Iran-Azerbaijan Tensions: How Khamenei Overplayed Islamic Ties
Azerbaijan's flourishing ties with Turkey and Israel threaten Iran's regional trade and strategic security after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei overestimated his ability to woo Azerbaijan leader, Ilham Aliev, because both nations are predominantly Shia Muslim.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards have sent armored and artillery units for maneuvers Friday close to the Islamic Republic's northern border with the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan deplored the move and reportedly prevented Iranian trucks from driving on Azeri roads into Armenia. Iran says the movements were a matter of internal security.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this week that Tehran would not tolerate the presence of "the Zionist regime near its frontiers and will take any measure needed for its national security."
In the northwestern Iranian city of Ardabil, with a population dominated by Iranian Azeris, the congregational prayer leader (and local representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), Ayatollah Hasan Amoli, has said that "Israel has come to Azerbaijan to threaten Iran, and the Sepah (Revolutionary guards) are in maneuvers... sending the message, don't overstep the mark!"
Khamenei tried to play the 'Islamic geography' card
When Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war in 2020 over the Karabakh enclave, Supreme Leader Khamenei ditched all neutrality and declared that "the lands of the Republic of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia must be freed." Ayatollah Amoli dutifully echoed him then, saying the leader's "fatwa to free Karabakh has been of great help!"
While some reports suggested the Revolutionary guards were secretly sending arms to Armenia, Khamenei believed he should publicly defend "the Islamic geography" and back Azerbaijan, which like Iran is a majority Shia Muslim nation. Perhaps Khamenei thought he could impede Azerbaijan's blossoming ties with Israel, nemesis to Iran's revolutionary regime.
He also thought he had close ties with the Azeri leader, Ilham Aliev. He must have felt it when he bantered with him in Azeri — which Khamenei speaks, being an Iranian Azeri himself — on Aliev's visit to Tehran in early 2014. But in this regard, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had far greater success.
At a meeting in February 2017, Khamenei warned Aliev that "the malicious Zionist regime is working harder than other enemies to weaken the brotherly ties between Iran and Azerbaijan." His recipe for Aliev was to pump the Shia ideology and ride the people's religious sentiments.
Aliev evidently wasn't moved. If this were a recipe for success and popularity, why did Iranians intermittently pour onto the streets and risk their lives to denounce the Islamic Republic?
Khamenei's diplomacy hasn't stopped Azerbaijan from repeatedly obstructing Iranian lorries driving toward Russia in recent years and hiking customs and passage fees.
Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey meet in Nagorno-Karabakh
Azerbaijan has bought billions worth of Israeli arms
Azerbaijan has meanwhile forged warm relations with Israel, expanding commercial, security and military ties since 2011. Tehran consequently feels threatened, as Israel has installed communications and satellite systems near Iran's 600-kilometer frontier with Azerbaijan, and is helping develop Azerbaijan's defensive and drone capabilities. Azerbaijan has bought billions of dollars worth of Israeli armaments.
Iran sent troops to the frontier after the tripartite exercises involving Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey, set to continue to the end of September. The three countries say they are strengthening the security of routes set to be linked to China's Belt and Road system.
Economic benefits go to Turkey.
Some observers in Tehran suspect that in return for backing Azerbaijan's efforts to regain the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, Turkey and Israel, and more discreetly, Britain and the United States, have extracted commitments from Aliev, effectively to act against Iranian interests in fields including defense, the economy and even ethnic separatism.
A member of the Iranian parliament's National Security Committee, Fadahussein Maleki, has deplored the tripartite maneuvers, saying Iran "expected more of its Azeri neighbor." Other legislators have warned Azerbaijan to mind the "childish" positions taken by some of its legislators or ministers, whom they accuse of feeding "discord" between neighbors.
These tensions are likely to have economic, rather than military consequences, and to benefit Turkey, which already boasts a thriving trade with Baku. And the principal loser is Khamenei, who thought the Azeri language and Shia Islam were enough to bring the two states closer. Yet in geopolitical and economic calculations, and in the basic function between states, such assumptions should never be overestimated.
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