Baku Erbil flags

The Expansion of Baku-Erbil Relations and its Impact on Iran

During the Munich Security Conference in February, the President of the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, Nechervan Barzani, and the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, met with each other and emphasized expanding relations between their respective polities. Following this meeting, Aliyev officially invited Barzani to visit Baku, whilst Baku announced its intention to reopen its consulate in the Kurdistan Region in the near future.[1]

Baku, Erbil, and Iran

Iran’s respective relationships with Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region make Tehran’s concerns an important factor in the developing relationship between Baku and Erbil.

Warming relations between Baku and Erbil pose the important question of what effect this will have on Iran. As one of the key players in the Middle East, Iran’s position is important to consider for three reasons. First, despite all the changes in alliances and coalitions, Iran has for a long time been one of the nodes of conflict in the region. Following the Arab Spring, Iran took advantage of political vacuums and domestic disorder and increased its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The result of these measures was the expansion of “the Axis of Resistance”.
[2] Importantly, the dynamics of the region cannot be examined without considering the Iranian factor. Secondly, Iran is a multi-ethnic country that has a significant population of both Azeris and Kurds, making up around 16-24% and 7-10% of the population respectively.[3] Therefore, the dynamics between Baku and Erbil can also affect Iran’s internal politics to a certain extent. Finally, Iran’s respective relationships with Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region make Tehran’s concerns an important factor in the developing relationship between Baku and Erbil too.

Iran has had a tumultuous relationship with Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region in recent years. On the one hand, Tehran-Baku relations have worsened exponentially, especially after the second Karabakh war in October 2020.[4] Iran’s official policy in this conflict has been to support Azerbaijan and establish strategic relations with Armenia at the same time. However, Azerbaijan has repeatedly criticized Iran for allegedly sending weapons to Armenians.[5] In return, Iran has accused Azerbaijan of inciting separatist sentiments among its Turkic-speaking ethnic Azerbaijani population. The fast-growing relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel during the Second Karabakh War and in its aftermath has raised tensions between Tehran and Baku further.[6] Additionally, Azerbaijan’s attempt to open the “Zangezur corridor” by force has been another factor concerning Iran.[7] Azerbaijan, with the backing of Turkey, hopes to gain land access to its Nakhchivan exclave via Armenian territories in the corridor. Tehran believes that the corridor would reduce Iran’s geopolitical role in the field of energy and exports to Europe as well as threaten Iran’s security through the strengthening of pan-Turkism along a contiguous route.[8] After the announcement of Iran’s opposition to the plan, tensions spread between Tehran and Baku, reaching their peak in January, after an armed person attacked the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. Baku subsequently closed its embassy.[9]

As it stands, the Baku-Erbil axis cannot create a sustainable challenge for Iran independently.

On the other hand, Tehran-Erbil relations have been consistently tense in recent years. Iran’s policies towards the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been influenced by two strategic concerns. First, preventing the spread of pan-Kurdish nationalism among Iranian Kurds, and second, convincing the KRG to curtail the activities of armed Iranian Kurdish groups such as the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), Komeleh, and the Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iraqi Kurdistan.[10] In 2017, Iran attempted to persuade Iraqi Kurdish authorities not to hold an independence referendum for the region out of fear that it would inspire Iranian Kurds to follow suit and seek autonomy in Iran.[11] The referendum was nonetheless held and in response, Tehran refused to acknowledge its legitimacy, conducted military exercises near the Kurdish border, and shut down its air border with Iraqi Kurdistan.[12] After several conflicts between Iranian forces and Kurdish armed separatist groups, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked their headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan with missiles and drones in 2018.[13] This was followed by a second, more serious attack, in November 2022.[14] Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, condemned Iran’s attacks as a violation of sovereignty.[15]

The expansion of relations between Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region is bad news for Iran. As it stands, the Baku-Erbil axis cannot create a sustainable challenge for Iran independently. However, the addition of a third player could activate this potential. That player is Israel, Iran’s most important regional enemy.

Baku, Erbil, and Israel

The ties between Azerbaijan, the Kurdistan Region, and Israel have strengthened in recent years. These ties are historically based upon cooperation in the energy and military-security fields. Israel has supplied Azerbaijan with weapons and, in return, received imported oil. According to reports, around half of Israel’s oil supply is still supplied by Azerbaijan, and almost 70% of Azerbaijan’s weapons are produced in Israel.[16] The provision of weapons and training programs run by Israel have played an important role in Azerbaijan’s military modernization and were a seminal factor in their victory in the Second Karabakh War. As Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov announced, “the skillful use of high-tech and high precision weapons by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces—including unmanned aerial vehicles made in Israel—played an exceptional role in Azerbaijan’s victory.” [17] The announcement of the reopening of the Azerbaijani embassy in Israel indicates the beginning of a new era in the relations between the two countries.[18]

Similarly, energy and military-security cooperation have also played an important role in the development of relations between Israel and the Kurdistan Region. Although bilateral relations began with the Second Iraqi–Kurdish War in the 1970s, ties were expanded significantly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to a report published by the Guardian in 2005, the Kurdish Peshmerga were trained by Israeli covert forces in Iraqi Kurdistan.[19] The sale of the Kurdistan region’s oil to Israel also started at this time. According to some reports, in December 2022, the Kurdistan region sold 38% of its oil to Israel.[20] Relations expanded further after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his support for the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum.[21] The Kurds supported the Abraham Accords and even hosted a meeting in the Kurdistan Region in order to review the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries.[22] The demand for “coordination and integration in the Abraham Accords and normalization of relations with Israel” in the final statement of this meeting shows the Kurds’ desire to maintain close ties with Israel.[23]

The Israel-led axis and the challenges posed to Iran

The Israel-Azerbaijan-Baku relationship primarily indicates the expansion of Israel's strategic influence and the establishment of a balancing axis against Iran.

The expansion of relations between Azerbaijan, the Kurdistan Region, and Israel has caught Iran’s attention. Iran believes that with the expansion of Israel’s influence, Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region have become proxy bases, publicly referring to the states as a “second Israel”. This term was first used by Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on international affairs, referring to the Kurdistan Region during its independence referendum. At that time, Velayati called Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG a “puppet of Zionists”.
[24] He stressed that Iran and its allies would not allow Barzani to create a “second Israel” in Iraq.[25] After the 2022 unrest in Iran and the activities of separatist Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian media once again referred to the KRG as the second Israel of the region.[26] But this term is not exclusive to the KRG. After the expansion of relations between Azerbaijan and Israel over the past two years, Iranian media also referred to Azerbaijan with the same descriptor.[27]

The Israel-Azerbaijan-Baku relationship primarily indicates the expansion of Israel’s strategic influence and the establishment of a balancing axis against Iran. Iran had already brought the front line of a possible war with Israel to the Mediterranean as Tehran has endeavored to turn Lebanon and the Gaza Strip into defense embankments against Israel by propping up Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement alongside Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iran’s ties with these groups began in the 1980s, but after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian National Authority after winning the parliamentary elections in the same year, the relations between the parties became strategic. Iran provided financial and military support to its allies and these two groups became part of Iran’s deterrence strategy against Israel.[28] The formation of an Israeli-led axis can be seen as a reaction to Tehran’s actions.

The South Caucasus could become the next arena for a full-scale proxy war between adversaries in the Middle East.

The axis can increase the capabilities of the Jewish state and give a new dimension to Israel’s “death by a thousand cuts” strategy against Iran. Due to the geographical proximity of the Baku-Erbil axis to Iran, this strategy could be intensified, extending Mossad’s turf in covert operations, including targeted assassinations, sabotage, explosives, and cyber operations to weaken Iran’s nuclear and military program, or to fuel ethnic separatism in the country. Although Mossad has already conducted several secret operations in Iran from these areas in the last few years[29], the expansion of relations between Baku and Erbil can facilitate the emergence of trilateral intelligence and operational coordination to carry out further operations.

The conditions have made it necessary for Tehran to shift its policy against the Baku-Erbil axis and minimize threats. In a situation where de-escalation with Arab neighbors has already been on the agenda of the Ebrahim Raisi government for some time, improving relations with Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region could come next. However, this option—at least as far as Azerbaijan is concerned—could be eliminated if tensions in the Zangezur corridor flare up again. In this case, Tehran is expected to use a range of deterrent measures, including arming Armenia, conducting its own missile and drone attacks, or even carrying out a limited military operation in the Syunik province of Armenia, to prevent changes in the geopolitical balance. While the latter scenario remains unlikely, the opening of the Iranian consulate in Kapan, the provincial capital of Syunik Province, and the exercise of the armored units of the IRGC crossing the movable bridge installed on the Aras River between Iran and Azerbaijan send a clear message to Baku. The South Caucasus could become the next arena for a full-scale proxy war between adversaries in the Middle East.

[1] Official web-site of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan (2023), Ilham Aliyev met with head of Kurdistan Region of Iraq in Munich, February 18, 2023.; (2023), Azerbaijan plans to open a consulate general in Erbil, February 20, 2023.
[2] Azizi, H. , Golmohammadi, V. & Vazirian, A. (2020),Trump’s “maximum pressure” and anti-containment in Iran’s regional policy, Digest of Middle East Studies, Vol. 29 (2). Pp.155-160.
[3] Library of Congress (2008), Iran: a country study, Washington DC,  p. 26; Ariav, H. (2019),The Time of the Kurds, Council on Foreign Relations, Oct10, 2019,!/?cid=soc-at-the_time_of_the_kurds-infoguide
[4] Rzayev, A. & Mammadov, M. (2023), From the streets to the border: Iran’s growing paranoia toward Azerbaijan, Middle East Institute, January 26, 2023.
[5] Isayev, H. (2023), Further strain in Azerbaijan-Iran relations, Eurasianet, Marh 15, 2023.
[6] Motamedi, M. (2023), Will Azerbaijan-Iran tensions lead to war?, Al Jazeera, Apr 8, 2023.
[7] Khamenei, A. (2022), Statements at the meeting of the President of Türkiye, Office for Preserving and Disseminating the Works of the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, July 19, 2022.
[8] Salami. M. (2023), Conflict in the South Caucasus and its effects on Iran, Trends Research & Advisory, Feb 8, 2023.
[9] Agayev, Z (2023), Azerbaijan closes embassy in Iran amid tensions over gun attack, Bloomberg, January 29, 2023.
[10] Entessar, N. (2018), Uneasy neighbors: Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 41(2), pp. 73-77.
[11] Sharafedin, B. (2017), Iran vows to stand with Baghdad, Ankara against Iraqi Kurds’ independence push, Reuters, Sep 26, 2017.
[12] Majidyar, A. (2017), Iran rejects Kurdish vote, threatens to punish Erbil over “Israeli Project”, Middle East Institute, September 27, 2017.
[13] Reuters (2018), Iran attacks Iranian Kurdish opposition group base in Iraq, Sep 8, 2018.
[14] Reuters (2022), Iran’s Revolutionary Guards hit Kurdish Iranian group in Iraqi Kurdistan, November 22, 2022. 
[15] Barzani, M (2022), Missile attacks are an attack on the sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region, Middle East News, November 14, 2022.
[16] Sassounian, H. (2023), Israel’s massive supply of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan, The Armenian Weekly, March 8, 2023.
[17] Shaffer, B. (2022), Israel’s role in the second Armenia-Azerbaijan war and its implications for the future, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, September 9, 2022.
[18] Arnaout, A. (2023), Israel welcomes Azerbaijan’s decision to open embassy in Tel Aviv, Anadolu Agency, March 29, 2023.  
[19] The Guardian (2005), Former covert Israeli forces ‘training Kurds in Iraq’, Dec 2, 2005.
[20] Draw media (2023), Last month, 38 percent of the Kurdistan Region’s oil was sold to Israel, January 5, 2023.
[21] Heller, J. (2017), Israel endorses independent Kurdish state, Reuters, Sep 13, 2017.
[22] Boxerman, A.& Berman, L. (2021), Hundreds of Iraqi notables call to join Abraham Accords, make peace with Israel, The Times of Israel, Sep 25, 2021.
[23] Euronews Persian (2021), Participants in a conference in the Kurdistan region of Iraq called for normalization of relations with Israel, September 25, 2021.
[24] Mehr News Agency (2017), Velayati stated in a meeting with the Syrian ambassador: Warning to increase US presence in eastern Syria/The goal is to create a second Israel, October 10, 2017.
[25] Ibid
[26] Vatan-e-Emrooz Newspaper (2022), Kurdistan Region: Israel’s second region, November 28, 2022.
[27] Iranian Students’ News Agency (2022), Zionist regime considers Baku as second home, December 7, 2022.; Iranian Students’ News Agency (2023), Aliyev has turned Baku into Israel’s branch on the Iranian border, February 23, 2023.
[28] Azizi &, Ibid.
[29] Middle East Eye, How Israel is using Iraq’s Kurdistan as a launchpad to attack Iran, March 21, 2022;

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