Baku and Tehran on the warpath
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Islamic Republic and Azerbaijanis deploy troops and armaments on the border. Tensions resurfaced in 2018 after US withdrawal from Iranian nuclear deal. Wave of refugees amass  at border with Azerbaijan. Turkey ready to help Baku 'brothers'. The shadow of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. Azeris want a leading role in the Caucasus.



Moscow (AsiaNews) - Tensions are rising on the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, with the two armies at the highest level of alert. The Iranians have deployed all of their possible firepower along the border, with a real risk of the outbreak of conflict. According to news agency, the Iranians have staged several war maneuvers in recent days with armored vehicles, drones, multiple rocket launchers and tactical missiles. This prompted the Azeris to deploy troops and weapon systems in turn.

Tehran accuses Baku of being the primary culprit in the escalation, adding that its own maneuvers were planned for some time. Azerbaijan is aware of the clear military inferiority compared to the Islamic Republic, and this despite the already declared willingness of Turkey to help their "Azerbaijani brothers". Any slight provocation, such as setting fire to the portraits of Qasem Soleimani (Pasdaran commander killed by the U.S.) and Iranian supreme leaders in Baku, could lead to real armed clashes.

Conflicts between Iran and Azerbaijan resurfaced in 2018 after Washington withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which was followed by a renewed U.S. embargo on Tehran's Iranian oil, along with other, new sanctions. The Islamic Republic's problems with the United States have affected the security system of the entire South Caucasus.  On its southern borders, Azerbaijan has seen an uncontrolled flow of refugees, including many Islamic extremists; in the face of the migratory wave Baku has closed the border with Iran. 

The issue is not only about security, but above all about Azerbaijan's role as leader of the Caucasus region, imposed last year with the victory over Armenia for the control of Nagorno Karabakh. Baku intends to make the most of the circumstance, making the country the main connection hub between Europe and Asia, cutting off Iran itself.

The two countries are actually very similar for a series of social, cultural and religious characteristics, but the mutual relations have always been complicated and full of highs and lows. Throughout the post-Soviet period, according to the definition of Azerbaijani political scientists, relations have been "neutral-negative." The parties have tried not to provoke each other; every now and then, however, tensions resurface, as they have these days.

Iran is an Islamic state, while Azerbaijan is a secular republic, which tries in every way to contain possible manifestations of religious extremism. In 2001 President Gaydar Aliev, father of the current head of state, had said that "Azerbaijan will never become an Islamic republic of Iranian mode".

Tehran is also very concerned about Azerbaijan's close relations with Turkey, Iran's main opponent in Middle East politics. At the religious level, this involves a spread of Ottoman Sunni Islam among Azerbaijanis, who are traditionally Shiite like Iranians. On Azerbaijani territory there is an ongoing cultural war between the two major Islamic forces in the region, as well as a confrontation on a military and strategic level. The Iranians also accuse Baku of being too pro-Western, and of often indulging in the flattery of the U.S. and Israel, especially in the field of information and security.