TEHRAN – Over the last few weeks, a quiet crisis has unfolded between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan over a variety of issues that some Iranian officials attribute to the foreign malign presence in Baku.
The episode began in early August when social media users in Iran reported mistreatment of Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijani forces along the Goris-Kapan Highway which links Iran to Armenia through the newly-liberated Karabakh region. The Iranian trucks were carrying Armenia-bound goods from Iran but due to the change in Karabakh’s borders during a 2020 war had to pass through a road curve into Azerbaijan’s territory.
Azerbaijan also reportedly imposed a staggering tax on Iranian commercial trucks which drew criticism from Iranian merchants.
Azerbaijan implicitly confirmed the trucks row by inviting the Iranian ambassador to Baku, Seyed Abbas Mousavi. On August 11, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry issued a statement saying that Mousavi was “invited” to the ministry over the issue of the trucks.
“During the meeting, Ambassador’s attention was drawn to the undesirable facts revealed in connection with the illegal travel of trucks belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran to Karabakh, and Note Verbal was submitted to the opposite side,” the statement said. “Dissatisfaction with the recent continuous entry-exit of various vehicles belonging to friendly Islamic Republic of Iran to Karabakh region of Azerbaijan without the permission of official Baku is expressed in the Note. Our dissatisfaction, which earlier was conveyed to the Iranian side verbally, was once again raised in front of the Iranian Ambassador during the meeting.”
Iran moved to resolve the issue in a low-key way even though after Azerbaijan closed the highway to Iran’s commercial vehicles. In late August, a local Iranian official, confirming the Azerbaijani closure of the strategic road, said more than 120 Iranian trucks and passenger cars were stopped inside the Azerbaijani part of the Goris-Kapan route.
The local official, Orujali Alizadeh, the head of Eastern Azerbaijan’s Road Maintenance and Transportation Organization, noted that the closure of the road followed an escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and that Iran following the issue with Azerbaijan.
Amid all this, a series of other issues further complicated the situation between Tehran and Baku. Azerbaijan held joint military drills with Turkey and Pakistan in Baku, a move that prompted Iran to voice reservations about the legality of a military presence by non-littoral states in the Caspian Sea. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said according to the Caspian Sea’s legal conventions the military presence of non-littoral states in this sea is illegal.
Azerbaijan also held another joint military exercise with Turkey in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. To make things worse, Azerbaijani lawmakers unleased a series of hostile remarks against Iran bearing stern threats against Tehran. One Azerbaijani lawmaker thundered that Pakistan’s army would invade Tehran if it made any hostile move against Baku. Another lawmaker threatened to cut Iran’s tail.
These remarks angered many in Tehran and mounted pressure on officials to respond to Azerbaijan. Thus began a series of Iranian statements reminding Baku of the dangers of an escalation with Iran.
Fada-Hossein Maleki, a leading member of the Iranian parliament sitting on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, advised Azerbaijan to stop its “suspicious moves.”
“The drills carried out by the governments of Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are worrying,” the lawmaker told Fars News, adding that Iran is closely following the situation along Iran-Azerbaijan borders and “warns about some suspicious movements.”
Underlining that blocking Iran’s trade with Armenia was not the right thing to do, Maleki said, “Armenia is an independent country and the Islamic Republic has trade with the region, and Baku should reconsider its recent actions so that no excuses be provided for countries seeking to create problems which will impinge on Baku more.”
He also called on Turkey and Pakistan to coordinate their steps in Azerbaijan with Iran.
Other Iranian lawmakers were blunter in their reactions to their Azerbaijani counterparts. Ahmad Naderi, a lawmaker, said on Twitter that some Azerbaijani lawmakers have now “gotten carried away” many times and utter words that are “bigger than their size and capacity.” He asked his Azerbaijani counterparts to interpret Iran’s silence as a sign of greatness and pay attention to their duty in maintaining good neighborliness with Iran. “Otherwise, the hand will be restored to the body,” he said in an apparent reference to possible irredentism on the part of Iran.
Mohammad Reza Ahmadi Sangari, another Iranian lawmaker, tweeted leaders of Baku have been “illusioned” by their Karabakh victory which was achieved by “Turkish doping.”
“The age of your small country is less than that of our youngest lawmaker,” he boasted, adding that the Azerbaijani lawmakers should not discredit themselves by targeting Iran.
These harsh words came after Iran’s low-key approach to resolving the dispute came to naught. The Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan met several times with high-ranking officials in Baku. But the Azerbaijani lawmakers continued to make hostile remarks.
Iran then dispatched military reinforcements to its borders with Azerbaijan in a clear show of force. In addition, Iran launched its own military drills in the region. Diplomatically, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with his Azerbaijani and Turkish counterparts on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Abdollahian and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Cavusoglu agreed on a trilateral meeting involving Iran, Azerbaijan Republic and Turkey in Tehran. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov welcome the holding of the meeting in a meeting with Abdollahian.
Bayramov told Abdollahian that on behalf of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Shahin Mustafayev is ready to contact his Iranian counterpart within the two countries’ joint commission.
The Iranian foreign minister also said relations between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan are highly important.
Abdollahian also discussed with his Azerbaijani counterpart the facilitation of transit and traffic of Iranian trucks, as well as some consular issues, including two Iranian drivers detained by the Azerbaijani police. The two top diplomats agreed to resolve this issue through contacts between the two sides.
Abdollahian stressed that some third parties should not be allowed to affect the good relations between the two countries.
The Iranian foreign minister did not name these third parties. But MP Maleki said Israel seeks to change the equations in the South Caucasus region and that Azerbaijan should be wary of that.
Also, Ayatollah Seyed Hassan Ameli, the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Ardebil province, said Israel has come to Azerbaijan to hatch plots against Iran. The senior local cleric, who usually addresses Iran-Azerbaijan disputes in Friday prayers, said the drills conducted by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) along the Iran-Azerbaijan borders send a message to Israel that it should not make any mistake.
Iran has long expressed dismay over Israel’s growing influence in Azerbaijan which many Iranians see as aiming to Iran by fomenting separatist sentiments among Iran’s sizable ethnic Azeri Turk minority. Regardless of this influence, however, Tehran has always sought good neighborly relations with Baku. During the 44-day Karabakh war, Iran explicitly supported Azerbaijan’s bid to restore its territorial integrity. But despite this support, which was appreciated by the Azerbaijani government at the time, some in Baku tend to portray Iran as a supporter of Armenia, according to Ayatollah Ameli.