Iranian President’s Sudden Death Won’t Impact Tehran’s Relations With Azerbaijan – OpEd


By Eldar Mamedov

(Eurasianet) — Near the end of his fateful meeting with Ebrahim Raisi at the Iranian-Azerbaijani border, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, touted the strength of the bilateral relationship.

“There will be many more meetings in the future,” Aliyev said, referring to his discussions with Raisi. “Iran-Azerbaijan unity and friendship is unshakable. No one can drive a wedge between us.”

There was no way that Aliyev could have known at the time that the Iranian president would be dead in a matter of hours, killed, along with others, including Iran’s foreign minister, when the helicopter they departed in crashed into a mountain not far from the meeting site. Raisi’s untimely death, however, will have little impact on the course of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations, or on Tehran’s general geopolitical approach in the South Caucasus.

The Raisi-Aliyev meeting highlighted Tehran’s and Baku’s mutual interest in improving bilateral ties. At the same time, it revealed roadblocks that continue to act as an irritant, specifically Azerbaijan’s strong strategic connection to Israel.

The two presidents traveled to the border area ostensibly to inaugurate a hydropower facility on the Araz River, which forms the frontier between the two countries. The facility, dubbed Giz Galasi, is the first of several such projects to start operating on the river with the dual aim of generating electricity for both countries, and facilitating irrigation for agriculture. “Such a beautiful project will increase the welfare and employment of our people and therefore will be the next step towards success,” Aliyev said in a speech at the May 19 ceremony. “I am sure that there will be many similar joint projects in the future.” 

Aliyev outlined big plans for the areas just north of the ArazRiver, saying that they would become key components of a “green energy” zone that includes two 280-megawatt hydropower plants. The power generated by wind, water and sun in Azerbaijan’s green zone will “benefit the entire region,” Aliyev announced.

As Aliyev repeatedly underscored in his speech, trade and economics are the drivers of the expansion of bilateral Iranian-Azerbaijani ties. Iran features prominently in Baku’s plans to serve as a key trade hub for both East-West and North-South trade. 

The May 19 meeting was a significant moment for Iran and Azerbaijan, a time when both countries signaled that they had moved past the not-so-subtle rancor that had marked bilateral relations in recent years and cemented a new pragmatism in place.

The Araz River ceremony capped months of work to finalize a variety of projects relating to power generation and connectivity, and, more broadly, to reset relations. Iran viewed Azerbaijan’s reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh from 2020-23 as detrimental to its interests, given Baku’s close relationships with both Israel and Turkey. Ultimately, it appears policymakers in Tehran opted to set aside their concerns and pursue a closer relationship with Baku. While Raisi’s death may cause a behind-the-scenes succession struggle in Tehran that could have unsettling side effects in other areas, it is not expected to cause any significant change in Iran’s pragmatic approach towards Baku.

The Raisi-Aliyev meeting may have showcased mutual pragmatism, but it also provided important clues that the fundamental nature of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. Aliyev’s remarks on May 19 provided no indication that Azerbaijan is willing to downgrade its ties with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel.

In his speech at the ArazRiver ceremony, Raisi hinted at Tehran’s lingering vexation over Baku’s ties to Israel, making what can be seen as an aspirational plea for Azerbaijan to rethink the relationship.

“We would very much like to deepen cooperation in international organizations and show solidarity on some special issues, including the issue of Palestine,” Azerbaijan’s presidential website quoted Raisi as saying. “We, the people of Azerbaijan and Iran, do not hesitate in supporting the Palestinian people and the people of Gaza.”

Saeed Azimi, an observer of Iranian affairs, hinted that Raisi’s comment on Gaza could also be seen as indirect criticism of Aliyev’s close relations with Israel. The depth of Iran’s concerns over Azerbaijani-Israeli ties was also seen in comments by a prominent conservative commentator, Foad Izadi, who suggested that possible Israeli foul play should not be dismissed in the helicopter crash.

Azerbaijan appears zealously determined to preserve its strategic autonomy, taking advantage of the fact that the country is seen as a lynchpin in all sorts of trade and energy networks involving the big global and regional players: the United States, European Union, China, Russia and Iran. Such a fortuitous geopolitical position gives Azerbaijan the flexibility to resist pressure exerted by any one state. Baku is willing to buck even its closest ally, Turkey, on occasion. Azerbaijan so far has resisted joining a Turkish trade embargo on Israel over the ongoing fighting in Gaza. Azeri oil bound for Israel continues to ship out of Turkish ports, according to media reports.

It seems Iran is willing to tolerate Azerbaijan’s determination to act as a geopolitical wildcard in order to achieve its goal of developing the North-South trade corridor as an economic lifeline.

  • Eldar Mamedov is a Brussels-based foreign policy expert


Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at

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