- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran’s fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country’s south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.
On Tuesday, Iran’s Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 — “The most frustrating chapter in the history class!” Fars laments — when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means “the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century.”
For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to “bring it” — diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.
While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here’s the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:
Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era
Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, “MP wants to ‘annex Azeri territory to Iran.'”
On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as “Southern Azerbaijan.” And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country’s name to “Northern Azerbaijan,” implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, “Baku has grown both considerably richer — thanks to revenues from energy exports — and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy.”
This boldness — which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border — has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don’t be surprised if we see this headline crop up again … and again and again.