While the eyes of the world have been focused on the tragedy caused by the devastating earthquake unfolding in Turkiye and Syria, a conflict is simmering closer to home in the Southern Caucasus and it is not the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan but one between Azerbaijan and Iran.
On 27 January, an attack on the Azerbaijan embassy in Tehran killed the head of the embassy's security service and injured two guards. A day later, drones attacked an Iranian military facility affiliated with the country’s defense ministry in central Isfahan. Soon after, reports emerged that India had blocked a move by Azerbaijan against Iran at the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) to issue a document against Iran following the attack.
The objections were made on the basis that it is against the principles of NAM to bring up any bilateral issue in it. Iran has also blocked such a move at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).
Baku's Proximity To Tel Aviv
Baku’s move in the NAM was seemingly triggered by the embassy attack. But differences between the two have been smouldering for a while now. While a major reason has been irredentist claims made by sections of Azerbaijan on Iran’s own Azerbaijan province, another reason is Baku’s proximity to Tel Aviv.
The Karabakh war in 2020 gave Baku a first taste of victory against rival and neighbour Armenia, wresting the disputed enclave from it and gaining control over it for the first time in the last three decades.
But it has increased an appetite for more territorial gains in Azerbaijan. With the southern province of historic Azerbaijan forming part of northern Iran, it perhaps would be inevitable that there will naturally be those in present-day Azerbaijan who would covet the Iranian part of it and dream of a “Greater Azerbaijan”.
About 15-20 per cent of Iran’s population are Turkic Azeris. Therefore, Baku’s recent espousal of "Turkic nationalism" has also rung the alarm bells in Tehran, given the churning it is currently facing from its population, triggered by the hijab row.
Deepening Ties Between Azerbaijan and Israel
Moreover, Baku, a dynastic republic that is strictly secular, despises Iran’s theocratic orientation. Though it is a Shiite-majority country, religion is strictly monitored and regulated by the state.
Another flashpoint has been the deepening ties between Azerbaijan and Israel—Iran’s arch-enemy. Azerbaijan and Israel have had a successful ongoing defence cooperation since the 1990s. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel accounted for 69 per cent of Azerbaijan’s imports of major arms in the 2016–20 period.
Israeli drones are known to have been used in the Karabakh war against Armenia, giving Baku a decisive victory. Israel is known to have provided training for Azerbaijani security and intelligence services. Both countries have developed close intelligence and security cooperation.
Nevertheless, under pressure from the Muslim world, Baku did not venture to have any diplomatic representation in Tel Aviv. Following the 2020 war, Azerbaijan has been openly flaunting its relations with Israel, opening a trade and tourism centre there, and more recently, its embassy.
Increasing Hostilities Between Yerevan and Baku
Iran and Azerbaijan also have a maritime dispute in the Caspian Sea with both being littoral states, and Iran has held military drills close to the Azerbaijan border.
The 2020 war victory also meant that some bordering regions with Armenia have now become part of its border with Azerbaijan. This has major implications for Tehran which has always pursued good, friendly relations with Armenia. To some extent, this also explains the latest round of hostilities between Yerevan and Baku, which has targeted the Armenian territory.
Baku hopes to open up the Zengazur Corridor which would connect Azerbaijan, through Armenia’s southern district Syuni bordering Iran, to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan in western Armenia and onward to Turkey without Armenian border control over it.
It would open up yet another route, apart from the Middle Corridor, connecting Central Asia to the Mediterranean region, through Azerbaijan, giving it both transit control and rights on the route, a transportation corridor to Europe of its own oil and gas, as well as control over the border with Iran, which it can cut off at will. Iran has, since 2020, been warning of any changes to the international borders in the region.
Pakistan's Closeness to Baku Irks India
On the face of it, India’s objection was technical in nature. But, de facto India, like Iran, has been roiled by Baku for a while now. While relations between the two countries have been on a slow trajectory, Azerbaijan’s recent embrace of Pakistan, including in defence, has not gone down well with New Delhi.
As such, little connects Pakistan with Azerbaijan. The latter is a Shiite-majority Muslim country, but strictly secular. In Pakistan, the Shiite community has long been under attack by Sunni fundamentalists. As with Iran, Pakistan’s Islamist orientation is something alien to Baku. Finally, Azerbaijan posits itself as a Turkic country and seeks Turkic solidarity; Pakistan is not part of the Turkic world. Nevertheless, Pakistan was quick to establish relations with Baku as soon as the latter gained independence, and in time to come the strong bonds between the two were facilitated by Turkey.
Pakistan also began exporting military hardware to Baku. However, it is only after the 2020 Karabakh war that bonds between Baku and Islamabad seem to have grown stronger.
Pakistani media and the government overwhelmingly backed Azerbaijan during the war, with reports emerging that Pakistani mercenaries had fought on the Azeri side. Following it, a kind of trilateral alliance has emerged between Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, with the adoption of the Islamabad Declaration by the three in 2021, where the three backed each other’s position on Kashmir, Cyprus, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and followed up by “Three Brothers” trilateral military exercises in Baku.
India Reorients Position With Iran
But India’s opposition to Baku’s move against Tehran also stems from its own connectivity needs. Both the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), through which India seeks to reinforce connectivity and trade with Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia, and further Europe, cut through Iran, and onward through the Caspian Sea.
In recent times, given Baku’s cosying up to Pakistan and its increasing tensions with Iran, India has reoriented together with Iran, the INSTC route to now run through Armenia, instead of through Azerbaijan as originally slated. This would make it contingent on India to back Tehran’s warnings against any international border changes in the South Caucasus, which to a large extent, explains India’s move.
The recent allocation of Rs. 100 crore in the Indian Budget for the Chabahar port testifies to its significance for India, while the INSTC was operationalised last year when the cargo reached India from Russia via the route. India also needs Iran to keep up the pressure on Pakistan on its eastern border. Therefore, even notwithstanding NAM, India would otherwise too be watching the conflict unfolding in the Caucasus closely.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)