The storming of Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, Iran's capital, by a gunman, is the latest attack on the country's diplomatic missions abroad. Previously the Azerbaijani missions and staff were targeted in London, Paris, Beirut, Washington DC, and Cairo for various political reasons.
On January 27, a gunman killed the security chief and wounded two other guards in the embassy. Azerbaijan accused Iran of failing to meet its “obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to ensure the security of the embassy and safety of its employees,” in a statement issued by Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry. Official Baku also said Iran failed to take warnings into account:
Previously, there have been attempts to threaten our diplomatic mission in Iran, and it was constantly raised before Iran to take measures to prevent such cases, and to ensure the safety of our diplomatic missions. Unfortunately, the last bloody terror attack demonstrates the serious consequences of not showing proper sensitivity to our urgent appeals in this direction.
President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, condemned the attack and called for a swift investigation in a tweet:
— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) January 27, 2023
On January 29, the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry said it was going to evacuate the staff and their families following the attack. According to Turan News Agency reporting, speaking to the journalists at the airport in Baku shortly after the diplomatic staff landed, Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov said a team of five people remained at the embassy in Tehran carrying out technical work, and who are not diplomats. Khalafov reiterated Azrebaijan's repeated calls to provide safety and security to its diplomatic mission, which the Iranian state failed to do, as the latest attack illustrates.
In a phone conversation between President Ilham Aliyev and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, the latter offered his condolences adding the investigation was ongoing. He also assured Aliyev the attack won't influence the relations between the two countries. Iran's Foreign Minister Amir Abdullahian offered to launch a joint investigation with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov.
Meanwhile, the attacker, identified as a man named Yasin Hosseinzadeh, told Iran media the storming of the embassy was on personal grounds alleging “he stormed the embassy to ‘rescue’ his wife, whom he said had disappeared after entering the embassy close to a year earlier,” reported Al Jazeera.
Echoing this scenario, Tehran police chief Brigadier-General Hossein Rahimi told local media in Iran, the man entered the building of the embassy with his two children; however, footage circulating online shows no children in sight, with Hosseinzadeh storming the building holding an automatic Kalashnikov rifle. Official Baku said the attack was part of an ongoing “anti-Azerbaijan campaign.” Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov called Iran's initial version of the attack “absurd,” reiterating the demands that Iran conducts an objective investigation, punishing those responsible.
Additional CCTV footage showed other men who arrived at the scene after Hosseinzadeh entered the embassy, indicating that Hosseinzadeh was not acting alone. The footage revealed one man opening fire at the embassy doors and using a sledgehammer to break the locks. Another man attempted to set an embassy car on fire but failed. In other footage, it is clear that the Iranian police officer outside the embassy did nothing as the gunman rushed into the embassy building after crashing his car into an embassy car.
Simmering international tensions
The tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been simmering for a while, with both countries saber-rattling and exchanging hostile rhetoric. Iran and Azerbaijan are divided by a 700-kilometer border. Parts of this territory and the entry roads were long under Armenia's control, following the first Karabakh war that ended with the 1994 ceasefire. In 2020, after the 44-day second Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan regained control over large swathes of this territory, including entry roads and land on the Iranian border. Azerbaijan also resented perceptions that Tehran backed Armenia during the recent conflict.
Despite this, the relations were somewhat normal until Azerbaijan decided in September 2021 to impose a road tax on Iranian trucks using roadways that are now under the control of Azerbaijan. When Armenia controlled those roads, vehicles could pass freely without having to pay any tax. There is also the issue of ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran, who make up the largest non-Persian minority in Iran.
During the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, ethnic Azerbaijanis organized protests in support of the war in several cities in Iran. In addition, Iran views Azerbaijan as Israel's proxy. Both countries share a military alliance, and Azerbaijan has received Israeli military and surveillance equipment. over the years of this partnership. During the 2020 war, Israel also supported Azerbaijan with weapons supplies.
In an interview with Turan News Agency, political commentator Elhan Shahinoglu agreed with official Baku that the attack was part of an ongoing anti-Azerbaijan narrative in Iran:
Monthly, weekly, daily anti-Azerbaijani statements were made. And this only increased the anti-Azerbaijani hysteria in the conservative and religious circles of Iran. They threatened Azerbaijan, stating that ‘attempts to change the current borders in the region would cross red lines’ and that ‘Iran will not allow the creation of the Zangezur corridor,’ and openly opposed the improvement of Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel. And now this incident.
According to reporting by Eurasianet, much of the tension is rooted in Tehran's anxiety over the Zangezur corridor, which is what Baku calls the route to Nakhchivan — Azerbaijan’s remote enclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. The route — albeit not mentioned by its name — was part of a ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the 44-day war the two countries fought in 2020. The agreement read:
The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections. Subject to agreement between the Parties, the construction of new transport communications to link the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan will be ensured.
Iran is worried the new route “could cut off Iran's access to Armenia and destinations further north. It is even more worried about Azerbaijan's strong and growing friendship with Tehran's archrival, Israel, in particular the prospect of an Israeli presence on its northern border,” reported Eurasianet.
In a recent interview with the local media, President Ilham Aliyev described the route as “a strategic project”:
True, there is no word ‘Zangezur corridor’ in it because I included the term ‘Zangezur corridor’ in the geopolitical lexicon afterwards. However, it is explicitly stated there that there should be a transport connection between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and Armenia should provide it.
Meanwhile, some activists have called on the government of Azerbaijan to take Iran's diplomatic staff stationed in Baku, hostage. One such person, Javid Qara, describing himself as an eco-activist, wrote on his Facebook, “My proposal to take Iran's embassy staff as temporary hostages is still valid. If you cannot do that, then set a deadline for them to leave the country.” Residents of Baku interviewed by HamamTimes, an Azerbaijani online media platform, agree the attack was terrorist in nature and should be considered an attack against Azerbaijan. On January 31, the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan put out a travel warning, calling for the citizens of Azerbaijan to refrain from traveling to Iran following the attack on its embassy in Tehran and citing the instability in Iran.