By Joshua Kucera
(Eurasianet) – A battle of words between Azerbaijan and Iran has heated up again, with semi-official sources in Azerbaijan openly calling for the liberation of Iran’s large ethnic Azerbaijani minority.
“The time has come: South Azerbaijan should secede from Iran,” said a August 26 headline on Caliber.az, a website associated with the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration. (“South Azerbaijan” is the irredentist term for the Azerbaijan-dominated northern provinces of Iran.)
A item the next day Haqqin.az, a site linked to Azerbaijan’s security services, headlined “South Azerbaijan strives for independence!” defending rights of his compatriots,” wrote the unidentified author, referring to Iranian Azerbaijanis. “And the Azerbaijani government has enough resources to support a new wave of national liberation movement.”
Relations between Baku and Tehran have been rocky since the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. While Iran has repeatedly expressed support for Azerbaijan regaining control of many of the territories it lost in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s, it seems concerned about the possible next steps of a now emboldened Azerbaijan to be.
This latest flare-up appears to be linked to comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in July expressing concern over Azerbaijan’s intentions to establish a new transport link between Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave and mainland Azerbaijan, a route connecting Baku called the “Zangezur Corridor”. The route will run along Armenia’s border with Iran, with uncertain consequences for Armenian-Iranian trade.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are currently negotiating the exact nature of this route and the thorny political question of who will have what kind of control over transit along the route. But Azerbaijan has frequently touted the corridor in Pan-Turkic terms (it would allow smoother access from mainland Azerbaijan to Turkey, which borders Nakhchivan), alarming Iran. And Azerbaijan has further threatened that if it doesn’t get what it wants from Armenia, it could take the territory by force.
Iranian officials say they are not opposed to the new route per se. “Iran is not opposed to the creation of the Zangezur corridor,” Iranian Ambassador to Baku Abbas Mousavi said. said on August 28th. “It depends on Azerbaijan and Armenia and is an international matter. The principle of our country is that one country cannot influence the national interests of another country, including its neighbors.”
But Tehran has also repeatedly said that changing borders in the Caucasus would amount to a “red line.” In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on July 19, Khamenei reiterated these concerns. “If there are efforts to block the Iran-Armenia border, the Islamic Republic will resist because this border has been a route of communication for thousands of years,” he said said.
Tehran has expressed support for Armenia’s territorial integrity in other ways. Iran announced it would open a consulate in the southern Armenian city of Kapan appointed consul in August, which was a “clear signal” to Baku, said analyst Salar Seifaldini saidthe Iranian newspaper Donya-e Eqtesadi.
There has also been a recent surge in Article against Azerbaijan in the Iranian press. Even a newspaper risen a 12 year old Italian tabloid history claims that President Ilham Aliyev’s wife is having an affair with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
And on August 24, a Turkish pro-government tabloid printed Quoting what it said was an audio recording of a former senior Iranian diplomat, Ebulfezl Zuhtevend, making various insulting and provocative comments about Azerbaijan. “Azerbaijan is a frightening phenomenon for us. Nakhchivan should be fully annexed by Iran,” he reportedly said. “Armenians are allies of Iran and have always been so throughout history. There is no such thing as Azerbaijan… Azerbaijan should be annexed by Iran again, otherwise it will infect Iran like a cancer cell.”
Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have flared up several times since 2020. In May Aliyev got into a public dispute with an Iranian analyst who accused Baku of facilitating a government-backed platform for Iranian Azerbaijani separatists. Last fall, the arrest of two Iranian truck drivers by the Azerbaijani police escalated to Iranian military exercises on the borders of Azerbaijan.
In both cases, Baku appeared to be gently trying to foment separatism, but the latest appeals are the most blatant yet.
“Probably, our compatriots often look at us dreamily, seeing the constant development of an independent Azerbaijan… So the people of South Azerbaijan can take an example of what to aspire to,” the Caliber.az article concluded. “Our southern brothers, we know you can do it! The time has come!”
As always in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, Israel’s shadow looms over this latest tension. In July, Israel’s ambassador to Baku, George Deek, tweeted a photo of himself reading a book titled “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz,” which refers to the major city in northern Iran.
The tweet sparked a small firestorm on social media, with several Azerbaijanis and their supporters tweeting similar images, and led to a thinly veiled threat from Iran’s ambassador to Baku, Abbas Mousavi.
Mousavi then entered long job interview to the Tehran Times, in which he portrayed relations between Azerbaijan and Iran as warm, with Israel’s only sore point being attempts to drive a wedge between them. He didn’t mention the Zangezur Corridor.
On August 31, defense journal Breaking Defense published a piece Details of Israeli-Azerbaijani military cooperation and its potential use against Iran.
“[I]It is clear that close defense ties with Azerbaijan offer Israel some potential benefits, including stationing sensors on Azerbaijani soil or using its long border with Iran to allow special forces better penetration into Iran. Azerbaijan could also theoretically offer its airspace for Israeli jets to invade Iranian territory if necessary,” the article reads. It was re-released on a news aggregator run by the Azerbaijani government.
Joshua Kucera is Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet and author of The bug pit.