There’s an indisputable disconnect between popular perceptions and objective reality.
Azerbaijan’s decisive victory in the Karabakh Conflict last month provoked very strong reactions from many Iranian commentators and those foreigners who support the Islamic Republic’s worldview. Most of them started smearing that country as an Israeli and/or Turkish puppet whose restoration of constitutional order over that formerly separatist region supposedly poses a security threat to Iran. Unaware observers were then left with the impression that bilateral ties had dramatically deteriorated.
Iranian-Azeri ties actually improved since then, however, as proven by Tasnim News’ latest reports:
This indisputable disconnect between popular perceptions and objective reality will now be analyzed.
Like all societies, a plurality of opinions on foreign policy also exists within Iran and among its supporters abroad, which in this context concerns those who view Azerbaijan either as a friend or a foe. About that country, it occupies a very special place in the Iranian national consciousness for historical reasons. Accordingly, there are very strong views about its leadership’s decision to formally ally with Turkiye, informally do the same with Israel, and partner with NATO.
Critics accuse Azerbaijan of conspiring with those three to contain Iran, while others interpret these moves through the Neo-Realist paradigm of International Relations and thus regard them as a predictable response to their security dilemma. The first are therefore convinced that Azerbaijan is an intractable foe with whom no pragmatic cooperation is possible while the second believe that such cooperation should still be pursued in an attempt to reduce mutual suspicions through these means.
Both perspectives have their merits and respective supporters within Iran’s policymaking community, and the complex interplay between the latter’s factions accounts for why the Islamic Republic sometimes sends mixed signals about its approach towards Azerbaijan. These competitive dynamics are natural and not exclusive to Iran since all countries’ corresponding communities have various groups within them that vie to influence the formulation of policy towards others.
In this particular case, the geo-economically focused faction that favors the expansion of trade ties as a means for managing regional security dilemmas arguably appears to be the one calling the shots in Iran nowadays, not the security-centric one that precludes such cooperation out of principle. This assessment is based on spring’s Chinese-brokered Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, which was made possible by the People’s Republic convincing both countries to finally put aside their differences for the greater good.
Upon burying the hatchet, they were able to unlock the broader region’s full geo-economic potential, which is mutually beneficial since it’ll bring more prosperity to their people in parallel with accelerating Eurasia’s multipolar integration through the subsequent creation of new connectivity corridors. Something similar appears to be in the process with Azerbaijan as proven by Friday’s inaugural ceremony celebrating the construction of the Aghand Bridge over the Aras River dividing those two.
Upon completion, this project will connect Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan and thus also Turkiye via Iran, which advances all stakeholders’ shared geo-economic interests. Importantly, it also serves as a viable alternative to the Zangezur Corridor through Armenia that’s been held up for nearly three years already by Yerevan’s obstinance despite its premier agreeing to this initiative in the Moscow-mediated November 2020 ceasefire. This insight debunks speculation that Iran fears Azeri-Turkish connectivity.
To the contrary, the geo-economically focused policymaking faction that’s nowadays arguably predominant in the Islamic Republic wants their country to profit from this trade after seeing how beneficial it’s been for nearby Georgia, through which it’s hitherto been conducted. Their security-centric rivals object to these plans since they consider all Azeri-Turkish corridors to be “Trojan Horses” for NATO, Pan-Turkism, and/or Zionism, but they failed to convince policymakers of these concerns.
Seeing as how Iran patched up its problems with Saudi Arabia, which had up until that point been considered a much greater threat to their country’s security than Azerbaijan ever was, it makes sense that Tehran would promulgate a similar policy towards Baku too. Whatever concerns the security-centric faction has about Azerbaijan pale in comparison to those that they previously had about Saudi Arabia, so it was a fait accompli that improving ties with the latter would lead to improving ties with the former.
That said, both rapprochements could still be derailed by unforeseen developments, including the scenario that the security-centric policymaking faction regains its prior influence and then convinces decisionmakers to distance their country from those two. Neither geo-economically driven rapprochement nor that respective faction’s leading role in policy formulation should therefore be taken for granted, but nevertheless, everything explained thus far reflects reality as it presently exists.
These observations add crucial context to the fact that Iranian-Azeri relations actually improved in spite of popular social media speculation that they supposedly deteriorated since the end of the Karabakh Conflict. The indisputable disconnect between these two is now revealed to be the result of the interplay between these competing factions after the security-centric one encouraged the aforesaid information warfare campaign in an attempt to pressure their geo-economically focused rivals.
Whether intended or not, this ultimately had the effect of discrediting the government’s policy of proactively engaging Azerbaijan in a well-intentioned attempt to reduce mutual suspicions stemming from their security dilemma, thus confusing some of Iran’s supporters at home and abroad. After all, those whose views were swayed by the security-centric faction into thinking that all Azeri-Turkish corridors constitute a “Trojan Horse” don’t understand why Iran is now facilitating this via its territory.
If this same faction doesn’t soon scale back its information warfare campaign, then there’s a risk that some folks might be misled into thinking that the Iranian government either “sold out” or has been “infiltrated” by NATO/Pan-Turks/Zionists. Both perceptions are detrimental to its national interests, which is why the security-centric faction is advised to reconsider the wisdom of propagating fearmongering narratives about Azerbaijan, at least at this particular point in time.