However, five Azerbaijanis were left to guard the embassy compound, and the Azerbaijani consulate general in Tabriz remains open to assist ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, per Baku. Iranian officials from President Ebrahim Raisi on down characterized the attack as the work of a lone gunman who was driven by personal problems and was not backed by Tehran. Azerbaijani officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, rejected this version of events, however, declaring that Iran was responsible for providing security to the embassy and demanding an immediate, full and transparent investigation of the events, which Aliyev described as a “terrorist attack.” Governments around the world unanimously denounced the attack, though most Western states generally adopted the Azerbaijani position while Moscow sided with Iran and expressed hope that the event would not lead to a broader conflict (Izvestia, January 27; Kavkaz-uzel.eu, January 28).
Despite the denunciations, the danger of escalation into a serious military clash is all too real for three reasons. First, Baku has responded to this attack far more forcefully than it did to earlier military exercises along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, not just with diplomatic moves but with the kind of actions and commentaries that make a collision much more likely than the prior troop movements (see EDM, December 13, 2022). The Azerbaijani government buried the victim of the Tehran attack in the most sacred site in Baku. Its leaders mentioned the 40 million ethnic Azerbaijanis languishing under Iranian rule, which coincided with recent talk of reviving “Southern Azerbaijan.” And its diplomats called attention to the fact that the attack itself occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a clear signal that Azerbaijan is a secular state allied with Israel and remains opposed to the Islamist regime in Tehran (Caliber.az, August 26, 2022; Haqqin.az, August 27, 2022; Interfax.az, January 27; Kavkaz-uzel.eu, January 27; Trend.az, January 28).
Second, Iranian officials and media have been attacking Azerbaijan for several years, a wave of criticism that helps explain why Baku and many others view Tehran as responsible for the attack. While these tensions reflect Iranian concerns about Azerbaijan’s close relations with Turkey and its position on the Karabakh dispute, they also have their roots both within Iran itself and in Tehran’s relations with Moscow. On the one hand, ginning up tensions with foreign countries is what governments do when faced with domestic opposition, with Iran being no exception. But on the other, Iran’s increasingly close relations with Russia not only appear to have given it a green light to project power into the Caucasus but also to take actions against Baku for its closeness to the West and Israel (see EDM, September 23, October 14, November 1, 2022; December 6, 2022).
Third, and potentially most serious of all, the day after the Azerbaijani embassy was attacked, a drone strike was launched on Iranian targets—assumed to be the work of Israel though the Iranian government has backed away from that claim. The timing of this attack inevitably caused some to conclude the two events were related and led to talk about the possibility of a war between Israel and Iran, a war that Azerbaijan likely would be drawn into as it has closer ties with Israel than any other Muslim country. Moreover, such an alliance and such participation would be viewed by many in Baku as a ticket to even closer ties with the West as well as a reduction in Western criticism of its human rights record and tough policy regarding Armenia in general and the Lachin Corridor in particular (Izvestia, January 27).
Looming behind these three factors, of course, is a broader element that could prove decisive: Russia’s increasingly close security relationship with Iran and the West’s growing opposition to both states. Such a combination of factors could push Azerbaijan and Iran toward war, of course, or it could have the opposite effect, given that the outbreak of a major war in the South Caucasus would make it almost impossible for Moscow to receive any military benefits from its ties with Iran. Thus, while the Kremlin certainly has an interest in increasing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran, it also has motivation for preventing those tensions from escalating into a full-scale war. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Iran have a long tradition of going through periods of heightened tensions followed by de-escalation, and it is not impossible that the same thing will happen again (see EDM, February 2, 2022).
Yet, even if a broader war does not break out, the embassy attack, Baku’s subsequent “suspension” of diplomatic relations and the Israeli attack on Iranian facilities are almost certain to lead to a further re-ordering of the geopolitical situation in the region. Among the most likely moves in this direction are the further isolation of Russia and Iran from the international community, the further growth in ties between Azerbaijan and Israel and a deepening of relations between Azerbaijan and the West, Turkey in the first instance, but Western Europe and the United States as well, which has its own memories of an attack on its embassy in Tehran. A new political crisis could also be in the offing in Armenia, which will face even more pressure to choose between relying on Russia, whose position has weakened in the South Caucasus, or the West.
Only four days have elapsed since the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy took place, and only three since the alleged Israeli attack on Iran, and thus far, it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the crisis. But the consequences of the terrorist attack are already spreading and are certain to spread further still. Whether these consequences will include military actions remains uncertain, but they will undoubtedly involve the redrawing of the mental maps of the leaders of many countries—the latest example of how an apparently small and isolated event can cast an outsized shadow on the world.