Don’t take your eyes off Iran’s northern border
Last August an extremist Shiite group stormed the embassy of Azerbaijan in London and briefly took it over. Last week, another radical attacked an Azerbaijani embassy, but this time in Tehran.
A gunman walked unchallenged past an Iranian security guard and strolled into the embassy, where he killed one Azerbaijani official and wounded two others. A few hours after the attack, the gunman appeared on television giving interviews before he was finally arrested. Baku described the incident as an act of terrorism and recalled all its embassy staff back to Azerbaijan for their safety. Iran said the attack was not politically motivated, and involved a personal matter.
At a minimum, the gunman’s attack was a gross dereliction of Iran’s legal responsibilities under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The convention, to which Iran is a party, requires host nations to protect embassies by taking “all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage.” Clearly, Tehran did not fulfil its obligations. Considering the tense relationship between Tehran and Baku, and the Islamic Republic’s penchant for attacking embassies, the possibility that this gunman was acting on orders from Iran’s security services cannot be ruled out.
This attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy should serve as a wakeup call. While much of the international community's attention on Iran is focused primarily in the Middle East, for centuries Tehran has also played a role, for better or for worse, in the South Caucasus. The tensions today between Iran and Azerbaijan cannot be overstated.
The root cause of these tensions is found in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay between imperial Russia and Persia, which created the border between these two empires along the Aras River. This move divided ethnic Azerbaijanis between the two empires, and the consequences of this move are still being felt today. Millions of ethnic Azerbaijanis are living in Iran and there has been a constant, but low-level, drumbeat of calls for independence and self determination. While Azerbaijan refrains from commenting publicly about the Azerbaijani minority in Iran, policymakers in Baku are acutely aware of the situation.
Azerbaijan is one of the few predominantly Shiite regions of the world that has never fallen under the control or influence of Iran. Azerbaijan and Israel also enjoy close relations. The world’s largest all-Jewish settlement outside Israel is in Azerbaijan, and Baku supplies Israel with about 40 percent of its oil. This is a constant concern of Tehran.
In recent years relations between Iran and Azerbaijan remained cordial on the surface, but below the surface they are tense
Meanwhile, Iran has a cozy relationship with Armenia, which is Azerbaijan’s regional rival. During the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, Iran allowed its territory to be used by Russia to resupply Armenia. Iran has used Armenia to evade international economic sanctions in the past. There’s also a growing military relationship between the two countries. Iran has provided Armenia with drones and antitank weapons. According to the US State Department, in 2008 Armenia even provided Iran with missiles and automatic weapons that were used against American troops in Iraq.
In recent years relations between Iran and Azerbaijan remained cordial on the surface, but below the surface they are tense. The two countries have maritime disputes in the Caspian Sea that have even led to confrontations in the past. There have been cases of Iranian naval vessels and fighter jets entering Azerbaijani waters in the Caspian and harassing ships.
In response to the attack on its embassy last week, Azerbaijani security services quickly rounded up a 40-person strong network of Iranian spies and collaborators operating in Azerbaijan. This is the second such counterintelligence operation to take place inside Azerbaijan in the past year. Since 2020, Iran has been conducting large scale military maneuvers along its border with Azerbaijan in a way that has not been seen before. Last October, the Iranian military even rehearsed a military crossing of the Aras River. Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan considered this to be a provocative move.
A recent report for the Arab News Research & Studies Unit, entitled “The South Caucasus and the Gulf: Overlapping interests and the benefits of enhanced cooperation,” best summed up the overlapping concerns about Iran between Azerbaijan and the countries of the Gulf. The report said: “Iran has repeatedly shown itself to be a meddling and troublesome neighbor for both the Gulf and South Caucasus regions,” and “enhanced consultation, and possibly even coordination, between certain Gulf states and countries in the South Caucasus would help to improve regional stability and push back the malign Iranian influence.” It would also be wise to add Israel to this discussion.
As the world remains focused on Tehran’s activities in Syria, its missile attacks in northern Iraq, its destabilizing acts of terror in the Gulf, and the use of its drones by Russia against Ukraine, it would be wisenot to take our eyes off Iran’s northern border.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey