While Iran is a wonderful country with a fantastic history, present day Iran is hardly the most desirable neighbor to have, being insecure, paranoid and unpredictable.
Moreover, with a significant ethnic Azerbaijani minority of some 25 to 30 million, mainly residing in northern Iran, Tehran fears possible uprisings. Interestingly, ethnic Azerbaijanis have no right to education in their mother tongue, with no schooling offered in Azerbaijani for the last 90 years (with the exception of 1945-46, when the Jafar Pishevari government allowed it). While Iran’s current constitution says “the official and educational language is Persian, languages of other ethnic groups may also be used,” this article has never been applied.
Meanwhile, Iran has always been suspicious of Azerbaijan’s increasingly close ties with the West, particularly related to the US, NATO and Israel -- all three of which Tehran views as enemies. While Azerbaijan has taken a very pragmatic approach to strengthening ties with the West, trying to achieve a balanced foreign policy, Tehran loathes Azerbaijan’s deepening cooperation with NATO and, to a lesser extent, increased ties with the EU.
Earlier this week, President of the European Council Herman von Rompuy was in Baku, where he underlined the importance of relations with Azerbaijan, not least in the field of energy. This is another sore point for Tehran. Because of sanctions placed on Iran as a consequence of its controversial nuclear program, Tehran has been unable to develop its energy sector and profit from the lucrative EU market. On July 1 the situation became worse when a new round of sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector came into force. As a consequence, Iran’s oil exports more than halved from regular levels, costing Tehran more than $3 billion per month. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is cutting energy deals left, right and center, with partners in the West (and elsewhere) literally fighting over Azerbaijani hydrocarbons. So far, 2012 has been a particularly turbulent year that has seen an escalation in hostile language between the two neighbors. Azerbaijanis have protested around the world against interference from Iran in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.
Israel has also been a thorny issue. Azerbaijan has warm relations with Israel, with Baku providing Israel with oil while Israel sells Azerbaijan weapons. Most recently this was a package of some $1.6 billion, including five Heron unmanned aerial vehicles and five Searcher UAV drones, which was a very unwelcome development for Tehran. Even when Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev visited Iran in an effort to assure Tehran that it should not feel threatened by Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel, and that the arms purchase was certainly not directed at Tehran, it did little to calm Tehran’s paranoia. This was shortly followed by claims that Azerbaijan had agreed to allow Israel to use its airfields, from which they would be able to attack Iran. Apart from anything else, such a decision from Azerbaijan would be suicidal because an Iranian retaliation would come straight at Baku. Moreover, under the Azerbaijani Constitution, foreign bases or forces are not allowed on Azerbaijani territory, making such claims little more than propagandist fairy tales. Still, Iran believes that Baku is being used by Israel as a base of intelligence operations -- whether electronic listening devices, receiving or sending out agents or whatever. Baku has called these allegations slander.
Indeed, Azerbaijan and Iran are both paranoid about “spying” activities aimed at undermining stability. While Iran accuses Azerbaijan of harboring anti-Iranian terrorists linked to Israel’s Mossad, Azerbaijan says Iran supports Islamist dissidents. Each country denies the other’s charges. At the beginning of this month Iran was charged with interrogating two Azerbaijan citizens on charges of spying on behalf of Azerbaijan’s secret service, while during Eurovision there was also an increase of hostile language and negative rhetoric against each other following Tehran’s statement that Azerbaijan was insulting Islam by hosting Eurovision. Iran also continues to hold two young Azerbaijani poets, Farid Huseyn and Shahriyar Del Gerani (Hajizade), who apparently disappeared in the city of Tabriz in April. The latest incident involves Hilal Mammadov, the editor of a Talysh ethnic minority newspaper, who has been accused of spying for Iran and inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred. For his part, Mammadov has criticized authorities for allegedly repressing minority populations in Azerbaijan. The Talysh, who speak a language akin to Persian, live along Azerbaijan’s border with Iran. While it seems these incidents are likely to continue and are far from conducive to regional stability, at the same time, according to press reports, at a recent meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian Envoy to Baku Mohammad Baqer Bahrami there was much enthusiasm from the two for building on the “dynamic” relationship that already exists by further developing relations between the two countries in all fields.