Azerbaijan and Iran are two neighboring countries that share a 700km border and a common history, culture and religion. However, their relations have been strained by several factors, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, military exercises, border disputes and Israel’s involvement in the region. While both sides have expressed their desire to maintain good neighborly ties and avoid any escalation, the risk of a war cannot be ruled out completely.
One of the main sources of tension between Azerbaijan and Iran is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a disputed territory that was occupied by Armenian forces for nearly three decades until Azerbaijan regained control of most of it after a 44-day war in 2020. Iran, which has a large ethnic Azeri population in its northwestern provinces, remained neutral during the war but recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. However, Iran was also concerned about the role of Turkey and Israel, two of its regional rivals, in supporting Azerbaijan’s military campaign. Turkey provided arms, drones and technical assistance to Baku, while Israel supplied “kamikaze” drones that were used to target Armenian positions. Iran accused both countries of destabilizing the region and threatening its national security.
Another factor that has increased the tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran is the joint military exercises that both countries have conducted near their borders. In September 2021, Azerbaijan hosted a trilateral drill with Turkey and Pakistan, dubbed “Three Brothers 2021”, which Iran claimed violated the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea that bans foreign military presence in the sea. In response, Iran launched its own large-scale army drills along its border with Azerbaijan in October 2021, which Baku viewed as a provocative move. Iran said that its exercises were aimed at enhancing its defensive capabilities and deterring any potential threats from Israel or terrorist groups that allegedly came to the region from Syria.
A third factor that has contributed to the deterioration of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran is the border issue. In recent months, there have been several incidents of border violations and clashes between Azerbaijani and Iranian forces or civilians. For instance, in August 2021, an Iranian soldier was killed by Azerbaijani fire near a dam on the Araz River that separates the two countries. In September 2021, two Iranian truck drivers were detained by Azerbaijani authorities for allegedly smuggling goods to Armenia through a newly opened road that connects Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave with its mainland. Iran protested against these actions and demanded an apology and compensation from Azerbaijan.
The tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have raised concerns among regional and international actors who fear a possible outbreak of war between the two countries. Russia, which brokered the ceasefire agreement that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war and deployed peacekeeping troops in the region, has called for dialogue and restraint between Baku and Tehran. The United States, which has imposed sanctions on both countries over their nuclear programs, has also urged them to de-escalate the situation and respect each other’s sovereignty. The European Union, which has been trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and expand its cooperation with Azerbaijan, has also expressed its support for peaceful resolution of disputes.
However, despite these diplomatic efforts, there are still many challenges and uncertainties that could trigger a war between Azerbaijan and Iran. For instance, if Iran perceives that Israel is using Azerbaijani territory to launch attacks on its nuclear facilities or assassinate its officials or scientists, it could retaliate against Baku or try to disrupt its energy exports. Alternatively, if Azerbaijan feels that Iran is supporting separatist movements or inciting ethnic tensions among its Azeri minority, it could accuse Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs or violating its territorial integrity. Moreover, if either side miscalculates or overreacts to any border incident or military provocation, it could spark an armed confrontation that could spiral out of control.
Therefore, while a war between Azerbaijan and Iran is not inevitable or imminent, it is not impossible either. Both countries need to exercise caution and prudence in their actions and statements and engage in constructive dialogue and confidence-building measures to address their differences and grievances. They also need to respect their international obligations and commitments and cooperate with regional and global actors to maintain peace and stability in the South Caucasus.