Iran-Azerbaijan Relations: Minor Dispute, Far-Reaching Consequences?

January 22, 2013

James Bell

Regional map of Azerbaijan  

A lot has been said recently about Iran-Azerbaijani relations, which is interesting because many people assume that the relationship between these two countries doesn’t have much of an impact on the world stage. Of course, this assumption is wrong, and Iran-Azerbaijani affairs actually influence a wide variety of issues, from global energy supply to the potential for an Israeli strike on Iran.

Iranian and Azerbaijani leaders have often espoused the motto of ‘one nation, two states,’quite like the Turkish and Azerbaijani political leaders who constantly refer to the strong bonds that exists between their respective peoples. Much has been written aboutthe ‘natural’ relations between these two states, and many feel that the idea has been manipulated in order to play on historical and ethnic ties, rather than reflecting some kind of spontaneous expression of real solidarity.

Relations between Baku and Tehran date back to when independent Azerbaijan was once apart of the neighbouring Iranian state before Russia invaded in the early 19th century. The diaspora also plays a part, as it is estimated that there are over 20 million Azerbaijani Turks living in Iran today.

Economic growth in Azerbaijan is met with fear by officials in Iran. With the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in place, there is the potential for explosive economic growth in Azerbaijan. This could potentially stir up southern Azerbaijani-Turkish ethnic consciousness within Iran, which in turn could cause a great deal of sectarian unrest. Although energy cooperation is a major factor in Iran-Azerbaijani relations, it is doubtful that this cooperation will ever develop to the point where it takes on a strategic element. This is in part due to the growing influence of outside players, particularly Western states who wish to control energy resources in the area and block any and all Iranian attempts to exert their influence.

Relations between the two states have recently soured to what can almost certainly be considered an all-time low. The worsening relationship has caused both sides to search for immediate security support from their respective allies. Azerbaijan has earmarked a considerable amount of its newfound energy wealth for defence purposes, and it has also been pursuing closer economic, technological, and military relations with Israel and the US. For its part, Iran has continued to deepen its own strategic relations with Russia and China.

In order to give itself a strategic lever against the Azerbaijan government, Iran has also been developing economic and strategic relations with Armenia, a country that actively supports the cause of self-determination in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Iran-Armenian connection could conceivably serve as a backchannel for moving Iranian arms into Nagorno-Karabakh, frustrating any Azerbaijani hope that their new allies and material capabilities will lead to a resolution of the issue.

There is another interesting element to the US-Israel-Azerbaijan triangle in regards to Iran. Some observers have speculated that Azerbaijan could serve as a launching pad for an Israeli air attack on nuclear sites in Iran.

As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, it will likely continue to seek the support of both the US and Israel and try to build itself up as a key influence within the area. President Aliyev has stated time and time again that no attack on Iran will originate from Azerbaijan. However if Iran becomes actively involved in Nagorno-Karabakh or the US feels that Iran has crossed the nuclear threshold, his stance could end up being weakened.

James Bell is a contributor to 

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  • Dr. Martin Doyle

    Azerbaijani Turk diaspora in Iran?

  • wishful westerner

    too bad your "analysis" does not pass the common sense test for anyone with the slightest knowledge of that region.

    for azerbaijan to let another country use its land to wage war against iran. That would equal national suicide.

    the azerbaijani’s have been reluctant to start a war with a far far weaker armenia to get their occupied lands back. What makes you think they will then turn around and provoke a suicidal war with iran?

  • Zap

    Ya, I don’t really see it happening myself. Lest the azerbaijans are foolish enough to put their entire trust in an increasingly hollow US security guarantee.

  • Y.H

    @Dr. Martin Doyle:
    Azerbaijani ethnic’s population is proximetly 30 milion which 9 milion of that living in republic of Azerbaijan and 20-25 milion are living in Iran’s north west provances includ(West Azerbaijan,East Azerbaijan,Ardabil,Zanjan,Qazvin,Hamadan and Alborz and Tehran provances).
    Azerbaijani etnic is biggest minority in the world without any rights because they made Iran’s system but Persians took power from Azerbaijani Turks 100 years ago and since 1000 years ago this ethnic is under discrimination and pressure of Persian ethnic. They dont have any school,media and court in their mother language and eventhough Iran’s most population is not Persian ,official language is just Farsi and other languages are and in Iran.(total Population of other ethnics in Iran include Azerbaijanis,Arabs,Balouches,Kurds and Turkmans in Iran is more than poulation of Persians).
    Azerbaijanies in Iran(39% of total population of Iran) wants to have their own rights and Iran’s dictator and racist system doesnt let them. They wish they could have the rights that French people in Canada have.
    Iran hate republic of Azerbaijan because existing country with name of Azerbaijan gives Azerbaijani population in Iran an idea that they can have their own country

  • There’s a wide spectrum of opinions regarding this subject.There are those who think Az should go back to old Persia, to those who see Az as a base for Israel to bomb Iran, to those who think Iran’s Azerbaijani Turks should secede and either carve out their own state or attach to their northern cousins. The only thing that all these theories have in common is: WAR AND CHAOS and nobody would benefit from that, including their propents. In my humble opinion, the Azerbaijanis in Iran’s majority turkic speaking areas should be able to have schooling and education in their own language, but as long as Iran remains a mullah run islamic republic, that won’t be possible. Hopefully Iran’s government will be on it’s way
    out soon enough, and the current system will be peacefully replaced by a Federal system where Iran’s non-Farsi minorities can have schooling in their language. A Federal system might even help create economic opportunities outside the capital, Tehran.

  • Türk

    Iran is not a persian country, it has been in the governance of Türks for a thousand of years, Türks have every right to want another state for their own since their language is opressed in every field, being harassed and ridiculed publicly and officially, its economy is being crushed purposedly and persian fascists harassing the Azerbaijan Republic disrespectfully. Day by day they stop being ashamed of their identity and embracing it openly, they are not terrorists but the persians are, you just don’t know how many Türks have been killed or tortured in prisons, even a war against persians is better than to live in this state

  • Dr A. Gholampour

    The existence of Azarbaijan as an independant entity is the result of land grab by Russian empire in 19th century when Iran was weakened under Qajar rule( Turkish rulers).

    Azarbaijan has historically been a part of Iran dating back to 500 b.c. Iran should reclaim it and other lost territories, Armenia, Georgia etc… by establishing close economic and cultural ties with these countries.


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