On November 1, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a call on all Muslim nations to sever all diplomatic and economic ties to Israel amid the escalating war in Gaza. In particular, Khamenei insisted on "blocking the path of oil and food exports" to Israel. These calls, however, are more likely to reflect Iran's ambitions to lead Islamic anti-Israel resistance rather than yield tangible practical results.
This is because the two members of the Organization Islamic Conference (OIC) that cover more than half of Israel's oil demand are Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Of the two, Azerbaijan is a far more important partner for Israel: it supplies Israel with about 40 percent of its oil needs. In exchange, Azerbaijan is a recipient of billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry from Israel. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI), Israel is now responsible for almost 70 percent of Azerbaijan's weapons. Azerbaijan is also a beneficiary of lobbying efforts by pro-Israeli groups in Washington.
This relationship serves both Azerbaijan's and Israel's strategic objectives: Israeli weapons enabled Baku to recover its occupied territories surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh region during the 44-day war in 2020. In 2023, Azerbaijan finished the task by retaking the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave itself, in the process ethnically cleansing it of its Armenian population.
Israel, on the other hand, gets in Azerbaijan an expanded foothold for intelligence activities against its archenemy Iran. To make matters even more explosive, after the victory over Armenia, Azerbaijani officials, starting with President Ilham Aliyev, ratcheted up irredentist rhetoric laying claims on north-western Iranian territories, home to millions of Iranian Azerbaijanis, which are routinely referred to in Baku as "Southern Azerbaijan."
The fact that some hawkish Washington DC-based think tanks, like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (which was instrumental in the formulation of former President Donald Trump's Iran policy) and the Hudson Institute, appeared to actively promote the idea of Azerbaijani secessionism as a Trojan horse for Iran's disintegration along ethnic lines only heightened the sense of unease in Tehran towards its northern neighbor. Iran has also strongly objected to Azerbaijan's plans to establish a so-called "Zangezur corridor" linking the Azerbaijani mainland with its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenian territory out of fears of losing its border with Armenia.
These tensions provide the background for Iran-Azerbaijan relations in recent years. The war in Gaza and calls for a "Muslim oil embargo" could be seen, among other things, as another way for Tehran to apply pressure on Baku. However, it is doubtful that Tehran has the leverage to coerce Baku to renounce its profitable security and energy relationship with Israel.
Buoyed by its strategic alliance with Turkey and understandings with Russia, Azerbaijan sees little need to cede to Iran's demands and expectations. Unlike in Arab nations that have relations with Israel, there is no strong domestic pressure in Azerbaijan to take a harder line on Israel. Though many Azerbaijanis sympathize with the Palestinians' plight, Israel's role in supporting Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia is widely appreciated.
Even the existence of pro-Iranian Islamist groups like Hosseyniyyun, more than a real challenge to the regime in Baku, serves the purpose of silencing the religious opposition voices on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Azerbaijan did vote in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian truce leading to the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, but this is about as far as it is prepared to go.
Iran's fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric is, however, balanced by its national interests. In a context where Iran lacks functional relations with the U.S. and the EU, reinvigorated ties with neighbors is one of the key priorities of Iran's foreign policy. That includes Azerbaijan. The tensions and hostile rhetoric didn't prevent Baku and Tehran from quietly reaching out to each other on the economic front, notably developing the North-South trade and transport corridor, which is also of high interest to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Although Iran resented Azerbaijan's regional ascendancy at the expense of Armenia, it had little choice but to pragmatically adjust to a new geopolitical dispensation in the South Caucasus, even more so after Armenia distanced itself from Russia – Iran's partner – and moved closer to the West, including holding military drills with the U.S. Iran has always strenuously objected to the presence of "extra-regional" powers anywhere near its borders, let alone its principal nemesis, the U.S.
So Baku and Tehran agreed on establishing the "Zangezur corridor" through Iranian, rather than Armenian territory thus removing, for now, Iranian concerns about losing the Armenian border. President Aliyev's aide Hikmet Hajiyev has said that the "corridor" through Armenia "has lost its attractiveness" to Azerbaijan due to the existence of the Iranian alternative. Iran can thus accept the reality of Azerbaijan's growing power in the Caucasus with a face-saving claim that its repeated warnings about the inadmissibility of any changes in regional borders, backed up by military exercises near Azerbaijan's borders, have yielded the desired effect. It is therefore unlikely that Tehran would be willing to jeopardize these gains by antagonizing Baku over Gaza - an issue of high political and symbolic importance for Iran, but extraneous to its bilateral relations with Azerbaijan.
Iran, in theory, might find more support for its position in Turkey, whose leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fiercely denounced Israel's actions in Gaza. Turkey also happens to be Azerbaijan's closest ally, and Azerbaijani oil flows to Israel through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. On the same day that Ayatollah Khamenei issued his call for an all-encompassing embargo against Israel, Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met with his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan in Ankara and doubled down specifically on the need for an oil embargo. This call, however, was not echoed by Fidan, who only repeated his country's criticisms of Israel and commitment to a two-state solution.
So for now Iran's calls to isolate Israel diplomatically and economically should be seen as responding more to the need the Islamic Republic has to live up to its reputation as a staunch adversary of Israel rather than a realistic strategy capable of rallying other Muslim nations. Even if the Palestinian death toll rises, as, tragically, seems inevitable, nations like Azerbaijan, balancing their own relations with Israel and Iran, are not likely to go beyond the most cursory criticisms of Israel.
Eldar Mamedov is a Brussels-based foreign policy expert