What the Azerbaijan Elections Mean For Ethnic Tensions in Iran

Mentioning the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan or the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay elicits a biter reaction from anyone raised in Iran. The two treaties are regarded by Iranians as defeats and humiliations that resulted in large chucks of Iranian territory being surrendered to Russia. The treaties divided the large province of Azerbaijan between Iran and Russia. Today, Russian Azerbaijan is the Republic of Azerbaijan. Despite deep historic and religious ties to Iran, Azerbaijan and Iran do not enjoy good relations. The tension between the two has escalated over the last year.

President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected on Wednesday, but the elections were widely regarded as unfair and corrupt. The Aliyev government is seen as being anti-Iranian and has been accused of stoking ethnic tensions in Iran. Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslims like Persians. Much of the ruling clergy in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are ethnic Azeris. Azeris are Turks and constitute the largest ethnic minority in Iran. They are believed to comprise 20% of the Iranian population and are geographically concentrated in North Western Iran on the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Aliyev's government, which is heavily based on Soviet-style governance, maintains a strong sense of political secularism and is deeply suspicious of the Islamic Republic. His government has tried to combat political Islam by using ethnic-nationalism. The Iranians suspect that many Azeri ethno-separatist movements inside the Islamic Republic are funded, trained, and supported by the Aliyev government. To make matters worse, both countries have indirectly called for the revoking of the Gulistan and Turkmenchay treaties, which established the boundaries separating the two countries.

Last year, the Azeri Parliament discussed a motion to change the name of the country from the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan. In Azeri nationalist discourse, only part of Azerbaijan is free and united. The other part, known as Southern Azerbaijan, is treated as an occupied territory. Southern Azerbaijan is in Iran and the motion was received with outrage in Tehran. Earlier this year, the Iranian parliament discussed annexing Azerbaijan. 

But the biggest source of tension between to two is Baku's closeness to Israel, and the threat of an Israeli strike on Iran. Foreign Policy magazine reported that Israel has access to airbases in Azerbaijan, which would be used to strike Iran. Although Israel and Azerbaijan have denied this, both countries enjoy warm ties. So much so that the Iranian government handed the Azerbaijani ambassador in Tehran a letter accusing Azerbaijan of being complicit in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Tehran clearly perceives the relationship to be a security threat.

However, Aliyev's government has been careful not to push Iran too far, many in Baku would support an Israeli strike, but not a war with Iran. In-fact, a war with Azerbaijan's greatest foreign policy fears. Aliyev is likely to keep the antagonistic policy towards Iran, but this begs a serious question: How far should this antagonism go? Too much antagonism could unravel Azerbaijan's foreign policy and have detrimental effects on security. This is one of Aliyev's greatest challenges.