Vol. 6, No. 11 (June 01, 2013)

Azerbaijan and Iran’s bungling foreign policy

Alex Vatanka
Middle East Institute
Washington D.C.

Among Iran’s immediate neighbors, Azerbaijan stands out in two distinct ways. First, the existence of a large ethnic Azerbaijani population inside Iran makes the Republic of Azerbaijan more than just another neighbor.  And second, at the moment, no other neighboring state challenges the ideological foundations of Islamic Republic as clearly as does the staunchly secular Republic of Azerbaijan.
While this combination has over recent years transformed Baku-Tehran relations into a turbulent affair, many Iranian analysts and even some officials are now increasingly calling for Tehran to rethink its policy approach toward its northern neighbor given Baku’s increasing influence in the region, something—if allegedly long overdue—Baku would presumably welcome.
The historical and religious closeness between Iran and Azerbaijan is undeniable, something that finds its expression in the existence of more than 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran.  However, the behavior of the Iranian regime has driven the two countries apart.  Since 1991, Tehran has repeatedly tried—and failed—to coerce the authorities in Baku to be receptive to its Islamist-centric overtures.  Successive governments in Baku have rejected the Iranian regime’s version of politicized Shia Islam, preferring instead to keep religion and politics apart.  
This secularism of the Republic of Azerbaijan has become a torn in the side of the Iranian theocratic regime.  Even more distressing from Tehran’s perspective is that Baku’s secularist model is clearly very attractive to many people inside Iran, something the Iranian hardliners can no longer afford to ignore.  The latter development has become particularly true as the Arab Revolutions and the civil war in Syria have heightened sectarian tensions among Sunni and Shia Muslims across the region.  In the Islamic World, Azerbaijan is now viewed as a bastion of secularism and traditional Islam, a function previously played by Turkey before the arrival of the AKP government in Ankara. Just as it used to fear Turkish secularism, Tehran now fears the secularism of Azerbaijan.
Iran’s rocky relation with Azerbaijan is far from unique.  To its south, Iran has managed to antagonize most of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  Its relations with Turkey have nose-dived since 2011 thanks to the intense rivalry in Syria where Tehran has wholeheartedly backed the Bashar Al Assad regime when the Turks early on sided with the opposition.  Tehran’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are often resented and seen as intrusive even though Iranian influence in those countries is indisputable.  Iran-Pakistan relations are only cordial on paper, while in reality a deep sense of mistrust plagues bilateral ties.
In short, Iranian foreign policy is in crisis, a reality that is growingly openly acknowledged by many in the Tehran regime as well.  Even the carefully screened candidates in Iran’s presidential election this season are suggesting publically that Tehran needs to rethink its approach to the region and the world.
The two candidates closest to the reformist camp, Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rohani, have blasted the eight-year foreign policy record of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and are running on a pledge to reduce Iran’s tensions with her neighbors and other actors on the international stage.  Even those candidates closest to the hardliners and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are arguing for a change and question whether empty gestures and sloganeering is a substitute for an effective foreign policy.  One, Mohsen Rezai, recently attacked Ahmadinejad’s trade-mark Holocaust-denial stance and promised not to repeat such mistakes if he was elected president after the 14 June elections.  Another hardline candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, asked, “What good did Iran get out of [Ahmadinejad] denying the Holocaust?”
It remains to be seen, of course, if these declarations by the regime insiders represent signs of a genuine change of heart in Tehran or if these are empty slogans and the regime will continue where it left off once the elections are over.  Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Tehran is increasingly feeling the pinch of international sanctions and tensions with so many of her neighbors and this could well force Tehran to adopt a less dogmatic and a more pragmatic regional behavior.
With regard to Azerbaijan, it is clear that Tehran does not want to allow relations to deteriorate further.  Iran can simply not afford more isolation, and Azerbaijan, as an increasingly important regional actor, is hard to ignore.  This reality holds true despite the periodic cycles of provocation and retaliation, which each side blames on the other.
From Baku’s perspective, an Iranian decision to end attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries, including Azerbaijan, would be a welcome development.  For years, Iran has been adamant that its version of political Islam should be emulated and particularly in a Shia-majority country such as Azerbaijan.  If Tehran abandoned that stance, relations could improve.
There is a track record for this sort of Iranian policy reversal.  During the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran succeeded in overhauling relations with neighboring countries such as its arch foe Saudi Arabia via an outreach strategy that underscored an Iranian willingness to end its efforts to export its Islamist revolution.
If Tehran decided to go down such a sober path—as was largely the case during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami—Baku would probably reciprocate in kind.  While the Azerbaijani government, and clear majority of the country’s population, have no time for Tehran’s Islamist model and the system of governance, one cannot ignore that Iran is a large neighboring state of 76 million people with numerous historical and ethnic linkages to the Republic of Azerbaijan.
While an Iranian decision to shift away from the disastrous foreign policy record of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems likely, this will not translate into an immediate overhaul of Tehran’s relationship with Baku anytime soon.  There are simply too many problems that have to be addressed.  Yet the ties can no doubt still benefit should Tehran start looking for ways to lessen tensions with neighbors, including Azerbaijan.