Embassy shooting takes fragile Iran-Azerbaijan ties to the brink

Zafar Mehdi , The Cradle, February 15 2023 — The recent gun attack at Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran may have been exploited by Baku for the benefit of close ally Israel.

On the morning of 27 January, a Kalashnikov-wielding male barged into the Azerbaijani embassy in an upscale north Tehran neighborhood and brazenly opened fire, killing the head of the security staff, Orkhan Askerov, and injuring two others. The assailant was eventually overpowered by a security guard and arrested.

Tehran’s Police Chief Hossein Rahimi announced that a preliminary investigation pointed to “family problems” as the motive of the fatal shooting, but Azerbaijani officials, including President Ilham Aliyev – in a surprisingly undiplomatic salvo aimed at Iran – chose to characterize the incident as a “terrorist act.”

Iran’s ambassador in Baku was duly summoned to lodge a strong protest, while Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister Khalaf Khalafov went so far as to hold Iran directly responsible for the armed assault on a diplomatic building.

Not a ‘terrorist attack’

The tensions between the estranged neighbors – already high due to recent military exercises and not-so-veiled verbal barbs – were further exacerbated by the shooting, which was subsequently determined to have been triggered over a personal issue.

A confession by the assailant, identified as Yasin Hosseinzadeh, lent credence to the police version of the incident. As quoted by Iran’s judiciary-affiliated Mizan News, the gunman claimed that his wife visited Azerbaijan’s Tehran embassy in April 2022 and did not return. Numerous efforts to discover her whereabouts from the consular staff failed, and he was left frustrated.

Mohsen Pakaeen, Iran’s former ambassador to Azerbaijan, says Azerbaijani officials are hell-bent on manufacturing a “crisis.” He points out that while Baku remains adamant that the incident was a “terrorist attack,” the evidence and confessions by the attacker and his relatives suggest otherwise. And like other Iranian officials, he blames Baku’s belligerent response on Israel’s growing influence inside Azerbaijan:

“There’s no doubt that the Israeli regime is provoking Azerbaijan to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran and there’s precedent for such practices by that regime,” Pakaeen told The Cradle, alluding to Baku’s increasingly warm ties with Tel Aviv amid its rapid deterioration of relations with Tehran.

A senior lawmaker and member of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Mahmoud Abbaszadeh, tells The Cradle that some Azerbaijani officials “treated the case in a way that was not healthy” for bilateral ties, “under the influence of certain extra-regional entities.”

He urges Baku “not to play into the hands of the enemies of the Muslim world” and said differences over the embassy attack “can be easily settled through logical dialogue.”

The political fallout

In the aftermath of the embassy shooting, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian appealed directly to his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov to not allow the incident to affect bilateral ties. Iran’s top diplomat even proposed cooperation between the two countries’ security agencies to “shed light on all aspects of the incident.”

Later that evening, accompanied by the Azerbaijani ambassador and other officials, Amir-Abdollahian visited the wounded security guards at a hospital in north Tehran, followed by a press conference in which he reiterated that the assault was “not a terrorist operation.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi spoke to his Azerbaijani counterpart Aliyev a day later, assuring him that “inseparable historical ties” between the two countries will not be harmed by “ill-wishers.”

But despite Iran’s every effort to deescalate the situation, two days after the shooting, President Aliyev ordered the evacuation of the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, much to the chagrin of Iranian officials.

A special plane was dispatched to repatriate 53 people – including diplomats and their families – which landed at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport the same evening. The flight also transported the body of the slain embassy security chief, who was accorded a state funeral in his home country.

Former Iranian envoy Pakaeen believes the decision to shut down the embassy was “uncustomary,” and that Azerbaijani officials should have avoided making “unfriendly and emotional” statements on the incident or taken a series of hostile measures “that could potentially damage bilateral relations”.

He hastens to add that Iran dealt with the case “patiently and cleverly,” pointing to top diplomat Amir-Abdollahian’s offer for Azerbaijan to join investigations into the shooting attack.

Hostile measures by Baku

But Baku’s escalation continued. A day after evacuating its embassy in Tehran, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry accused Iran of preventing the embassy attack “from being widely exposed at the international level.”

“Iran objected to the draft communiqués and statements submitted by Azerbaijan to the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) immediately after the attack,” the statement read.

It came hours after Azerbaijan’s defense minister Zakir Hasanov held a phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Galant, which raised hackles in Tehran.

On 1 February, Azerbaijani media reported on the arrest of 39 people for allegedly participating in “sabotage activities” and “propaganda in favour of Iran.” The arrests came less than three months after 19 people were detained, allegedly for “spying for Iran in Azerbaijan.”

The spree of arrests is being widely seen as part of the Baku government’s relentless drive to stamp out Iran’s influence in Shia-majority, secular Azerbaijan by falsely dubbing devout Shia Muslims as “Iranian agents.”

That announcement came a day after the country’s foreign ministry issued a travel advisory for Iran “in view of the unstable situation in Iran and the terrorist attack on the Azerbaijani embassy.”

“We recommend Azerbaijani citizens to refrain from travelling to Iran unless absolutely necessary, and to be extremely cautious if visited,” the statement warned. The ministry website also provided the address of Azerbaijan’s consulate in northern Tabriz city, implying that it remains functional.

President Aliyev, speaking to a delegation of Turkish lawmakers on 1 February, slammed Iran’s response to the shooting, saying: “Despite the fact that the terrorist act committed on our embassy took a significant amount of time, the police and Iranian security forces did not take any serious measures,” according to his website.

His remarks bore striking similarity to a statement by the country’s foreign ministry that “the recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign against our country in Iran led to such attack against our diplomatic mission,” ascribing political motives to the shooting.

Sections of the Azerbaijani media loudly echoed that narrative, with one pro-government media outlet quoting an analyst as saying that the “terrorist act was aimed at intimidating Azerbaijan” and “was coordinated with the Iranian authorities.”

The news about the shooting moved to global headlines, prompting many countries to issue statements of condemnation. Western countries largely adopted the Azerbaijani stance on the attack, while Russia and China aligned with Iran and urged restraint.

The US State Department described the attack as “unacceptable violence” and said “any attack against diplomats or diplomatic facilities anywhere is unacceptable.” The French government, in its statement, called on the Iranian authorities to “to shed light on this attack.”

Iran’s measured response

While President Raisi unequivocally stressed the importance of preserving “brotherly” ties with Azerbaijan, Iran’s parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, in a passionate appeal on 30 January, called on the Azerbaijani authorities “not to decide emotionally” after the embassy staff was evacuated.

Qalibaf said the incident was being probed “fairly and comprehensively,” while warning that “emotional decisions” is what “enemies and ill-wishers” want, in a specific reference to Israel.

Wahid Jalalzadeh, the chairman of Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, told local media the investigation must continue “until the result is achieved.”

“Diplomats of Azerbaijan are our guests in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and according to international treaties, we are responsible for their security, so this action is regrettable,” he said.

Speaking on the side-lines of a cabinet meeting in Tehran on 1 February, Iran’s government spokesman Ali Bahadori-Jahromi  revealed that “judicial and diplomatic measures” have been taken in response to Azerbaijan’s move to shutter its embassy in the Iranian capital.

He referred to a spate of attacks on Iran’s diplomatic missions in European countries in recent months amid deadly riots in Iran, including an armed attack on Iran’s ambassador in Denmark in October 2022, asking why “nobody raised questions” about those incidents.

“Iran’s response has been measured all through this episode, in line with diplomatic protocols, despite Azerbaijani officials politicizing an incident that clearly was fuelled by personal motives,” Caucasus political expert Amir-Hossein Bakhtiari tells The Cradle.

He cites “growing Israeli influence” in Baku as a key reason for its hostile measures against Iran, referring to Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s veiled warning to Azerbaijan on 3 October  that “if someone digs a hole for their brothers, they will be the first to fall into it.”

Lawmaker Abbaszadeh, who represents the north-western Iranian province of Ardebil that borders Azerbaijan, sounded optimistic, however, about relations between the two neighbouring countries.

He insists that Iran and Azerbaijan “share many religious and cultural commonalities” and that “bonds of friendship” between the two nations are strong enough to withstand pressures from inimical forces.

Strained neighborly relations

It is worth noting that Iran has repeatedly cautioned Azerbaijan against military cooperation with Tel Aviv, as it fears Israel might use Azerbaijani territory to launch destabilizing activities in the region, and specifically against Iran.

The two sides have formalized their trade and military partnership in recent years, with Baku recently announcing plans to open its embassy in Tel Aviv – a move that has clearly antagonized Iran.

Another issue that has emerged as bone of contention between Baku and Tehran is the Zangezur corridor project, which Iranian authorities fear could sever their land connection to Armenia and affect Iran’s newly-flourishing trade with the Eurasian Economic Union (EUAU) countries.

This single shoot-out at the Azerbaijan embassy in Tehran quickly transformed into a diplomatically significant incident that put the delicate relationship between Tehran and Baku to the test. But it also clearly showcased their very different reactions – one escalatory, the other deescalatory – that suggests Azerbaijan and Iran seek very different kinds of relationships from each other.

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