Studies 08 May, 2024

Azerbaijan-Iran Relations under the Shadow of Pan-Turkist Challenges

Bayram Sinkaya

 Associate Professor of International Relations at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University. He received his PhD at the Middle East Technical University (METU), where he also worked as a research assistant (2002-2011). He was a visiting researcher at Columbia University (2007-2008) and the University of Tehran (2003). Sinkaya also served as a non-resident research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), Ankara, for Iranian affairs (2014-2017). His research interests include Iranian politics, foreign and security policies of Iran, Middle East politics, and Turkish foreign policy. He is the author of The Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Politics: Elites and Shifting Relations (Routledge, 2015).

The independence of the Azerbaijan Republic in October 1991 and the ensuing Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute over Nagorno-­­Karabakh posed a new set of challenges for the Islamic Republic of Iran. One such challenge was that Iran now faced a military conflict between its two neighbours, creating instability adjacent to its borders that eventually turned into a protracted conflict. Although Tehran claimed neutrality, acrobat Icon Azerbaijan blamed Iran for providing tacit support to the Armenians. Another challenge was the ascendance of Abulfaz Elchibey to power in Baku in June 1992, which sparked the so-called threat of pan-Turkism, arguably aimed at the territorial integrity of Iran. Elchibey was an ardent Turkish nationalist who forecasted the downfall of Iran and the “unification of two Azerbaijans” that alarmed Iranian officials about security risks arising from a powerful and independent Azerbaijan.[1] Nonetheless, Baku and Tehran used to have pragmatic relations, particularly after the replacement of Elchibey with Heydar Aliyev as President of Azerbaijan in 1993. Despite occasional tensions between the two neighbours that revolved around the alleged Iranian promotion of political Islam and its intelligence activities inside Azerbaijan, Iranian support for Armenia with regard to the Karabakh dispute, and Baku’s alleged support for ethnonationalism among Iranian Azerbaijanis, the two countries have managed to preserve relatively stable and pragmatic relations.

However, immediately after the Second Karabakh War (27 September-9 November 2020), also dubbed as the 44-Day War by Azerbaijanis, which ended with Azerbaijan’s liberation of territories that were previously occupied by the Armenian forces, Baku-Tehran relations were strained significantly. Azerbaijan furiously reacted to Iranian deployment of additional troops close to the Azerbaijan-Iran border and frequent military drills. In return, Iran viewed the growing Azerbaijan-Israel relations as a “Zionist threat” encroaching close to its territories. Finally, in response to an attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran in January 2023, Azerbaijan suspended the activities of the embassy and withdrew its diplomats from Tehran. Baku then blamed Tehran for cultivating militant cells in Azerbaijan and declared some Iranian diplomats as persona non grata. Iran reciprocated the measure, displaying the severity of tension between the two states.

This paper examines the evolution of Baku-Tehran relations after the Second Karabakh War. It argues that the recent tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan are a result of two related factors. The first is the shifting geopolitics of the South Caucasus against the interests of Iran. The war has broken Azerbaijan and Armenia’s previous stalemate, and made the former, along with Türkiye, the dominant powers in the region. acrobat IconThe second reason is the revival of the spectre of pan-Turkism that has haunted Baku-Tehran relations for the past century. In addition, rising Azerbaijani and Turkish influence in the South Caucasus and the presence of approximately twenty-five million Turkic, Azeri/Azerbaijani speaking people in the northwest region of Iran, commonly called Iranian Azerbaijan, has proved to be a source of tension in Azerbaijan-Iran relations. Members of the Azerbaijani elite who have close ties with former President Elchibey have often talked about the partition of Iran and the unification of the two Azerbaijans (bütöv Azerbaijan). This has fuelled Tehran’s fears that Baku incites ethnonationalist movements among Iranian Azerbaijanis, and alleged pan-Turkist or pan-Azerbaijani policies pursued by Baku have led to the securitization of relations between the two countries.