There is a tendency to view the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran through the prism of religion. But bilateral enmity is rooted more in strategic considerations than it is in ideology or religion.
The emergence of an independent Azerbaijan after the 1991 Soviet collapse was always going to be a challenge for Iran, given that it revived old fears about separatism among Iran's large Azeri population. Over the years Iranian national sensitivities have been heightened by calls coming from some nationalist circles in Azerbaijan for reunification with predominantly Azeri lands in Iran, as well as by Baku’s tendency to accentuate all things Turkish, often at the expense of the country's Iranian cultural heritage.
From an Iranian perspective, Tehran early on tried to make the best of a difficult situation - recognizing, for example, the Republic of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that there were two provinces with the identical name in Iran. For comparison, Greece still refuses to recognize the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
To this day, Iranian leaders are miffed by what they see as a lack of Azerbaijani reciprocity for Tehran’s recognition gesture, along other relatively magnanimous actions. Iranian perceptions of Baku’s lingering hostility have helped push Tehran to build broad ties to Christian Armenia, the bitter rival of Azerbaijan.
Pipeline politics in the 1990s also played a major role in fostering Azerbaijani-Iranian tension. Back when the energy-export derby was just getting started, many oilmen acknowledged that exporting Azerbaijani and Central Asian oil & gas via Iran made considerable economic sense. But the United States insisted that Iran be excluded from regional pipeline plans, and Baku, eager to win Washington's support for its own foreign policy objectives, not least its desire to recover Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, went along with the American demand. Tehran, naturally, was angered by Baku’s willingness to accede to US wishes.
These days, at a time when Iran is increasingly cornered by crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, along with Israeli threats to use all means necessary to end its nuclear program, Iranian leaders see Azerbaijan's close military cooperation with Israel as a threat. It has sought to counter this threat by mobilizing a network of radical Shiite Islamists in Azerbaijan.
When it comes to its policy on Azerbaijan, Iran's strategic objective - to weaken the government of Ilham Aliyev – is in perfect alignment with the political agenda of the Islamic Republic’s more hardline rulers, who are desperate to rekindle a sense of Islamic revolutionary fervor inside the country after three decades of authoritarian and corrupt theocratic rule.
President Ilham Aliyev’s administration, meanwhile, has its own concerns. Since the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, officials in Baku have faced challenges not only from Islamists inside the country, but also from local Twitterati.
In this context, Azerbaijan’s strong stance toward Iran can be seen as a hedge against an explosion of domestic discontent. The Iranian nuclear crisis in particular has enabled Baku to cast itself as a potentially important Western ally and has helped it build strong relationships with the United States and EU. Azerbaijani leaders have made it clear that, as a strategic partner, it expects Washington and Brussels to turn a blind eye to Baku’s bleak human rights record, and give authorities a free hand to do what they deem necessary in order to maintain the status quo.
For the most part, Washington and Brussels have complied, offering only muted criticism of Azerbaijan’s lack of progress toward democratization. But there have been exceptions, and these have prompted shrill responses by Baku. For example, bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Germany took a nosedive after German officials and news media severely criticized Azerbaijani rights practices, and Baku responded with vitriolic statements aimed at Berlin.
Azerbaijani officials also reacted with anger and disbelief, when the European Parliament adopted at the end of May 2012 a scathingly critical resolution on human rights conditions in Azerbaijan. Top presidential aides, including Novruz Mammadov and Ali Hasanov, insinuated, bizarrely, that Europe plotted together with Iran to undermine Azerbaijan's "independent foreign policy."
Relations between Baku and Tehran will likely remain strained as long as both leaderships feel the benefits of escalating tensions outweigh the costs. Ideology, religion and nationalism certainly play a role in the bilateral drama, but none of these factors explains why tension is approaching an alarming point now. Iran's Islamism per se isn’t a problem for Azerbaijan, nor is Baku's secularism a problem for the Islamic Republic. After all, Azerbaijan enjoys cordial relations with such countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while Iran tries to prop up the secular regime of Bashar Assad, at war with Muslim fundamentalists, albeit of a Sunni persuasion.
It is mainly the survival strategies of the ruling elites in both countries that are causing friction. This is especially true in the case of Azerbaijan, since Iran provides for a perfect enemy against which to rally both domestic and international support. For Iran, Azerbaijan is not the main concern among its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are. But occasionally lashing out at another "Western stooge" serves the interests of the ruling clique in Tehran just fine.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.