Iran-Azerbaijan tensions: how Khamenei overplayed Islamic ties



Iranian Revolutionary Guards sent armored and artillery units for maneuvers on Friday near the northern border of the Islamic Republic with the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan deplored the move and reportedly prevented Iranian trucks from traveling on Azeri roads towards Armenia. Iran says the movements were a matter of internal security.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh spokesperson said earlier this week that Tehran would not tolerate the presence of the “Zionist regime near its borders and take all necessary measures for its national security.”

In the Iranian city of Ardabil, in northwest Iran, with a population dominated by Iranian Azeris, the prayer leader of the congregation (and local representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), the Ayatollah Hasan Amoli, said, “Israel has come to Azerbaijan to threaten Iran, and the Sepah (Revolutionary Guards) are on maneuver … sending the message, don’t go overboard!”

Khamenei tried to play the card of “Islamic geography”

When Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war in 2020 over the Karabakh enclave, Supreme Leader Khamenei abandoned neutrality and declared that “the lands of the Republic of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia must be released “. Ayatollah Amoli then dutifully echoed him, saying that the “leader’s fatwa to liberate Karabakh has been of great help!”

While some reports suggested that the Revolutionary Guards were secretly sending weapons to Armenia, Khamenei believed he should publicly defend “Islamic geography” and support Azerbaijan, which, like Iran, is a Muslim nation. predominantly Shiite. Perhaps Khamenei thought he could hamper Azerbaijan’s flourishing ties with Israel, the nemesis of the Iranian revolutionary regime.

He also believed he had close ties to Azeri leader Ilham Aliev. He must have felt it when he joked with him in Azeri – which Khamenei speaks of, himself being an Azeri Iranian – during Aliev’s visit to Tehran in early 2014. But in this regard, the Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had much more success.

During a meeting in February 2017, Khamenei warned Aliyev that “the malicious Zionist regime is working harder than other enemies to weaken the brotherly ties between Iran and Azerbaijan.” His recipe for Aliyev was to pump out Shia ideology and overlap with the religious sentiments of the people.

Aliev was obviously not moved. If this was the recipe for success and popularity, why have Iranians taken to the streets intermittently and risked their lives to denounce the Islamic Republic?

Khamenei’s diplomacy has not prevented Azerbaijan from repeatedly obstructing Iranian trucks heading to Russia in recent years and increasing customs and transit fees.

Azerbaijan bought billions of Israeli weapons

Azerbaijan has meanwhile established warm relations with Israel, expanding its trade, security and military ties since 2011. Tehran therefore feels threatened, as Israel has installed communication systems and satellites near the Iranian border of 600 kilometers with Azerbaijan, and helps develop Azerbaijan’s defensive and drone capabilities. . Azerbaijan bought billions of dollars in Israeli arms.

Iran sent troops to the border after the tripartite exercises involving Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are expected to continue until the end of September. The three countries say they are strengthening the security of the roads that will be connected to the Chinese Belt and Road system.

The economic benefits go to Turkey.

Some observers in Tehran suspect that in return for supporting Azerbaijan’s efforts to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh territory, Turkey and Israel, and more quietly Britain and the United States, wrested commitments from Aliyev, to act effectively against Iranian interests in areas such as defense, the economy and even ethnic separatism.

A member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Fadahussein Maleki, deplored the tripartite maneuvers, saying Iran “expected more from its Azeri neighbor”. Other lawmakers have warned Azerbaijan to beware of the “childish” positions taken by some of its lawmakers or ministers, whom they accuse of fueling “discord” between neighbors.

These tensions are likely to have economic consequences, rather than military ones, and benefit Turkey, which already enjoys a flourishing trade with Baku. And the main loser is Khamenei, who believed that the Azeri language and Shia Islam were enough to bring the two states closer together. Yet in geopolitical and economic calculations, and in the basic inter-state function, such assumptions should never be overestimated.

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