The saying goes that the past is a foreign country. In the case of Azerbaijan and Iran, certain groups have been trying to bring that phrase up to date by questioning historical issues of territory and sovereignty. But for all the headlines about ‘annexation’, the latest incident looks – as usual – like a manageable affair.
The two neighbours have been engaged in something of a ‘cold war’ for some time, although the roots of the tense relationship date back to the fall of the Soviet Union. Iran is wary of Azerbaijan because of its close ties to Israel (and the West more generally) and for what Iran claims is secessionism among its ethnic Azeri minority in the northwest.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, points to Iran’s support for Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, its promotion of hardline Shia Islam in Azerbaijan, and its covert support of terrorist cells which have attempted to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan. Iranian attempts to claim a large share of the Caspian Sea and its oil and gas riches have also provoked tensions over the past decade, particularly as exploration works have increased.
Tensions had decreased in recent months after a fairly fraught 2012. But they increased recently as both sides began to trade accusations about history and sovereignty. The dispute started when a small conference was held in Baku by a little-known group called the ‘National Liberation Front of Southern Azerbaijan’. The meeting discussed the perennial, and fringe, subject of independence for Iranian Azerbaijan. Reportedly some of the participants claimed that they were ready to take over the Azeri-populated provinces of Iran if the government in Tehran ‘collapsed’.
No government officials were present at the meeting and the subject is evidently not Baku’s policy. It has little interest in fomenting regional discord and taking on the undeveloped regions of northwestern Iran – its main interest is just in ensuring the Iranian Azeris have their cultural rights protected.
But hardliners in Iran nonetheless took the event as what it claimed (as usual) were “provocative acts which only satisfy the Zionist interests”, and in the tit-for-tat manner standard in these disputes, decided to respond. The editor of a conservative newspaper reportedly close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – himself ethnically Azeri – then proposed that Iran should “save” the Azerbaijani people by pushing Baku to stage a referendum on the country joining Iran.
Although it’s not clear if this proposal was actually serious, a group of Iranian MPs took it as such. In mid-April they tabled a bill in parliament which would undo the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, under which the historic territory of Azerbaijan was divided in two parts between Persia and Russia, by arguing that the treaty was only valid for 100 years.
The deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party took the Iranians at their word, and said that Baku would be happy to discuss the treaty. According to Siyavush Novruzov, the Treaty of Turkmenchay was signed by an ethnically Azeri prince of the Qajar dynasty. As Abbas Mirza was Turkic and Azerbaijani, like most of the Qajar’s ruling elite, the treaty was thus a matter for Azerbaijanis. He said that the only reason for revision would be “to annex the Azerbaijani territories in the south to the Republic of Azerbaijan and to establish single Azerbaijani state”.
Clearly these statements are not fully serious. It is not clear how Iranian MPs think a bill in the Iranian parliament would change international borders, for instance. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said as much on 11 April, stating that he did not believe the Iranian proposal should be taken seriously.
But the incident is a reminder of how easily sensitive concerns can flare up. It comes as Iran enters the run-up to its presidential election in June. As in the preparations for the last election in 2009, the Iranian government is concerned that political aspirations among the country’s Azeri minority could become a threat to stability. Although that fear turned out to be overblown, Tehran is extremely nervous about the issue.
Given its existing paranoia about Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel, it is therefore inevitable that Tehran points the finger at its northern neighbour. A visit by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to Israel on 21-23 April – the first such trip by an Azerbaijani foreign minister – is likely to increase Iran’s hostility. Baku, which is also suspicious about Iran’s intentions and its relationship with Armenia, is likely to be watching closely for any (real or perceived) Iranian reactions.
For now it seems that both sides have acknowledged that the recent bout of historical revisionism should not be over-exaggerated. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has taken a measured tone, and the appetite for a confrontation on the Iranian side also seems very limited. There is little electoral mileage to be gained from criticising Azerbaijan, despite attempts to do so by one marginal candidate.
The significance of the latest event is perhaps that the relationship between the two, for all its difficulties, is still fairly robust. It can certainly withstand idiosyncratic attempts to redraw national borders. Although Iran and Azerbaijan may not have much love for each other, they are neighbours, with long historical ties, and need to cooperate. That is the real historical and geographical lesson here.