at Iran’s backdoor, just to see what might develop.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.