Vol. 6, No. 8 (April 15, 2013)

Changing borders a dangerous idea, Azerbaijan reminds Iran

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Iranian suggestions that the border between Iran and Azerbaijan should be revised and that portions of Azerbaijan, including the capital city of Baku, should become part of the Islamic Republic have attracted international attention as the latest example of Tehran’s aggressiveness and the best reason why Azerbaijan must stand firm with the United States and Israel against Iran. [1] Two aspects of this story have received less attention, however; and yet they, rather than the dominant narrative, say more about the meaning of these suggestions. 

On the one hand, the Iranian suggestions followed rather than preceded suggestions by some activists in Azerbaijan as recently as March of this year and a few politicians in the United States and other Western countries beginning late last year but increasing in tempo and volume in recent months that the West should promote the secession of the roughly one-third of Iranian territory populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and its ultimate joining to the Republic of Azerbaijan as part of its strategy to weaken Tehran. [2] 

And on the other, however much sympathy many in Baku have for the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Iran, no country on earth is more committed to the principle of territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders than is Azerbaijan.  Consequently, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Baku reacted to these suggestions both dismissively and with warning that those who question internationally recognized borders are likely to be the first victims of such a policy.  Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said he could hardly believe anyone in Tehran would take such a dangerous idea seriously; [3] and Siyavush Novruzov, the deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, noted that if Iran wanted to discuss bringing its political borders into line with ethnographic ones, it, not Azerbaijan, would be the big loser. [4]

The idea of changing borders between Azerbaijan and Iran was dead on arrival, and both sides knew it.  However, this exchange is a reminder of just how tense the relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran has become.  The level of tension has increased dramatically over the last few weeks for several reasons.  From Iran’s point of view, Azerbaijan’s support for the international community’s opposition to Tehran’s nuclear program is an unfriendly act.  Even more unfriendly from an Iranian perspective is the visit by Foreign Minister Mammadyarov to Israel and his suggestion that Baku may be ready to open an embassy in the Jewish state, something that Iranian commentators suggest points to the emergence of an alliance between Azerbaijan and Israel directed against the Islamic Republic.

And from Azerbaijan’s point of view, Iran has launched new warships in the Caspian over the last six weeks, disturbing a precarious balance there.  It continues to support Armenia, which, all analysts say, would almost certainly collapse without the Iranian lifeline.  And Tehran continues to fish in troubled waters by promoting overtly and covertly ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, unfriendly acts that Baku has frequently complained about and ones that appear to be growing with the expansion of Talysh broadcasting from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

Despite this, Azerbaijan and Iran have not escalated this dispute out of proportion as some outsiders seem to be.  There have been exchanges of diplomatic notes and some harsh words, but there has been no talk of a break in relations, especially because Azerbaijan has gone out of its way to stress that it will never allow its territory to become a place des armes for an attack on Iran and that it wants good relations with Tehran both because of its own needs, including a land route to the non-contiguous Nakhchivan Republic, and because of its principled commitment to a balanced foreign policy.  Iran would be the loser if it chose to escalate things and it appears certain that Tehran knows that.

What is less clear is that some outsider actors do not understand just how sensitive and complex these issues are and that continued talk about playing “the Azerbaijani card” will not benefit either their goals or the needs of the Azerbaijanis, either those in the Azerbaijan Republic north of the Araz or those in the Islamic Republic of Iran south of that river.


[1] See, for example, http://caspianresearch.com/2013/04/25/azerbaijan-iran-dispute-enters-historical-territory/ (accessed 14 April 2013).

[2] See http://presstv.ir/detail/2013/04/04/296503/17-caucasus-cities-seek-iran-annexation/ and http://inosmi.ru/world/20130416/208112107.html (accessed 14 April 2013).

[3] See http://news.day.az/politics/395269.html (accessed 14 April 2013).

[4] See http://en.baybak.com/irans-territorial-claims-please-north-and-south-azerbaijan.azr (accessed 14 April 2013).