By Alexander Miguel
Iran and Azerbaijan share many cultural similarities. They are among the only four Shia-majority nations (along with Bahrain and Iraq), and Iran hosts more ethnic Azerbaijanis than the Republic of Azerbaijan itself. Shah Ismail I of the Iranian Safavid dynasty, who converted Iran and Azerbaijan from Sunnism to Shi’ism, wrote Azerbaijani poetry. Even after Azerbaijan acquired its modern-day territory under the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, the reigning Qajar dynasty of Iran was ethnically Turkic and persisted until 1896. However, these cultural similarities fail to halt a cooling of relations as each country drifts apart geopolitically.
Despite having centuries of rule by a Turkic elite, Azerbaijanis in Iran had never asserted a strong independent national character. They preferred to rule over the Persian majority, and adopt their culture as their own, much like the Mongols assimilated into Chinese culture or the Gothic tribes into Latin Europe. Nevertheless, Azerbaijanis form anywhere from 16 to 20 percent of Iran’s population (similar to the proportion of Hispanics in the United States) in the northwest between Turkey and the Caspian Sea and still speak the Azerbaijani language.
Azerbaijani nationalism in its current form evolved under the Soviets outside of Iran. Although ethnic Russians still held the majority, communist leadership made efforts to balance the fragile multi-ethnic makeup of the former Russian Empire. The composition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R) divided the territory into fifteen coequal republics among the largest ethnic groups, including the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Even so, a fully independent Azerbaijan did not come into being until the 1990s upon the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Even before its independence from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan had a major territorial dispute with Armenia which escalated into a total conflict during the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Despite accusations of pro-Armenian sympathies, Iran has previously aided Azerbaijan in its conflict against Armenia for territorial control in Nagorno-Karabakh during the first war in the early 1990s. Support included Iranian housing for Azerbaijani refugees and even claims from General Mohsen Razaee and Ayatollah Hassan Ameli that Tehran provided military support to Baku.
In 2020, Azerbaijan won the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. By November 9, in a Russian-mediated ceasefire, Armenian forces withdrew from all territory outside of Nagorno-Karabakh. This withdrawal granted the Azerbaijanis full access to their border with Iran, some of which Armenian troops occupied. According to a commentary by Eldar Mamedov, Tehran promotes a speedy return of Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh to appease its large and vocal Azerbaijani minority at home.
Azerbaijan has strengthened its ties with Israel, to the alarm of Tehran. One Iranian parliamentarian after the war blamed Israel and the United States for instigating unrest along Iran’s northern border. While Israel is a common rhetorical target for Iranian politicians as a catch-all for Iranian woes, Iran’s rival has increased its ties to Azerbaijan. Israel imports Azerbaijani oil and in return has sold munitions and drones to Azerbaijan used during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The presidential foreign policy advisor of Azerbaijan, Hikmet Hajiyev, openly admitted to the use of Israeli Harop suicide drones in combat during the war. On January 11, President Ilham Aliyev appointed Mukhdar Mammadov as the first official Azerbaijani ambassador to Israel despite Iranian opposition. In a December 2022 survey, 61 percent of Azerbaijanis supported the decision of the Aliyev administration to establish an embassy in Israel, starkly contrasting typical public opinion in most Muslim-majority nations. In comparison, only 25 percent of Emiratis and 20 percent of Bahrainis viewed the Abraham Accords positively, despite their governments being participants themselves.
Besides their views of Israel, Azerbaijan and Iran also differ in terms of religiosity. Azerbaijan experienced seven decades of state-mandated atheism as a republic within the U.S.S.R. The Caucasian nation experienced a religious revival in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, alongside the rest of the communist bloc. This revival includes a renewed pride in the hijab among many Azerbaijani women. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan remains very secular relative to most other Muslim-majority countries, including its southern neighbor.
The death of Mahsa Amini initiated protests across Iran to criticize the role of the morality police, who beat her to death for the incorrect wearing of a hijab. The enforcement of the requirement to don a hijab stands in stark contrast to Azerbaijan, which has opposite policies towards wearing the headscarf. While Iranian protesters have recently taken to calls for freedom from the hijab, Azerbaijanis have been protesting for over a decade for freedom for the hijab. Protests broke out in 2011 when the Azerbaijani education ministry banned the hijab in schools as a violation of uniform regulations. A student activist, Kamala Rovshan, has worked since 2021 to remove Azerbaijani legislation that forbids women from wearing the headscarf in passport photos.
The recent Iranian protests have also taken an ethnic dimension after Aylar Haqqi, an ethnic Azerbaijani student, was killed at a protest in Tabriz. Authorities claim she fell to her death at a construction site. However, her family counters that she was shot at close range by a shotgun. Besides protesting government policies on female clothing, Haqqi had also championed Azerbaijani minority rights on Twitter.
Ethnic Kurds have also encountered similar discrimination in Iran. Upon the burial of Mahsa Amini in the city of Saqez, protesters began chanting “woman, life, freedom,” a popular feminist slogan coined initially by the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist organization. Amini herself was an ethnic Kurd. The government has banned the Kurdish language from public instruction like Azerbaijani, yet the Iranian government extends linguistic repression to even the bestowal of Kurdish names.
Amini used the name “Mahsa” publicly, however her given Kurdish name of “Jina” is not an accepted Persian name in Iran. While Azerbaijanis have not experienced the same level of backlash as other ethnic groups in Iran, ongoing protests increase these risks for the regime. Unlike most of Iran’s other ethnic minorities, Iranian-Azerbaijanis have an independent state they can turn to for irredentist ambitions if Tehran cannot satisfy their cultural aspirations.
The Soviets have previously leveraged their Azerbaijani population to pursue their interests in Iran. Tudeh was the dominant communist movement in Iran in the aftermath of World War II. Iranian workers would work in the Soviet oil fields, including Baku, and then export communist ideology back to Iran. Tudeh’s power base was in the north, particularly in Tabriz, which has a sizeable Azerbaijani presence. Soviet leader Josef Stalin sent Soviet troops into northern Iran when the Azerbaijan Autonomous Republic declared independence from Iran on November 20, 1945. Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam relented to Soviet oil concessions in northern Iran. The Soviets wanted to maintain the strategic hold on oil reserves in the north of the country. With the compromises, the Soviets pulled out of northern Iran in May 1946, ending the brief experiment of Azerbaijani political autonomy in Iran. Qavam’s successor, Mohammad Mossadegh, would lead a successful vote to eliminate the Soviet oil concession altogether.
Mohammed Mossadegh was Iran’s last democratically elected prime minister before his fall from power in a CIA-organized coup in 1953: Operation Ajax. Mossadegh was an ethnic Azerbaijani belonging to a family within the former Qajar nobility. Nevertheless, Mossadegh was an Iranian nationalist, leading the National Bloc in the Iranian Majlis, which opposed Iranian oil concessions to British companies.
Yet, Mossadegh wanted to eliminate foreign influence in Iran overall. During World War II, the British also occupied parts of Iran to secure petroleum for themselves. In his book on Operation Ajax, All the Shah’s Men, Stephen Kinzer points out that Mossadegh opposed the movements of the Tudeh Party in Iran. British policymakers convinced the Eisenhower administration that Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry would invite communist ideology into the country. Mossadegh was not interested in a socialist revolution. Above all, however, he wanted to preserve his country’s territorial integrity, even as a member of a non-Persian minority.
Although not continuous, Iran has a national tradition extending over two and half millennia involving ethnic Persians. This tradition only lasts if ethnic Persians and ethnic minorities carefully calibrate a balance. An independent Azerbaijan, however, upsets that balance. Azerbaijani separatism—real or imagined—inspires paranoia in Tehran. This paranoia is amplified when Baku works more closely with its rival Israel and prosecutes a war destabilizing its northern border.
Cultural divergences and attitudes between the Republic of Azerbaijan and northern Iran over the past century make any integration scenario unlikely. The Islamic Republic has been careful to placate Azerbaijan whenever possible. Tehran recognizes its vulnerability with its northern neighbor. After a fatal shooting at the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran killed an Azerbaijani national on January 27, the Tehrani police chief was fired for mismanagement. Still, Azerbaijan recalled its embassy staff, despite the condolences of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his promises to investigate the matter more carefully. In the context of widespread discontent at home, the Islamic Republic is desperate to minimize foreign threats.
Alexander Miguel is an undergraduate student at Florida State University studying International Affairs and Religious Studies. He is specifically interested in the intersection between religion and geopolitics, with a primary interest in research into the Eastern Catholic Churches.