Once again, tensions peaked this week between Iran and its neighbor to the north, Azerbaijan. The relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs, but are always accompanied by tension surrounding the ethnic question. Close to 25 million Azeris live in Iran today (comprising the largest minority group in Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is Azeri as is opposition leader Mir Houssein Mousavi). Iran also refuses to accept their loss of North Azerbaijan to Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, as part of the Transcaucasian conquests of the Russian Empire and still view this area as an Iranian province, although they generally suppress these aspirations.
And from the other side of the border, Azerbaijan views South Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan Province in Iran) as part of greater Azerbaijan, home to many ethnic Azeris who it maintains are entitled to speak their own language and to independence. Iran will not allow this.
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are tense, because of Azerbaijan’s relationship with the West, and particularly the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Iran views these relations as part of the noose of isolation around its neck and the Western presence on its borders. Additionally, the secular character of Azerbaijan (the result of close to 70 years under Soviet rule) and what Tehran views as repression of Shiite Islam in the country as a force that taints the relationship between the two countries. Thus, for example, the fact that the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Azerbaijan drew strong protest from inside Iran.
In any event, last week tensions between the two countries flared once again, when a convention of Azeris calling for annexation of the regions inhabited by ethnic Azeris in Iran lead to an outpouring of protest by numerous groups in Iran, and the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and censured. He was called on to ensure that such forums do not convene on Azerbaijani soil in the future.
Members of the Iranian Majlis were less official in their responses. Mansour Haqiqatpour, Vice Chairman of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said that residents of serveral cities in Azerbaijan, including the capital of Baku, who were separated from Iran under the rule of the Qajar dynasty and its war with Russia, have expressed their interest in rejoining Iran, and that Iranian residents of Ardabil, Tabriz, Urmia and Zanjan (which have minority Azeri populations) had expressed their willingness to respond harshly to the actions of the Azeri government and announced their readiness to reclaim the towns stolen from Iran during the Qajar dynasty. The representative of Ardabil in the Majlis stressed the need to hold a referendum on whether Azerbaijan should join Iran. He argued that there is real, open interest and desire among Azerbaijani citizens to rejoin Iran.
Hossein Shariatmadari, Managing Editor of Kayhan, a paper that general reflects the view of Iran’s Supreme Leader, suggested calling on Azeri officials to hold a referendum in the regions “taken” from Iran and asking whether the residents want to be annexed to Iran. Shariatmadari further stated that this was a “logical and democratic step.”
In the end, we can say that Iran-Azerbaijan relations are mainly influenced and shaped by their geo-strategic environment. Until now, Iran, a country under heavy sanctions by the West that feels isolated, has refrained from deviating from its policy of sharp verbal exchanges with respect to the disputes with Azerbaijan. However, the strength of the Iranian response to the conference in Baku, when similar conferences have been held in the past, may indicate that we will be seeing a change in this policy and that Tehran is signaling that it wants to open a new front against the West in Azerbaijan as well.