Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan are intimates. Iran lost both lands to Russia in the 19th century, but both countries’ peoples form large minorities in Iran: 150,000 Armenian Christians live in Iran, while there are more Turkic-speaking Shia Muslim Azeris in Iran—15 to 18 million—than in Azerbaijan itself. Moscow’s rule limited Iran’s relations with both countries, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Iran quickly recognized the two new independent states. Yet relations took a surprising turn: where Iran might have been expected to relish the opening of a Shia Muslim neighbor, Azerbaijan’s ethnic nationalism and irredentism pushed Iran closer to Armenia, which was at war with Azerbaijan. Iran’s preference for its small Christian neighbor persists today.
1. Azerbaijan’s President Elchibey wanted to establish “Greater Azerbaijan” in Iran’s north.
Azerbaijan’s second president, Abulfaz Elchibey, who took office from 1992 to 1993, espoused an anti-Iranian, pro-Turkish, pan-Azeri worldview. Like Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, he imagined uniting Azerbaijan with Azeri-majority territories in Iran’s northeast. “In those early post-independence years,” says Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute, “you had a government in Baku that spoke about joining ‘north and south Azerbaijan.’ Azerbaijan went quickly from being seen as fertile ground for Iranian soft power to being seen as a threat to Iranian internal stability.” Elchibey, he says, was inexperienced and sentimental. “There was not much strategic thinking going on his part.”
2. Iran took in thousands of Azerbaijani refugees in 1993.
In 1988, as Moscow’s grip on Armenia and Azerbaijan began to loosen, the two countries went to war over the notionally autonomous border region of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose name derives from the Russian word for “mountainous,” the Turkic word for "black" and the Persian words for “garden.” Ethnic Armenians seized the territory, and pushed into Azerbaijan proper. Fleeing an Armenian offensive in 1993, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis headed for Iran’s northern border. Iran accommodated them. “If you travel to Baku,” Vatanka says, “they still remember—mostly very fondly—that Iran was there and received them with open arms.” The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved.
3. Iran helps Armenia to survive a Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade.
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan created a dilemma for Iranian policy makers, since Azerbaijan was a Shia majority country culturally and ethnically intertwined with Iran, but also a potential threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. “Nationalist elements in Azerbaijan advocating a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’ raised alarm within Iran that perhaps they should support Armenia,” says Harout Semerdjian, a PhD candidate in Turkish-Armenian relations at Oxford University. Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed a blockade on landlocked Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but when Azerbaijan lobbied Iran to close its border and minimize its relations with Armenia, he says, Iran refused, becoming “a lifeline with an open border.”
4. Iran and Azerbaijan disputed the origins of polo at UNESCO.
Last year, the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization wrote to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization to protest the Azerbaijan Polo Federation’s attempt to register polo with the international cultural body as a sport of Azerbaijani origin. According to Fars News, Mehdi Hojjat, head of the ICHO, protested the move and promised “a tight and continued follow-up on the case.” The Iranian Sports Ministry also objected. Azerbaijan ultimately received special recognition as an “intangible world heritage” a specific form of polo traditionally played on short-legged Karabakh horses, which Azerbaijani Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfaz Garayev said were endangered by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
5. Azerbaijan has a shadowy friendship with Israel.
In 2009, Wikileaks revealed a US embassy cable from Baku entitled Azerbaijan’s Discreet Symbiosis with Israel, in which Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev says his relationship with Israel is like an iceberg because “nine tenths of it is below the surface.” Israel has cultivated trade and investment with Azerbaijan since 1994. In 2012 the two countries signed a $1.6 billion arms deal. According to a Foreign Policy article published the same year, senior US officials believed Azerbaijan had granted Israel access to old Soviet airfields that it could use as a refuge for its aircraft if it attacked Iran. Azerbaijan denied hostile intentions toward Iran. “I believe that denial is sincere,” Vatanka says. “The Azerbaijanis might want to use Israel as a lever to press the Iranians, but they do not want to get involved in that fight.”
6. Azerbaijan arrested 22 of its citizens over an alleged plot by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
In 2012, Azerbaijan charged 22 Azerbaijanis with treason and illegal possession of weapons, and accused them working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to target Israeli and US embassy staff in the country. The Azerbaijani security ministry said they had undergone training in Iran. Unnamed US officials placed the episode in the context of a covert “shadow war” in which Iran had accused the US and Israel of killing Iranian nuclear scientists—a view the alleged plot leader, Balagardash Dashdev, corroborated. Iran denied the plot, and its embassy in Baku stated, “We believe that the glorious people of Azerbaijan understand that this part of the script of Iranophobia and Islamophobia is organized by the Zionists and the United States.”
7. Iran and Armenia both support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—for very different reasons.
Iran and Armenia both want the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to survive in Syria. But while Iran is fighting to preserve access to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon through Syrian territory, Armenia relies on Assad to protect the Armenian diaspora in Syria. “Armenia has its biggest diaspora of the Middle East in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which is under direct threat from ISIS,” says Ashot Margaryan, Executive Director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute in Yerevan, referring to the trans-national terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The good attitude of Syria’s ruling Alawite minority toward Armenians, he says, explains Armenia’s position, since Armenians fear worse relations with a Sunni successor government. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan congratulated Assad on his “reelection” in June.
8. An Iranian lawmaker said Iran could annex Baku.
In 2013 Mansour Haqiqatpour, deputy chair of the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, said that 17 cities in the region, including the Azerbaijani capital Baku, might welcome their own re-annexation by Iran. “A movement has started for the annexation of 17 cities in Caucasus, including Azeri cities, to our country, and we hope this goal would be achieved through cooperation of people and all-out support of international bodies,” he said. Haqiqatpour was reacting angrily to a separatist forum that the South Azerbaijan National Liberation Movement had held in Azerbaijan to promote Azeri separatism in Iran.
9. Iran and Armenia have thriving cross-border traffic—including Iranian wine tourists.
“Iranian-Armenians are very aware of their roots,” Semerdjian says. “In recent years, thousands of them have travelled back and forth to Armenia, and have bought property. A lot of them have second residences. Iranian-Armenians are generally successful, and they invest in Armenia.” Non-Armenian Iranians, meanwhile, have developed a taste for strong Caucasian wine, and head to Yerevan for tours of its famous wine cellars. “Ten meters underground, they think Allah is out of range,” one guide told the BBC.