Early on the morning of January 27, a man armed with an automatic rifle entered Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran, killed the head of security, and wounded two other guards.
There the accounts began to diverge. Azerbaijan said the event was a terrorist attack, while Iran said it was the desperate act of a single, unhappy person. Camera footage showed a man with a rifle firing at embassy staff. The perpetrator was captured and cited family reasons for his actions.
That cut little ice with the Azeris, who announced plans to evacuate members of its diplomatic mission in Tehran, according to representatives from the foreign ministry Aykhan Hajizadeh. President Ilham Aliyev demanded an investigation and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Iranian ambassador. Staff at the Iranian embassy in Baku were seen hastily leaving the embassy; a number were running and some were carrying documents.
The difficulty for both countries is that whatever lies behind the attack, relations were already at a very low ebb. An attempted rapprochement, which got underway in December, when heads of the Foreign Ministries discussed mutual relations, will now be extremely difficult to revive.
The attack is the latest in a series of events that have destabilized relations between Azerbaijan and Iran since 2020, when Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The Islamic Republic held two massive military drills along the border with Azerbaijan in 2021 and 2022 and has openly sided with Armenia. Iran and Azerbaijan have meanwhile been engaged in a media war, exchanging accusations of separatism and internal destabilization.
Iran worries about a gradually developing Turkic arc to its north, a reaction in part to Turkey’s growing influence in the South Caucasus and beyond. Reversing it is presently beyond its economic and military potential unless it can persuade Russia —likewise worried about Turkey’s growing ambitions — to join with it. Since the Kremlin also sees its peacekeeping troops stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh as increasingly challenged by Azeri troops and officials, it might be tempted. (Russia and Iran are meanwhile working closely on sanctions evasion through the South Caucasus, and Iranian attack drones have been supplied to Russia in large numbers.)
A north-south alignment might thus be forming between Russia, Armenia, and Iran; three countries with similar interests that they see challenged by the east-west formation involving Turkey and Azerbaijan (and with loose Georgia involvement.)
We are still far from seeing official alliances, but geopolitical divisions are now more crystallized than they were 48 hours ago.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
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.