Iranian-Azerbaijani relations under the new Raisi administration
Despite some sort of rapprochement in 2019 (see EDM, March 20, 2019), Iran’s relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan have faced new tensions and challenges during the last year of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. (which will end on August 3, 2021), notably following the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War at the end of September 2020. Azerbaijani officials and the media have repeatedly protested and criticized Tehran’s foreign policy amid the Armenian conflict. 44-day Azerbaijani (see EDM, October 21, 2020). While, nationally, the Azerbaijani people of Iran have expressed their external support for Baku’s successes on the battlefield, much to Tehran’s chagrin (see EDM, October 22, 2020 and November 5, 2020); even local officials, members of parliament and clerics during Friday prayers in the Azerbaijani-populated northwestern border region of Iran demanded that the central government do more to support Baku’s position (Al Jazeera, October 5, 2020)
The 2021 Iranian presidential election therefore naturally attracted intense media coverage in Azerbaijan, reflecting the importance of the Islamic Republic and its political future for the South Caucasus region as a whole (Irna, June 22). The winner ended up being conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who is seen as a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev quickly congratulated Raisi on the latter’s victory (Yazeco, June 22). And after the elections, officials from both countries expressed hope that efforts to improve bilateral ties will remain on track under the next administration in Tehran. Iranian Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Farhad Dejpasand during a meeting with Azerbaijani Ambassador to Tehran Bonyad Hosseinov stressed that the two sides will promote mutual cooperation. And the sentiment was echoed by Iran’s Ambassador to Baku, Seyed Abbas Mousavi (Bim, June 20).
After the end of the Second Karabakh War, in November last year, Azerbaijan adopted a large-scale program for the reconstruction of its liberated areas and invited foreign companies to participate (see EDM, April 26 ). According to Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev, economic cooperation with Iran in Karabakh could be particularly fruitful in the field of energy (Dolat, December 22, 2020). But to facilitate the participation of Iranian construction companies in the reconstruction of Karabakh, an agreement between Tehran and Washington regarding the Iranian nuclear program will probably be crucial (Acco, January 21, 2021).
Despite these economic incentives for cooperation, serious security problems continue to weigh on relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. At the end of June, Turkey and Azerbaijan started joint military exercises in Baku. The Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan has stated that the main objective of these exercises, called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk 2021, is to improve the interaction between the military units of the two countries during military operations and to increase the decision-making skills of commanders. Notably, as part of the exercise, Israeli-made Saar-62 patrol vessels of the Azerbaijani Coast Guard fired Spike-Nlos anti-tank missiles at a retired commercial tug, which was replacing an Iranian patrol vessel. In response, Tehran organized its own rival naval exercises to demonstrate Iranian military prowess in the Caspian Sea. On June 30, the Islamic Republic conducted a 1,400-man exercise with the participation of the Navy, Air Force, Army Aviation, Air Defense Force, as well as only air force fighters (Tabnak, June 28; Independent, June 30th).
Such a saber aside, the fortunes of Iran and Azerbaijan are clearly linked in multiple complex ways. For example, in recent months, Iran has suffered continued power outages due to increased consumption (especially due to cryptocurrency mining) and reduced hydropower generation caused by declining prices. precipitation due to climate change (News from Téjarat, June 5). To compensate for this shortfall, Iran has increased its purchases of electricity from neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. According to Iranian power industry spokesman Mustafa Rajabi Mashhadi, imports from Azerbaijan currently total 73 megawatts (MW) via a cross-border transmission line. But plans exist to potentially increase these electricity flows to 130 MW during peak hours (Tasnim, June 12).
Another important area of cooperation through physical connectivity is the activation of the Nakhichevan-Tabriz railway and the promotion of improvements at the Jolfa border terminal. These, as well as the mutual development of the North-South trans-regional transit corridor, had so far not received enough attention from the Iranian government. According to Azerbaijani President Aliyev, the opening of these corridors will bring new opportunities for the whole regiom, including increased trade with Iran (Anadolu Agency, January 7).
However, long-standing unresolved sources of tension continue to hamper such calls for cooperation, even when bilateral relations may seem cordial at first glance. In particular, Azerbaijan has repeatedly expressed its dissatisfaction with Iran’s support for certain Islamist groups in the country, which Tehran has sought to use as leverage on Baku as well as to compensate for what it fears. being Baku’s influence on the large Azerbaijani ethnic minority living in Iran (Timeturk, October 30, 2020; RFI, June 21, 2011). Indeed, such a strategy on Iran’s part is not limited to its relations with Azerbaijan. Other neighboring countries have also protested against Iran’s use of various political and militant groups beyond its borders to achieve its foreign policy goals. And it seems that during Raisi’s presidency this approach will continue, including towards Azerbaijan (Isna, March 30, 2021).
Regional security in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea is certainly important for both Iran and Azerbaijan, and a prerequisite for both sides to voluntarily cooperate on the aforementioned mutually beneficial economic and transit projects as well as for the joint exploitation of common offshore oil and natural gas fields (see EDM, April 5, 2018). However, Iranian interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs during the next presidency could prevent such plans. If Tehran is to play a new geopolitical role in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh war, Iranian foreign policy will need to more clearly prioritize respect for national interests and de-escalation with its neighbors. But support for Islamist groups in the region has long been and seems very likely to remain one of the basic tenets of Iran’s foreign policy under the new Raisi administration.