BACKGROUND: The Safavid dynasty of Persia ruled the territory of present-day Azerbaijan during the sixteenth century. In 1603 the Ottoman Turks occupied the region, and the victories of Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the early 1700s sealed the fall of Safavid influence, breaking the territory up into independent and mutually quarreling khanates. Following further Russo-Persian wars in the early nineteenth century, the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchay confirmed the ceding of the northern khanates to Russia, splitting historical Azerbaijan in two. Subsequently, Tsar Nicholas I created the necessary condition for the situation now known as the Karabakh problem. With the Treaty of Turkmanchay, he styled himself protector of the Christians in the Persian Empire, and received them into his own lands, settling many ethnic Armenians in what is now Nagorno-Karabakh.
The legislative bill in the Iranian Majlis is in line with over a decade of provocations against Baku and challenges against Azerbaijani sovereignty. Perhaps the best known of these took place in the summer of 2001, when Iran deployed military force in the Caspian Sea and threatened to use it against a BP-led mission intended to explore the Alov hydrocarbon deposit in the Azerbaijani sector. This mission included an Azerbaijani vessel, and the Iranian threat forced a cessation of work that continues to this day. The Iranian name for the deposit is Alborz, which perhaps by no coincidence is also the name of the country’s first deepwater semi-submersible drilling rig, launched four years ago in the Caspian Sea.
More recently, in 2007 fifteen Iranians and Azerbaijanis were convicted of spying on state oil facilities and conspiring to overthrow the government in Baku. In 2008, a plot by Hezbollah operatives to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Baku with Iranian assistance was exposed and thwarted. In late 2011 the Azerbaijani journalist Rafig Tagi, who had since 2005 been the subject of a death-penalty fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, was murdered in a knife attack in Baku days after publishing an article that criticized Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for discrediting Islam. And in early 2012, Azerbaijani police exposed and arrested members of yet another terrorist cell created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards together with the Lebanese Hezbollah.
IMPLICATIONS: The southern nineteenth-century khanates not absorbed into the Russian Empire are referred to as Iranian Azerbaijan, or sometimes by northern irredentists as “Southern Azerbaijan.” They now constitute four contemporary northwestern Iranian provinces that include over 10 percent of the country’s population, which is itself variously estimated to count between one-quarter and one-third ethnic Azerbaijanis. Perhaps in reply to the Majlis initiative seeking revision of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, paid the first-ever high-profile visit by any of Baku’s cabinet ministers to Israel in late April. There are historic and cultural links that undergird the informal upgrading of bilateral diplomatic relations. Sephardic Jews have reputedly lived in the mountains of Azerbaijan since close to 600 BC, and the region was a relatively safe refuge for Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Russia from the German invasion during the Second World War. Such a trip was in any case overdue in view of the depth and breadth of bilateral relations for such a long time.
Experts estimate that Azerbaijan supplies at least one-third, perhaps as much as two-fifths of Israel’s oil (roughly 20 million barrels), and trade turnover between the two has reached US$ 4 billion per year. Azerbaijan is reported to have purchased US$ 1.6 billion in arms from Israel in 2012, and Israeli firms are cooperating with the relevant Azerbaijani ministries in advising on the Azerbaijani manufacture of military weapons. Apart from that, Azerbaijan has for a long time been a main link of the Northern Distribution Network, which supplies equipment to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Iran has accused it of preparing to allow Israel to conduct military operations against Teheran. Hard evidence to support this accusation has been lacking, but it is important to note that Azerbaijan’s present-day ties with Israel are not merely an artifact of state interests. They reflect the historical experience of Azerbaijan, where the nation-building antecedents even in the nineteenth century were tied to anti-clericalism. So it should also not be a surprise that the spectrum of Azerbaijani revolutionary parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries replicated the political variety seen in Europe and were influenced by European ideologies.
Tehran’s threats against Baku are driven not only by Azerbaijan’s foreign policy orientation but also by its status as a post-Soviet state with a majority Shi’ite population but secular Muslim identity. As such, it gives the lie to the Iranian regime’s theocratic doctrines and eschatological pretensions. Iran pretends to give formal diplomatic support for Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, but its sponsorship of actions against Azerbaijani sovereignty as mentioned above reveals its real preferences. Indeed, Iran has greatly deepened and broadened its relations with Armenia in the last six years, opening a crucial gas pipeline to Armenia that has been an energy lifeline, constructing two hydroelectric plants on their common border, and building highway and railroad links. By contrast, relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are already rather poor, and there is little that Teheran can do to prevent Baku from deepening its relations with Jerusalem. Because there are so many current problems and so much mutual distrust, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are unlikely to normalize even after the upcoming presidential elections in Iran, regardless of which faction of the Teheran elite is able to claim victory.
CONCLUSIONS: Iran’s threats affect not just Azerbaijan but also Turkey, since Turkey’s current prosperity is due in significant part to its low-cost imports of natural gas from Azerbaijan for domestic use, as well as its role as a transit country for Azerbaijani oil (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) and, soon, gas (Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum and Trans-Anatolian pipelines) to European and world markets. With its investment in Turkey’s petrochemical sector, Azerbaijan is set to become the largest foreign investor in the country before the end of the present decade. Although Mammadyarov’s visit to Israel was not “official”, he met with the president, prime minister, defense minister and other senior officials in the country for intensive discussions. At a news conference after the trip was over he concluded that it was only “a matter of time” before Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Israel. Official Baku does not credit Teheran’s accusations against Israel that it is seeking to throw a wrench into Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. On the contrary, Azerbaijan is said to have refrained from high-level visits to Israel in the past in order not to antagonize Iran. Mammadyarov’s visit may therefore, in future retrospect, be seen as a turning point.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Robert M Cutler is senior research fellow in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada.