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Azerbaijan- Iran Relations: Challenges and Prospects

İran - Azerbaycan elaqeleri

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics tried to search for their place in the new global structure. It was necessary to discover “new neighbors” who had been separated for many decades by the “Iron Curtain.” It took time for the southern neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan –of the defunct USSR to adjust to the new situation, and the changes that had occurred in the 150-200 years of formal separation had taken their toll. This statement applies to all of the neighbors of the southern former Soviet republics, but it is especially applicable to the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.

For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First of all, Iran is the Azerbaijan Republic’s southern neighbor. The 2 states share about 618 kilometers of land borders. These two countries border each other in the Caspian Sea as well. Both countries share values from their mutual past and some elements of a common culture. Azerbaijan has the second largest Shi’i population in the world, after Iran. The membership of both countries in Muslim and regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic Conference and ECO, is an indicator of the countries’ affinities in terms of geography and religion.

The history of direct relations for the last 10 years shows that such positive and binding factors as neighborhood and the same religion are not enough to create close relations between them. Other important factors, which affect current relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, exist as well.

The Main Influential Factors

The divided Azerbaijan factor is the most influential factor in the relations between the two countries. The Republic of Azerbaijan encompasses only a portion of what we actually consider to be Azerbaijan: the second part of Azerbaijan is in North-West Iran. The Azerbaijani Turks in Iran constitute a significant part of the population of that country but are deprived of their national rights. This factor is central in understanding the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.

If part of Iran were not to be considered and called by the name “Azerbaijan,” and if there were not millions of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran, the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran might have developed in a significantly different manner, such as those, for instance, between Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Truly, the main difficulties in the relations between Tehran and Baku emanate from this factor.

A little background on the situation:
In the early nineteenth century the Russian Empire occupied the khanates of North Azerbaijan, which were de jure a part of Qajar Iran, but de-facto were independent. Despite the close relations between North and South Azerbaijan until the 1930s, these two parts of Azerbaijan have since gone different ways: the division occurred at a time when national self-consciousness was not highly developed. This played an essential role in creating distinctions between South and North Azerbaijan.

The inclusion of North Azerbaijan into the Russian Empire, and consequently the cultural differences between the Russians and the Turks, played a significant role in the appearance of the self-awareness of the Azerbaijani Turks; these differences have been expressed in the language, religion, mentality, customs and historical roots. On the other hand, Azerbaijan was turned into a real colony of Russia in terms of fiscal systems, exploration of oil and other natural resources. In order to prevent ties on the basis ofreligious and ethnic affinity with the Ottoman Turks, Russia established special rule over North Azerbaijan, brutally repressing any sign of a national movement in the region.

Despite this repression, the national movement in North Azerbaijan began earlier than in South Azerbaijan. The national movement in North Azerbaijan went through three stages:

1. Demands for the cultural autonomy (1905-1917)
2. Demands for the national-territorial autonomy (1917-1918)
3. Struggle for national independence (since 1918).

Consequently, the creation of an independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918 symbolized the existence of the formation of the Azerbaijani Turks as a separate nation.

In this period, the processes in South Azerbaijan developed in a different way. The historical past, religious unity in terms of Shi’ism, cultural closeness, historical traditions of Persian language and literature, and other related factors between Turks and Persians slowed the development of a national movement in Iran. At the same time, the permanent threat from Russia (Tsarist and Soviet) to the south has been an important factor in influencing Azerbaijani Turks to put aside their national aspirations. That is why, when the Russian aggression against Iran at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries increased, the main theorists of Pan-Iranism appeared and they were mostly Iranians of Turkish origin, such as Kasravi, Kazemzade, and Rezazade.

We have to emphasize that for a long time during the Qajar and Pahlavi monarchies and even in the current Islamic regime there have been and are many Turks in the ruling elite. Those who joined the Iranian elite were tempted by the desire to have their social and economic needs met by the regime.

South Azerbaijan consists of Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Zenjan, Hamadan Ostans (provinces) and adjacent areas of Astara, Qazvin and other territories. The size of these territories is estimated at approximately 170.000 square kilometers (the territory of North Azerbaijan is half this— i.e., 86,600 sq. km). Turks dominate the national composition of the Azerbaijani provinces in Iran – making up more than 90% of the population in these areas.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran. Official statistics do not state the national composition of Iran. According to our research, based on the official statistics, the Azerbaijani Turks comprise nearly 40% of the population of Iran. This is 75% of all the Azerbaijani Turks in the world.

While Persian chauvinism in Iran has significantly hurt the economic and social well being of South Azerbaijan, the policy of chauvinism has been most severely felt in Iran in the field of national culture. The Azerbaijani Turkish language is not allowed to be used in any official use in all fields, including schools, courts, government structures, army etc. Some forms of Azerbaijan culture are prohibited as well.

An example of this policy is illustrated by the events connected to the last parliamentary elections in Iran. In May 1996, Mr. Chehregani, who ran on a platform of observing the 15th article of the constitution (using the local languages in the literature lessons of elementary schools), was elected in the first round from Tabriz. His victory ended in police interrogation, torture, and arrest in Tehran.

The national-liberation movement in South Azerbaijan has nearly 90 years of history. National-territorial autonomy demands were put before Iranian rulers during movements, led by Sattarhan (1908-1909), Khiyabani (1920), Pishevari (1945-1946), Shariat-Madari (1979-1980) and in their demands they illustrated various ways of resolution of the national question in Iran.

There are at least two factors that influence the current stage of the national movement in Iran:

1. The rise of Azerbaijani Turkish national consciousness and diffusion of the national movement into higher social strata; and 2. The restoration of independent Azerbaijani statehood in the North.

Among the Azerbaijani Turks in Iran there are three main trends for dealing with the national problem of South Azerbaijan representing three different proposals:

1. The group of religious leaders, industrialists, bureaucrats who occupy prominent positions in the Iranian state, and their ideologists. This group: supports the idea of a united Iran (“national Irano-centrists”); strives to increase the share of authority and capital within a single Iran; supports the idea of Turkization of the whole Iran; and some in this group support the joining of North Azerbaijan with Iran.

2. The group of intellectuals, industrialists and bureaucrats which: fears the division of Iran; supports the idea of granting to South Azerbaijan (and at the same time to other ethnic-national minorities) cultural or national-territorial autonomy, which is regarded by them as the optimal way of resolution of the Azerbaijan problem. “Democracy to Iran, autonomy to Azerbaijan” is a very popular slogan among them.

3. The third trend is represented by the new political organizations and groups that support the independence of South Azerbaijan and United Azerbaijan ideals. The appearance of these organizations is a sign of a new stage of the Azerbaijan question in Iran. These radical forces do not believe that the national question in Iran can be resolved in an evolutionary way; rather, they believe that in order to achieve their national goals they should use all and any means, including military struggle.

On the basis of what is mentioned above, we can say that the future of Iranian statehood itself might be under question. Part of the Iranian leadership, especially high-level politicians of Azerbaijani origin, support joining “ancient Iranian land,” for instance the Azerbaijan Republic, to Iran. Most of the Iranian leadership rejects this idea as nonrealistic and undesirable. In their opinion, an increase of Turkish elements in Iran and politicization of Azerbaijan population will cause additional concern for Persians. All serious analysts have emphasized that appearance of the state of Azerbaijan in the North has caused many problems for the Iranian leaderships. The existence of the Azerbaijan Republic, above all, has had an important influence and impact on national movements in Iranian Azerbaijan.

Therefore, the current Iranian regime is trying to bring the Azerbaijan Republic into its political orbit, and to eliminate the influence of the Azerbaijan Republic on the Turkish population of Iran. Recently, there has been intensified ideological activity in Iran on the Azerbaijan question. The active propaganda on the “absence” of ethnic unity of both North and South Azerbaijan, the increased ideological struggle against Turkism and the Turkic world by official propaganda, and ignorance of the existence of independent Azerbaijan by the people (when it is impossible to distort the real situation in Azerbaijan), are all characteristic features of the official policy of Tehran. In addition, repressive measures and the police regime toward the Turks in Iran have also been increasing.

Despite the fact of less territory and population, North Azerbaijan (i.e. the Republic of Azerbaijan) is the political, ideological, and cultural center of the nation (i.e. North Azerbaijan plus South Azerbaijan). But its difficult geopolitical position forces the Azerbaijan Republic to look for allies inside and outside of the region. Many politicians think that South Azerbaijan could be the most faithful and strong ally in the foreseeable future. Thus, the idea of a United Azerbaijan is very popular in the Azerbaijan Republic.

The second main factor which influences the Azerbaijan-Iran relationship can be called Islam/Shi’a geopolitics. Obviously, the Iranian government emphasizes religion in its relation with Azerbaijan. It seems that this derives from the theocratic character of the regime. Nevertheless, in reality this emphasis is closely connected with the pragmatism of Iranian policy. As mentioned above, Azerbaijan is the second largest Shi’i community in the world. According to Iranian strategists, Shi’ism plays a very significant role, besides other factors (common history, some common cultural values, etc.) in the creation of the bases for Iranian influence over Azerbaijan. Indeed, Shi’ism is the main element that ties Azerbaijan to Iran. Since Shi’ism became the state religion in Iran in 1501, it is the strongest factor linking Azerbaijani Turks to Persians and other Persian-language peoples of Iran. Shi’ism was the main cause for the reorientation of Azerbaijan towards the North-South axes during the last five centuries.

It is precisely for this reason that Tehran designated Azerbaijan as the most appropriate target for exporting the Islamic revolution. So, it is propagating Islamic values and ideas of Islamic statehood in the republic in order to achieve these goals. Tehran spends millions of dollars for this purpose. Nonetheless, Tehran’s attempts have not been very successful in the Azerbaijan Republic. The main reason is that during the last 200 years due to the intense anti-religious policy instituted in Russia and then the Soviet Union, the bases of Islam have been eroded in the society, and atheist feelings are more widespread than religious beliefs.

In spite of Tehran’s aspirations to impose itself as the defender of the whole Islamic world, the main geopolitical partners of Tehran in the region are Moscow and Yerevan. Besides Russia and Armenia, Iran has problems with all of its neighbors. Clearly, the Tehran-Moscow-Yerevan axis is one of the most negative factors affecting Azerbaijan-Iranian relations. Baku views the military and political links between this triangle (sometimes Athens also joins them) with anxiety, and it expresses this concern to Tehran which claims to Baku that it would like to widen their bilateral relations. Iran’s close links with Armenia, which is at war with Azerbaijan, as well as those with the Russian Federation, which conducts a non-friendly policy toward Azerbaijan, creates a quite low rating of Iran among the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Although Russia and Iran have been rivals for a number of centuries over the Caucasus region, new geopolitical realities have turned them into allies. Increasing Western, and especially U.S. influence in the region, is viewed by both Moscow and Tehran as a threat to their national security interests. Accordingly, Moscow and Tehran do not want Azerbaijan to have a stable democracy or a strong economy. Moreover, the interests of these two countries regarding Caspian oil issues often coincide.

If the Republic of Azerbaijan can counter the increasing ambitions of Iran in the Caucasus through cooperative activities with Turkey, then it may be able to balance and neutralize Russia’s pressure. In addition, Western presence and the strengthening of its influence, especially of the US are important in achieving this aim. As a counter to the coalition of Tehran- Moscow-Yerevan (and Tehran- Moscow-Yerevan-Athens), an alliance of Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara-Washington is in the process of being formed (Tel-Aviv can join this group). In addition to this alliance, another group, GUUAM, is also underway. Tehran has been made nervous by the creation of these alliances. Officials in Tehran openly call on Baku to break off its relations with Washington and Tel-Aviv. So, Azerbaijan and Iran have become members of rival coalitions that are emerging in the region. This rivalry manifests itself in the regional geopolitical developments, especially in the struggle for Caspian oil.

Actual problems of Azerbaijan-Iranian relationships

The Islamic Republic of Iran plays an active role in the geopolitical struggle over Caspian oil. As major hydrocarbon exporters themselves, Russia and Iran view the new oil and gas producers in the Caspian region as a threat to their own economic interests. Just like Russia, Iran is deeply concerned over growing western capital investments and the expansion of foreign interests and presence in the region. Being unable to compete with US and European technology and capital in tapping the abundant Caspian natural resources, Iran and Russia have resorted to non-economic ways of influence in the region.

For instance, immediately after the news of the international consortia with participation of Western capital to tap hydrocarbon resources in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian became known, Iran started taking a particular interest in the consortia and even tried to obtain a share in them. At this initial period, Iran advocated division of the Caspian Sea into national sectors. However, once it was not able to obtain a share in Caspian oil and after US companies made headway here, Tehran changed its public position on the status of the Caspian. Officially, Iran has advocated joint utilization of the Caspian resources by all the states bordering the Caspian Sea. Until recently, Tehran was persistently advocating this principle. It even went as far as sharply criticizing its close partner, Russia, for having reached an agreement with Kazakhstan in 1998 sanctioning the division of the Caspian into national sectors. However, later in 1998, Iran again changed its position on the Caspian status issue at a Moscow meeting of littoral states. It suggested there that Caspian waters should be divided in 5 equal sections.

One of the main issues of concern for Iran is the question of a main export pipeline. Iran regards the recent developments in the area of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline as a threat and has launched a counter-offensive using all the means at its disposal to prevent the realization of the project.

The Government of Iran claimed that the Baku-Ceyhan project is unreasonably expensive (by frequently referring to the erroneous sum of $3.7 billion) and barely viable. As part of Tehran’s campaign against this project, it has declared together with Moscow that the building of the necessary oil and gas pipeline (to connect Tengiz oil and Turkmen gas with Baku) as part of the Baku-Ceyhan project will have undesirable ecological consequences. One of the main goals of the Iranian propaganda has been to convince the world community that there are considerably less oil reserves in the Caspian, especially in its Azerbaijan sector, than in actuality.

As tensions over the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline have been heating up, Iran has made several alternative proposals in this regard. Iran has suggested that the most profitable alternative is to export through the Persian Gulf. By proposing to build the main export pipeline through its territory and to transport Caspian oil to the Persian Gulf, Iran is trying to improve its shaky position in the Caspian region and to take control of Caspian, including Azerbaijan oil export. Should US-Iranian relations improve, there may be drastic changes in the trends of development of Caspian oil. As recently pointed out by Senator Sam Brownback, “the South Caucasus will lose out on its opportunity to prosper as producer of oil and as a pivotal transit point from East to West.”

The above examples illustrate that concerning the status of the Caspian Sea and main export pipeline issues, Iran an economic rival, political non-friend and geo-strategic enemy of Azerbaijan.

The unfriendly position of Iran toward Azerbaijan was stated publicly by the officials of Azerbaijan Republic many times. In recent years, the Azerbaijani national security minister has periodically stated that Iran’s special services conduct activity directed against the constitutional structure and government of Azerbaijan. In June 1999, the Azerbaijan National Security Ministry’s spokesman reported to media that

“During the last years, 13 citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran were identified as spies and towards them appropriate measures were taken. From 1996 up to now, the Iranian special services had recruited 15 Azerbaijani citizens, they were arrested and their crimes were proved in trials. During the last 5 years, 80 Azerbaijani citizens, including the editor-in-chief of Express newspaper Ganimat Zakhidov were called in for secret collaboration by the Iranian special services,” “from 1992, hundreds of Azerbaijani young persons by the help of some embassy personnel members were attracted to Iran; ” they were deceived and recruited by “religious scholarships”; the special services aim was to prepare them as Islamic mujaheeds (Azadlig, June 9, 1999 ).”

Trials of the so-called Azerbaijan Islamic Party in 1997 proved that the organization was spying for Iran. These trials revealed numerous facts indicating the broad scope subversive activities by Iran in the Republic of Azerbaijan. At present Mahir Javadov, who is under inquiry in Azerbaijan, has formed the militarized groups in the Iranian territory and openly claims that he will use them to liberate Azerbaijan from Heydar Aliyev and Karabagh from the Armenians. Despite the official appeals of Azerbaijan, Iran refused to return Mahir Javadov.

These facts indicate that relations between Azerbaijan Republic and Iran have remained tense.


In sharp contradistinction to the claims of some Perso-centrists, their so-called historical relations do not apply to the present-day Azerbaijan-Iran relations. Many factors have changed within the last 200 years. Above all, Azerbaijan is not the old Azerbaijan, its northern part is already independent, and this inevitably affects South Azerbaijan. Iran itself is not the old Qajar Iran either; it has been converted to an obviously Persian state during the Pahlavi period.

The main contradiction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran has a fundamental character: to resolve the question of the modus vivendi between these two countries, either the Republic of Azerbaijan must enter into the political orbit of Iran and to form a pro-Iran Islamic regime, or Iran must change the character of its regime and to respect the ethnic rights of non-Persian peoples.

By: Nasib Nasibli

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