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Relations of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan: Potential friends and enemies

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Iranian Foreign Minister met his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov in Baku on Wednesday February 18.
(photo by Islamic Republic News Agency)

Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan may seem as potential close allies or at least two neighboring countries with very good relations. The two countries have land, river and sea borders. Iran, as the first and biggest Shiite country in the world, is run by a Shiite clerics who claim to be promoting their religious messages and supporting like minded trends. Therefore, Azerbaijan Republic, as the only other mostly Shiite country of the world, should be Iran’s best friend. Iran has a big Azeri minority that is from the same cultural backgrounds as the people of the Azerbaijan Republic. In fact, the Iranian Azeri minority is bigger than the entire population of the Republic of Azerbaijan. However, since the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan from the former USSR (1991), the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan have had one of the worst neighborly relations in the region and the existing trends indicate that even worse relations may be in the way.

Problems between the two countries:

  1. For a start, Iran and Azerbaijan Republic are both among the littoral states of the Caspian Sea and the Caspian Sea littoral states have not yet succeeded to define a commonly accepted formula for the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and   the two countries of Iran and Azerbaijan have deep disagreement regarding what this regime should be. (1)
  2. The Azeris on both sides of the border of Iran and Azerbaijan have common culture and language.  They speak almost exactly the same language, which is different from the Turkish language of the Turkey. In fact some parts of the present Azerbaijan Republic consists of the territories separated from Iran, after 20 years of unequal wars between the Iran and Tsarist Russia, and by two imposed treaties.  Therefore, there are important unifying feelings on both sides.  The government of Azerbaijan has supported some of the separatist Azeri groups of Iran that call for unity of Azerbaijan with the clear intention of separating 4 Azeri provinces of Iran.(2) at the other side, Iran fears Aliyev, backed by Israel and even the United States, could support a revolt by its Azeris, who comprise about one-quarter of the population. So it supports Azerbaijan's regional rival, Armenia, in its deadlocked dispute with Baku over Nagorno-Karabakh, currently held by Armenia.
  3. Shiitism: the two countries are mainly Shiite Muslims, but the government of Azerbaijan has always been cautious not to let the Shiite elements to get to any place of power. For the same reason, the government of Azerbaijan has been systematically eliminating the chances of Iran for influencing the Muslims of Azerbaijan. The activities of the Shiite groups are strictly under control. And any relations of these groups with Iran are under scrutiny. A number of them have been arrested. (3)
  4. Relations with Armenia and the issue of Nagorno Garabagh- due to the military standoff with Armenia over the region of Nagorno Karabagh, the Azerbaijan Republic has entered into an axis of Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel.  Iran on the other hand is afraid of the Western presence and considers this as a part of preparations for possible military intervention in all or parts of Iran by US (after getting the tacit agreement of the Russians who have always wished to see the disintegration of Iran). In order to counter the Azeri moves, Iran is supporting Armenia. “Azerbaijan believes the clear economic and political support of Iran from the Republic of Armenia is a kind of declaration of war against Baku”. (4)
  5. Another point of contention is the foreign policy of the two countries.  Azerbaijan considers itself a European country and wants to become a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO as soon as possible. As the relations of Iran with Western countries goes bad due to several issues (especially the nuclear program of Iran, Iran’s intervention in the Middle East peace process, and support of Iran to international terrorism), Azerbaijan is mentioned as one of the places that may used by the West, especially the US, (instead of or along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) as a possible route for the Western attack or against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

However, none of these are as important as the issue of relations of Azerbaijan Republic with Israel. In 2008, Azeri daily Yeni Musavat cited a political analyst at the University of Washington's Institute for Middle East Studies as pointing out “extensive covert and overt preemptive cooperation in security, intelligence and military areas between Azerbaijan and the Israeli intelligence services, Mossad” in the ex-Soviet republic. He also referred to installation of “highly-advanced satellite espionage equipment on the Azeri soil, wiretapping centers in frontier areas, eavesdropping centers in the Caspian Sea and continuous training of Azeri intelligence and security agents in Israel” as instances of the collaboration. (5) According to another report: “ Israel has been quietly building intelligence and military links with oil rich Azerbaijan, a largely secular Muslim state, since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago. The Israelis sell significant amounts of weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles to the government in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, as its intelligence services dig in along the border with Iran. That gives Israel a forward operating base to monitor Iran, particularly its contentious nuclear program, which Jerusalem views as a major existential threat.” (6)

Dr. Afshar Sulaimani, the former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to the Republic of Azerbaijan, has told “Diplomacy Irani”: “The Republic of Azerbaijan has many important points for Israel, including: Presence in the northern borders of Iran. The relations of Israel and Azerbaijan Republic have more secret aspects than open ones. Azerbaijan tries to use the Israeli lobby in the US in its favor, use the capability of Israeli intelligence service for identifying the Armenian elements mostly stationed in Lebanon who are active against the Azerbaijan, getting help for curtailing the political Islam, stopping the effects of Iranian media and remarks of Iranian politicians, and eventually to contain the political worries. On the other side, Israelis use their relations with Azerbaijan as a model of relations with a Muslim country, and trying to get recognition among the Muslim countries, reducing the influence of Iran in Azerbaijan, and weakening Iran in order to cut its relations with Hamas and Hezbollah and Syria, affecting relations with Turkey and Russia”.(7)

At the same time, worsening of relations between the Western countries and Russia has created a new atmosphere of closeness between the Iran and Russia and at the same time, it has opened the way for concern on the part of some regional countries, especially the Republic of Azerbaijan. The new trend in Iran-Russian relations, combined with harsh moves of Russians in Ukraine, the experience of Georgia and mild reaction of the West to such developments, have important implications in the regional context.

The Russians have historically been very active against the interests of the people of Iran. The old Russian Empire tried to destroy Iran in order to devour the smaller parts one after another. Peter the Great left guidance to destroy Iran in order to get to the “warm waters” of the Persian Gulf. In 1907 and 1915, the Russians twice tried to destroy Iran in collaboration with the British. The Russians separated and devoured several parts of Iran (in 1813), including a major part of the present territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Russians have violated the rights of Iran in the Caspian Sea and at the moment they have a position strictly against the position of Iran in the Caspian Sea. However, the hardliners and extremists in Iran consider the entire events in Ukraine as Western conspiracies and they persuade the Iranian society for closer relation between Iran and Russia.


The main reason for unfavorable relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Azerbaijan Republic is not the dispute on the Caspian Sea, the suppression of the Shiites or the religious people in Azerbaijan Republic, and similar issues. The Islamic Republic is really careless how other countries treat the Muslims when the problems related to its survival and security are concerned. The biggest example of this is the close relations of Iran with the Republic of Armenia which has no special reason but trying to put pressure on the Azerbaijan Republic (which is a Muslim Shiite country). Also, Iran is careless to what is happening in the Abkhazia, Chechen and Dagestan to the Muslims under the Russian rulers. Even the opposition of Iran to plans such as Trans-Caspian pipelines should be looked in the light of the following fact. The main reason for the negative attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the Azerbaijan Republic is the close relation of Azerbaijan with the West, and the increasing presence and activities of Israel.

Sources and references:

1. Regarding this point please refer to the author’s multiple articles in “Payvand News of Iran” on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and also to: Aghai Diba, Bahman, the Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea, Booksuege, 2006, VA, US.

2, (3) and (4) Ali Jafari, writing for Alborz site.

(5) Press TV

(6) UPI

(7) IR Diplomacy


... Payvand News - 02/18/15 ... --

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