Azerbaijan and Iran — majority Shiite Muslim countries that share strong ethnic and linguistic ties and centuries of history — saw the worst escalation in their tense relations in January when the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran came under an armed attack. That followed Iran’s military buildup on its border with Azerbaijan in a dispute between the neighbors over Israel. The brewing conflict has ramifications for the larger Caucasus region, which is important to Russia and Turkey and crisscrossed by pipelines shipping oil and natural gas to the West.
1. What’s behind the Iran-Azerbaijan tensions?
Iran has a sizable ethnic Azerbaijani minority, which is believed to account for around a third of its population of 85 million. Iran has been wary of separatist sentiment within the ethnic Azerbaijanis, who also call themselves Turks, while Azerbaijani authorities have accused Iran of denying them some minority rights, such as the right to education in their own language. In addition, Azerbaijan officials have blamed Iran for backing Armenia in the long-running conflict over Azerbaijan’s separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. And tensions have occasionally flared in the past 30 years because of Azerbaijan’s friendly relations with Israel and its energy projects with Western companies including BP Plc.
2. How did the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict affect Iran?
After Azerbaijan triumphed in a 44-day war with Armenia in 2020, it reclaimed districts along a 130-kilometer (81-mile) stretch of its border with Iran that Armenians had occupied since the 1990s. It also regained part of the main highway linking Iran to Armenia, a critical trade route to the Black Sea and Russia. Tehran reacted angrily when Azerbaijan imposed a heavy tax on Iranian trucks carrying goods to Armenia, effectively paralyzing trade between them and jeopardizing Iran’s access to markets farther away. President Ilham Aliyev accused Iran of ignoring demands to stop delivering goods to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran and Armenia have been discussing plans for an alternative road avoiding Azerbaijan.
3. How is Israel involved?
Azerbaijan is a major oil supplier to Israel. It also buys high-tech drones and other weapons from Israel, which proved crucial in the war against Armenia. Israel was the second-largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan from 2011 to 2020, after Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel opened an embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, in the early 1990s, and Azerbaijan has hosted Israeli leaders. Weeks before the embassy attack in Tehran, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a bill to open an embassy in Israel, breaking with a decades-long policy of not having a diplomatic mission in the Jewish state, lest it irritate Iran. Iran sees Baku’s ties to Israel as a national security threat.
4. Why does Iran see Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel as a threat?
For years, Iran has suspected Israel of using the relationship to spy on Iran through tools like unmanned surveillance aircraft. Azerbaijan’s State Border Service is the main recipient of sophisticated Israeli intelligence and attack drones. Iran has accused Israel of being behind attacks on its nuclear and military facilities and the assassination of scientists. Israel, which has vowed to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, has neither confirmed nor denied involvement. In 2021, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps held large-scale military drills near the border with Azerbaijan. Iranian officials accused Azerbaijan of allowing Israel to have a military presence near the border. Azerbaijan denied harboring Israeli forces and countered by holding military exercises with Turkey near the Iranian border.
5. What happened in January?
Azerbaijani officials blamed Iran for what they described as a terrorist attack on their embassy in Tehran. Iran said an initial interrogation of the gunman, who was detained by police, indicated that he acted from personal motives; a senior Azerbaijani diplomat dismissed that as “absurd.” Pro-government news website Caliber, citing unnamed sources in the Azerbaijan government, claimed Iran’s “special services” were behind the attack. Azerbaijan closed the embassy, evacuating the staff and their families. The Foreign Ministry in Baku also warned citizens against visiting Iran.
6. What would a conflict look like?
An outbreak of fighting between Azerbaijan and Iran would quickly entangle NATO member Turkey, which has a mutual defense pact with Azerbaijan. Turkey has long been Azerbaijan’s main military backer, openly supporting it with weapons and advisers against Armenia in the 2020 war. It’s now deployed troops to monitor the Azerbaijan-Armenia cease-fire alongside Russia, which has sent 2,000 peacekeeping soldiers to Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has a military base in Armenia, and the two nations have a defense pact.
7. What’s at stake economically?
An armed conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan could put at risk regional energy projects. BP and its partners have invested more than $70 billion in Azerbaijan’s energy development and transportation projects since 1994. The projects include a 1,768-kilometer (1,098-mile) oil pipeline connecting Caspian Sea output with Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Azerbaijan also helped build 3,500 kilometers (2,174 miles) of natural gas pipelines to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. Azerbaijan started gas exports Dec. 31 to European Union countries, including Greece and Italy, via the US-backed Southern Gas Corridor. In July, the country agreed to double natural gas exports to Europe by 2027.
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