Iran and Azerbaijan are currently going through a critical phase in their political relations, with tensions reaching an all-time high. Despite experiencing some political fluctuations over the past thirty years, the two nations have always held a dubious and apprehensive outlook towards each other. However, the past year has witnessed a further deterioration in their relationship, with the embassy attack in Tehran exacerbating an already strained situation. It is worth noting that this is the culmination of a post-Karabakh war process that began with social media discourse, followed by media attention, and eventually translating into political tensions. When analyzing the political factors in the post-Karabakh war period, it can be argued that there is no discernible shift that suggests an imminent threat between the two parties. To truly comprehend the current crisis, one must move beyond a structural comprehension of the diplomatic relations between the two sides.
The problem doesn’t lie in the issue itself, but rather in its framing
To summarize the main issues from Iran’s perspective: Firstly, there is Israel’s presence in the Republic of Azerbaijan and its espionage activities against Iran. Secondly, there is the risk of jeopardizing Iran’s strategic interests if the Zangezur corridor is established. On the other hand, from Azerbaijan’s point of view, the main issues are Iran’s interference in Azerbaijan’s relations with other countries and its alleged interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs to exert pressure on its government.
These problems are not new issues and that both countries have always viewed each other with suspicion in these matters. Examining the nature of these problems highlights this fact. The Azerbaijan-Israel relationship has not been a covert activity and has been visibly gaining momentum over the past 20 years. Similarly, Iran’s opposition to these relationships has been an open issue that the country has always expressed. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s concerns about Iran’s increasing religious and ideological influence among its predominantly Shia citizens are not new, and the Baku government has always been wary of Tehran’s use of this influence. Given these descriptions, it is pertinent to ask what has actually changed in the relations between the two countries.
The framing of issues is the main variable in the relations between the two sides. Over the past two years, rather than substantial changes in the issues themselves, there has been a shift in the definition and framing of the issues in the relations between the two sides. Diplomatic groups who are out of touch with reality have excessively influenced both countries in the framing stage. They sometimes present a false situation in the media, which can lead politicians towards an unrealistic understanding of the situation. Each of these groups has a different position and perspective on the issue, and in many cases, they sacrifice their national interests to impose their views on the country’s foreign policy. Due to this situation and the concentration of these groups in using the media, the media has become more of an element for influencing the decision-making policies of their governments, rather than being a platform for expressing the views of government officials and structures. However, the question remains: who are these groups?
Classification of influential groups in the relations of the two sides
The influential groups involved in the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan can be divided into three main categories based on their stance against Azerbaijan in the Iranian media.
- The first group does not recognize Azerbaijan as a nation and instead refers to it as “Baku Republic”. They view Azerbaijan as a threat to Iran’s intrinsic interests and therefore believe that it’s essential to make it clear to Tehran’s policymaking apparatus that nothing but threats and harm will come from Azerbaijan, and thus, they must seize every opportunity to disrupt the relationship between the two sides. This group mainly consists of Iranian nationalist extremists.
- The second group has issues with the current government of Azerbaijan, specifically with the leadership of Ilham Aliyev and his party. They believe that the current leaders are the main cause of the crisis in bilateral relations and that any changes to this leadership will resolve the crisis. Conservative Iranians, who believe that it’s important to distinguish between the Azerbaijani people and their government, and to exert pressure on the government by increasing their influence among the Azerbaijani population, mainly hold this mindset.
- The third group sees the existing crisis as related to Israel and the Zangezur Corridor issue. They believe that managing these issues could bring the crisis under control. This group sees the Republic of Azerbaijan as an existing and undeniable reality in the region, and no other group in Azerbaijani politics is as reliable as the current government. They believe Iran should avoid taking any positions in favor of or against the Azerbaijani government and instead focus on reducing Israel’s influence in Azerbaijan and maximizing Iran’s interests in the Zangezur Corridor mater. This viewpoint seems to be shared by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former diplomats.
The same situation also exists against Iran in Azerbaijan media groups:
- The first group who fundamentally believes that a country named Iran does not exist and that the population of millions of Azerbaijanis in it are held captive under the rule of a Persian government and Azerbaijan has the responsibility of liberating this population. This group relies on disinformation and fakes news to instigate nationalist sentiments among the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan, presenting a frightening image of Iran without regard to reality. The primary members of this group are individuals from the Azerbaijan People’s Front who hold strong Azerbaijani nationalist views.
- The second group believes that Iranian Azerbaijanis see themselves as a distinct entity within the Iranian society, and advocating for the dissolution of Iran or attempting to overthrow the Iranian government is unrealistic and counterproductive. Rather than engaging in conflict, this group advocates for applying pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran by leveraging the Western pressure and emphasizing the issue of the national rights of Iranian Azerbaijanis. The main individuals driving this movement are liberal intellectuals.
- The third group consists of the individuals who believe that the current crisis with Iran is due to Iran’s envy of Azerbaijan’s post-war progress. They suggest resisting Tehran’s desire to exert pressure on Baku but not allowing the crisis to spread to fundamental issues. It appears that the governing body of Azerbaijan Republic is in favor of this theory.
All three extremist groups in Iran and Azerbaijan have simultaneously started a widespread tension-creating campaign against each other, but with different goals. The result has been a significant increase in the level of tension in the two countries’ relationship. Essentially, through a dialectical movement, these groups have been able to change the definition of problems and the threats associated with them, thereby causing a crisis in the analytical and media environment of the two countries.
Will the crisis worsen?
There is no doubt that extremist groups will try to exacerbate the crisis. Additionally, countries like Israel and the United States are pursuing a policy of preventing stability in the region and disrupting the relationship between Tehran and Baku. They may even become involved in military conflict. However, despite the current crisis and impasse, it can be argued that there could be an improvement in relations in the near future, as long as there is no major change in the political situation, such as a renewed war in Karabakh or a war between Iran and Israel. This is because official authorities of both sides have used literature indicating a superficially acceptable level of political rationality in assessing the current situation. Politicians have always attempted to pay more attention to possible harms, reducing unexpected movements in major political decisions. The leaders of Tehran and Baku are aware of the mutual losses resulting from continuous tension, and will move towards reducing tension by relying on the principle of loss avoidance in politics.