Tensions between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan are flaring up at a time the government of President Ebrahim Raisi seems to be more vulnerable than ever, hobbled by a daunting economic crisis at home and three months of nationwide protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman under police custody.
As a presidential candidate, Raisi had pledged to remedy the nation’s economic woes, strike a deal with world powers on reviving the stalled nuclear talks and pursue a balanced foreign policy characterised by cemented ties with neighbours.
On multiple occasions, he had lamented that the country was not engaged in sufficient trade and political partnerships with 15 neighbouring countries, vowing to unleash those potentials quickly.
On most of those campaign promises, his performance has been disappointing.
Nearly 16 months into his presidency, Raisi still needs a clear roadmap for his foreign policy priorities, and a bitter diplomatic fallout with Azerbaijan suggests his strong-neighbourhood agenda has also been a non-starter.
“The lack of a proper understanding of international relations and the global dynamics has caused Raisi’s foreign policy to be born dead,” Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor at Italy’s Universita Cattolica, tells TRT World.
After Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited Tehran on November 1, the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev took a swing at Iran for hosting the Armenian leader, saying in thinly veiled denunciations that the leaders of a state “who destroy mosques” shouldn’t be welcomed in Muslim countries.
Also, the Azerbaijani leader has reportedly declined an invitation by Raisi to visit Tehran, and a proposed trip to Baku by Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, scheduled for November 4, has been postponed.
The primary driver of the current dust-up between the two neighbours is Iran’s piecemeal efforts to cosy up to Armenia and lend it strategic support in its confrontation with Azerbaijan. This is while Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had consistently thrown his weight behind Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh, railing against the Armenian authorities for “suppressing” the region’s Muslim residents.
But as Azerbaijan allows Israel to gain an extended footprint in the South Caucasus, a wedge is being driven by Tehran and Baku. For some time, Iran has found it expedient to forge more intimate ties with Armenia, which surrendered vast swaths of the territories it previously controlled during the Karabakh War of 2020 and is scrambling to dodge international isolation.
In October 2021, at the height of tensions with Iran, Aliyev told the Italian daily La Repubblica he missed the cordial bonds he had created with former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and was disappointed that relations with Iran had nosedived.
Many experts see the decline of relations with Azerbaijan as a microcosm of the broader failure of President Raisi’s strong neighbourhood ideal. To be sure, his botched diplomacy has plunged Iran into further isolation at a time there is no rapprochement happening with the US, traditional partners in Asia such as Japan and South Korea have been alienated, and no breakthrough with Europe is on the horizon.
“Raisi’s neighbourhood-focused foreign policy hasn’t been a success. There have been some small wins, such as the drone factory in Tajikistan, and Tehran is probably happier with the new Iraqi government than its predecessor,” says John Allen Gay, executive director of the Washington-based John Quincy Adams Society.
“But talks with Riyadh have stalled and tensions have been high with Azerbaijan,” he tells TRT World.
On November 18, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a bill authorising the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv and President Aliyev signed it into law on November 26. Azerbaijan is now the first Shia-majority country to have diplomatic representation in Israel, and this won’t bode well for Iran, which has been perennially wary of increased interaction between its neighbours and Israel, its sworn enemy.
Azeris represent the largest ethnic minority in Iran, numbering at least 12 million. They live across the country but mostly inhabit six predominantly Azeri-speaking provinces.
On November 11, Aliyev addressed the 2022 Summit of the Organization of Turkic States in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and touched upon the critical fault line that Azeri-speaking people cannot receive education in their mother tongue in some countries. He was referring to Iran, without naming it, where formal education is conducted in Persian.
“The young generation of the Turkic world should have the opportunity to study in their mother tongue in the countries of their residence. Unfortunately, the majority of the 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan are deprived of these opportunities,” he said.
Observers say the Iranian president has little clue on how to restore the country’s compromised leverage in relations with neighbours.
“Raisi’s presidency is a failure on almost all foreign policy fronts. On all these fronts, Iran, under Raisi, has either made no progress, like in areas such as JCPOA or relations with the West or dialogues with Saudi Arabia, or has had setbacks like in relations with China, Azerbaijan, or Iraq,” says Mohamad Forough, a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.
“The scant exceptional progress that Iran has made as in the case of the North-South Transport Corridor and relations with Russia has been at the cost of serious damage to its international standing,” Forough tells TRT World.
Yet, although the Iranian president has precipitated the nation’s exclusion from the international community and has not made any foreign policy gains near the end of his second year in office, Iran hasn’t been stripped of its international relevance and continues to be a major player that world powers should factor in their calculations.
“[It] is important to note that the Islamic Republic still has tools to impact policies around the region, so actors cannot ignore it because of its previously-built instruments that can pragmatically leverage regional policies,” Divsallar says.
“Things cannot move on without Iranian involvement, so we won’t have any meaningful regional security improvement in the Middle East and even the Caucasus without proper Iranian engagement. That is a fact and will not change because of Raisi’s foreign policy failures.”