End of Iran-Azerbaijan escalation is not on horizon
    Tit-for-tat diplomacy

    ANALYTICS  05 June 2023 - 16:31

    Fuad Shahbazov

    On June 3, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan issued a warning statement for its citizens, urging them not to travel to Iran and those who are already in Iran to take the utmost precaution and security measures. In return, the Iranian foreign ministry accused Israel of being behind this decision.

    The warning came amid the detention of young Azerbaijani citizen Farid Safarli in March 2023, when he travelled to Iran from Germany for personal reasons. Although the Iranian authorities earlier denied having information about Farid's whereabouts, on June 1, they confirmed the detention of Farid Safarli, who faced espionage charges.

    Although the Baku-Tehran diplomatic escalation process recently stalled, Iran's public threats toward Azerbaijan appeared to be continuous. The tension between Azerbaijan and Iran has reached new heights in the last three years, following Azerbaijan’s military victory in the second Karabakh war in 2020 over Armenia.

    Since then, Iran has continuously accused Azerbaijan of its attempts to change the historical borders in the South Caucasus, referring to Baku's efforts to gain a land connection with its exclave Nakhchivan and Türkiye via Armenia’s Syunik province. So far, Iran’s attempts to intimidate Azerbaijan into abandoning the corridor project have yielded few results.

    Nevertheless, the relations were strained when Iran conducted large-scale military drills near Azerbaijani borders twice in 2021 and 2022, amassing additional troops to the area, while some Iranian military figures appeared on government-produced video footage making public threats against Azerbaijan. Baku opted to refrain from responding to the exercises with comments that might antagonise Tehran.

    However, the situation became even more explosive when, in late January, an Iranian citizen armed with a rifle burst into the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, killed the building's security chief and injured two of his colleagues. As a result, Azerbaijan suspended the work of its embassy in Tehran until the Iranian authorities will conduct a “proper investigation.”

    Baku did not react to the appeal of Iran to re-open the embassy in Tehran again. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said on June 5 that his country received appeals from Iran over the resumption of the Azerbaijani diplomatic mission’s activities in the country.

    However, the top diplomat expects the criminal investigation of the terrorist attack committed against the Azerbaijani embassy to be completed in the near future and the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

    Although Azerbaijan's re-emergence as a small regional power in the region after the 44-Day War is one of the concerns of Iran, the main concern stems from Azerbaijan's deepening relations with Israel, Iran's arch-foe. Before 2020, Baku and Tel Aviv preferred to keep strategic partnerships behind closed doors, though they enjoyed long-term cordial relations and fruitful partnerships, particularly in the energy and defence fields.

    Azerbaijan's pragmatic foreign policy strategy entailed a balanced approach toward Iran and Israel in order to anger the former. However, with the shifting geopolitical landscape, Azerbaijan's balancing act toward Iran became unnecessary, which resulted in Baku's establishment of its first-ever embassy in Israel in March 2023.

    Despite Iran's intimidation policy against Azerbaijan, Baku refrained from igniting the situation more, even though it conducted mass crackdowns on the Iraninan-linked spy networks in the country. As a result of the special operations carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 39 people who carried out acts of sabotage and disruption under the "veil of religion" in Azerbaijan have been identified and detained since 2022.

    Azerbaijan has been concerned about certain Iranian-influenced religious activists, which Baku has accused of having plans to overthrow the government, with a major arrest of Iranian spy cells occurring in the country in 2012. Nevertheless, such groups have not made much headway in Azerbaijan, as the country tends to be more secular than Iran.

    Moreover, the recently strengthened partnership between Israel and Azerbaijan is gaining more impetus amid growing international pressure on Iran due to its military assistance to Russia in launching an invasion of Ukraine and endeavours to complete uranium enrichment. Therefore, Azerbaijan's importance as a regional partner rose significantly for Israel and the US.

    For Azerbaijan, US financial and political support has been crucial in establishing and expanding the Southern Gas Corridor, the network of energy pipelines flowing westward from Baku. This has been mutually beneficial, playing into the Azerbaijani interest in boosting energy production and diversifying pipeline routes and the US interest in cutting into Russia's energy hold on Europe.

    Notably, Tehran's coercive intimidation policy toward Azerbaijan is unlikely to yield positive results, as Baku recently created more space for diplomatic manoeuvring. The growing partnership with the West on energy, strong alliance with Türkiye amid President Erdogan’s re-election, and the most recent official visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Baku demonstrated to what extent is Azerbaijan’s multivector diplomacy successful in terms of regional alliances.


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