Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran could be on the rise again, as multiple Azeri media editorials called on Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to try to secede from the country, and Iranian officials warned against foreign efforts to sever ties between the two countries.
What is the origin of the tension?
Azerbaijani news sites Caliber and Haqqin published op-eds last week calling for Azerbaijanis in northern Iran to secede from the country.
Both articles cited a report by the Turkish government-linked Turkish news site Yeni Safak, which claimed that a former Iranian diplomat named Ebulfezl Zuhtevend had made “outrageous statements” about Turkey and Azerbaijan in audio recordings.
In the alleged recordings, Zukhtevend expressed concern about attempts to create the Zangezur Corridor, which would connect Azerbaijan with an Azerbaijani-controlled region called Nakhchivan. The two regions are separated by the Armenian territory, which connects Armenia with Iran.
“The Turks want to capture Zangezur as well. They also want to cut our border with Armenia by several kilometers. Khamenei issued the necessary warning in this regard. But the Turks are not interested in these issues,” Zuchtevend said, according to Yeni Safak.
“We cannot think of a strategic alliance or even a strategic partnership with Turkey. The South Caucasus is our civilization zone. The inhabitants of North and South Ossetia are of Iranian origin. Azerbaijan is a terrible phenomenon and a potential threat to us. Nakhichevan should be fully annexed to Iran. Nahichevan is our Achilles heel. Armenians are allies of Iran,” Zuchtevend added in the alleged recordings. “Azerbaijan should be annexed to Iran again. If it doesn’t annex, it will strike Iran like a cancer.”
The Yeni Safak report quoted the president of the Tabriz Research Institute (TEBAREN), M. Riza Hayet, as warning that “the record is an admission of defeat for Iran and its pro-Armenian policy regarding Karabakh. At the same time, it provides guidance on the policy that Iran will follow in the future. This makes Iran a clear danger to the region.”
How did the Azerbaijani media react to the alleged Iranian comments?
Azerbaijani papers citing the Yeni Safak report expressed outrage at the alleged comments, saying Iranian officials were merely pretending to be friendly to Azerbaijan in public.
An editorial by the Haqqin website, linked to Azerbaijan’s security services, according to Eurasianet, claimed the alleged recordings showed “the true aims of Iranian nationalism and the Greater Persian chauvinism that is gaining ground among Iran’s political elites.”
The editorial added that Iran “dreams” of redrawing the borders in the South Caucasus and annexing territories from Azerbaijan. The author also pointed to Tehran’s “pro-Armenian bias” and stated that any display of “Azerbaijani identity” is considered “Zionist-fueled separatism” and is “strictly investigated.”
Haqqin’s article further warns that “the Azerbaijani state has sufficient mobilization forces to protect the rights of its countrymen. The government of Azerbaijan has enough resources to support a new wave of national liberation movement.
The Caliber news site, linked to Azerbaijan’s presidential administration, according to Eurasianet, warned Iran not to “play with fire” with the ethnic Azerbaijani population in the Tabriz region of northern Iran.
The Caliber article called on ethnic Azerbaijanis to “spread their wings and demand independence.”
“The time for an independent South Azerbaijan has definitely come! Because you don’t need to live in a country whose government doesn’t allow you to feel like a full citizen.”
Both the Caliber and Haqqin articles emphasize that the “revolutions” of recent years in Iran originated in Tabriz.
How do officials on both sides react?
Despite the articles in the Azerbaijani media, Azerbaijani officials stressed that relations with Iran remain strong.
“Our relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are good and developing,” Azerbaijani Ambassador to Iran Ali Alizadeh said on Sunday. “However, some forces are concerned about the good relations between our relations and are trying to create discord between the two countries, harm the friendship and brotherhood of our countries. However, they have never been able to achieve it and will never achieve it.”
“The heads of state of both countries are determined to develop relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. I believe that this is the main desire of the peoples and governments of both countries, and our relations will develop further.”
On Friday, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev met with Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Seyed Abbas Mousavi and discussed economic relations and cooperation issues between the two countries, according to Azerbaijani and Iranian reports.
Mousavi also recently stated that “Iran is not opposed to the creation of the Zangezur Corridor,” adding that such a corridor depends on a decision between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Our principles are that one country cannot affect the national interests of another country, including its neighbors,” Mousavi said, according to the Fars News agency.
Officials from Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia are also expected to hold a trilateral meeting to improve economic ties between the three countries, according to the Tehran Times.
Last week, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said a “third party” was trying to “create a misunderstanding that is not beneficial to either Azerbaijan or Iran” during a meeting with Azerbaijan’s attorney general, according to media reports. Iranian communication.
Vahidi stressed that “third parties should not interfere in the proper relations between the two countries”.
An article by the Iranian news site Donya-e-Eqtesad published on Monday expressed concern that “media close to the government, president and security institutions of Azerbaijan have increased their anti-Iranian propaganda.”
“It seems that the Azerbaijani media, turning some ethnic issues into leverage, is trying to prepare the ground for the Aliyev government to score points against Iran,” the article said.
Salar Seifaldini, a researcher on Central Asian and Caucasus issues, blamed the heightened rhetoric on Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek and the “Jewish advisor to the government in Baku” in an interview with Donya-e-Eqtesad.
Iran again warns its neighbors not to cooperate with Israel
Amid rising tensions, IRGC Commander-in-Chief Sardar Hossein Salami said on Monday that “the presence of foreign regimes in the region cannot be tolerated, the Zionist regime is like a rootless tree that cannot be governed.” according to Tasnim news agency.
Salami added that “the territory and the radius of our national security reach as far as our interests extend.”
The warning echoes similar ones issued by Iran during tensions between the two countries last year.
Other recent spikes in tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran rose last year after Azerbaijan began targeting Iranian trucks with fines and arrests, and Iran moved military forces to the border and warned of Israeli influence near its borders.
Ahmed Ali Gudarzi, commander of Iran’s border guards, said at the time that Israeli forces were present in “sensitive areas” of neighboring countries and were conducting intelligence and espionage work, and advised Muslim countries “not to allow it,” according to Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB.
The commander also claimed that Israel was inciting neighboring countries to crack down on their borders or impose heavy tolls on heavy goods vehicles, an apparent reference to the tolls levied on Iranian truck drivers from Azerbaijan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also said Israel has a presence along the Azerbaijan-Iran border, saying “the Zionist regime has started provocative actions in our region through Azerbaijani territory.” We believe that some of the sharp statements of the Azerbaijani authorities these days are unconstructive.”
Azerbaijan’s State Border Service (SBS) rejected the claims, saying Azerbaijan “does not need the support of foreign forces”.
Mousavi then weighed in on the tension, saying in an interview with Al-Mayadeen news that there are 1,000 Israeli and 1,800 ISIS operatives in Azerbaijan and that Israelis with advanced equipment in Azerbaijan played a role in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Iran has launched the “Khaibar Conquerors” exercise amid tensions near the border with Azerbaijan. The name was apparently a reference to the Battle of Khaybar in AD 628, when Muslims led by Muhammad fought the Jews there, eventually defeating them and imposing tribute on them.
Iranian officials have stressed that the exercise is intended to “send a message” to Israel and ISIS, warning that Tehran will take whatever action is necessary to protect its borders.
At the time, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed his shock at Iran’s decision to hold a military exercise along its border, saying it was the first time in Azerbaijan’s 30-year history of independence.
Close ties between Israel and Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan and Israel maintain close ties, with the Azerbaijani president saying in a discussion with the Nizami Ganjavi International Center in May that relations with Israel are very diverse and particularly strong in the defense industry. “It is no secret that Azerbaijan has full access to the products of the Israeli defense industry,” Aliyev said at the time.
Azerbaijan reportedly used Israeli weapons, including Israel Aerospace Industries’ LORA missile and Harop suicide drone, in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia.
About the author: Zvi Joffre is the breaking news editor at The Jerusalem Post.