||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (March 2008)|
Azerbaijan–Iran relations are foreign relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. Iran has an embassy in Baku and a consulate-general in Nakhchivan City. Azerbaijan has an embassy in Tehran and a consulate-general in Tabriz. Both countries are full members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
For almost all of her history, the territory of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan was a part of the various Iranian/Persian empires or Persianate empires, specifically during the reign of dynasties such as Median, Achaemenid, Parthians, Sassanid, various dynasties of the Iranian Intermezzo, the Kara Koyunlu, the Ak Koyunlu, the Safavids, the Afsharids, and the Qajars. The South Caucasus, in general, has been influenced by Iranian culture for thousands of years. In the 19th century, following the occupation of the Caucasus by Russian troops during the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), Persia was forced to cede what is now Azerbaijan, alongside Georgia, Dagestan, and Armenia to Imperial Russia under the terms of the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay. Due to historical, cultural, ethnical, and religious ties, the Republic of Azerbaijan is considered as a part of Greater Iran.
According to Pierre Thorez: "Although throughout history the Caucasus has usually been incorporated in political entities belonging to the Iranian world, at the beginning of the 19th century Russia took it, along with the Transcaucasus, from the Qajars (1133–1342/1779–1924), severing those historical ties. Since the establishment of Soviet power on Caucasian territory, relations with Persia have been reduced to an insignificant level.". According to Tadeusz Swietochowski, the territories of Iran and the republic of Azerbaijan usually shared the same history from the time of ancient Media (ninth to seventh centuries b.c.) and the Persian Empire (sixth to fourth centuries b.c.).
During an official visit to Baku in October 2012, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described his country’s relations with Azerbaijan as “brotherly and very deep,” pointing to the countries’ shared ethnic and religious heritage. A very large amount of ethnic Azerbaijani's populate the northwest region of Iran and are nowadays called native to the region, which is also called Azerbaijan, and both countries are majority Shia. Representing two of only four Shia majority countries in the world, Azerbaijan and Iran share religious ties and a common border. More ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Iran (approximately 15-20 million) than in the Republic of Azerbaijan itself (approximately nine million). Even though Azerbaijan and Iran share strong historical and cultural connections, the countries are not natural allies. According to Alex Vatanka at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., “Ahmadinejad’s statement blatantly misrepresented the current state of affairs; today, it is not historical affinity but rather intense suspicion and rivalry that shape ties between Baku and Tehran. The same month Ahmadinejad made the statement, a court in Baku gave lengthy prison sentences to 22 Azerbaijanis charged with spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and plotting to carry out attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in Azerbaijan.”
Relations from 1918–1920
The Republic of Azerbaijan was initially founded in 1918 as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. With the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, the Musavat Party met in Tbilisi on May 28, 1918 and proclaimed independence of their country with the name Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The decision to use the name Azerbaijan, drew some protests from Iran. According to Tadeusz Swietochowski:
|“||Although the proclamation restricted its claim to the territory north of the Araxes, the use of the name Azerbaijan would soon bring objections from Iran. In Tehran, suspicions were aroused that the Republic of Azerbaijan served as an Ottoman device for detaching the Tabriz province from Iran. Likewise, the national revolutionary Jangali movement in Gilan, while welcoming the independence of every Muslim land as a "source of joy," asked in its newspaper if the choice of the name Azerbaijan implied the new republic's desire to join Iran. If so, they said, it should be stated clearly, otherwise Iranians would be opposed to calling that republic Azerbaijan. Consequently, to allay Iranian fears, the Azerbaijani government would accommodatingly use the term Caucasian Azerbaijan in its documents for circulation abroad.||”|
In 1919, Qajar Iran and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic did have some exchanges at governmental level. On 16 July 1919, the Council of Ministers [of ADR] appointed Adil Khan Ziatkhan, who had up to that time served as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, diplomatic representative of the republic of Azerbaijan to the court of the Persian King of Kings. A Persian delegation headed by Seyyed Zia'eddin Tabatabaee came to Baku, to negotiate transit, tariff, mail, customs, and other such agreements. Speeches were made in which the common bonds between Caucasian Azerbaijan and Iran were stressed.
In 1920, the Bolshevik 11th Red Army conquered the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became Azerbaijan SSR. In 1922, Azerbaijan SSR was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and from that point till 1991, the relations between Iran and Azerbaijan continued in the context of the Soviet-Iranian relations. However after World War II, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs could issue limited visas for travel to Iran only and Iran also maintained a consulate in Baku.
Relations from 1991 to present
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Current Strategic Context
Iran was one of the first countries to establish full diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan. Following the declaration of the Parliament of Azerbaijan to restore independence of Azerbaijan Republic on October 18, 1991 and in early December 1991, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Baku, where he signed a number of agreements on political, economic, and cultural cooperation and pledged to support Azerbaijan's membership in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). Within the few days after the visit, Iran recognized Azerbaijan on January 4, 1992, upgraded its consulate in Baku to establish full diplomatic relations.
Tehran was quick to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent state and set out to create amicable relations with a country similar to its own. Iran saw Azerbaijan as fertile ground for spreading its Islamic Revolution further. Azerbaijan was skeptical of Iran’s theocratic government and looked instead to Turkey as a strategic partner. “Iran’s initial euphoria at the prospect of a new Shia state quickly turned into dread, as Baku expressed irredentist sentiments and promoted the idea of a ‘Greater Azerbaijan,’ which would unite Azerbaijan (the country) and Azerbaijan (the region in northwest Iran). Fearing Baku’s intentions to fuel secessionism inside its borders, Iran provided vital backing to Armenia in its war against Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which dragged on from 1988 to 1994 and ended in an inconclusive cease-fire.” Iran’s siding with Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War has not been forgotten in Azerbaijan, and Tehran’s support of Armenia—especially in light of Azerbaijan’s recent growth in power projection—has not abated.
Azerbaijan’s power is growing primarily because of the influx of oil and gas revenues emanating from the Caspian Sea. Recognizing this, Iran has sought to reengage its northern neighbor and nudge Baku to reconsider its foreign relations—principally its close ties with Israel—because nowhere in the region does Iran see a more unambiguous Israeli footprint than it does in Azerbaijan. “Israel and Azerbaijan share the common goal of containing Iranian influence. In this joint front, Azerbaijan provides proximity to Iran—with much ion about Azerbaijani soil being used as a staging ground for Israeli military operations—while Israel possesses superior weapons technologies and other resources.” In February 2012, Azerbaijan signed a $1.6 billion defense deal with Israel that included air defense systems, intelligence hardware, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Azerbaijan is aware that its overtures and agreements with Israel anger Iran, but its response is that Iran's strong ties with Armenia anger Azerbaijan. “When Tehran has appealed to Azerbaijan’s Islamic identity, the Azerbaijanis quickly point out that Tehran’s relations with Armenia have been trouble-free compared with its ties with its Muslim neighbors."
After the rise of Popular Front of Azerbaijan to power in June 1992, the newly elected President Abulfaz Elchibey endorsed the unification of the Azerbaijani populations of his country and Iranian Azerbaijan, and to that end, autonomy for the Iranian Azerbaijanis, a stance which alienated the Iranian government.
According to Svante Cornell:
|“||As the leader of Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF), the historian Abulfazl Elchibey, an ultra-nationlist pan Turk, came to power in June 1992, Azerbaijan turned increasingly towards Turkey. Indeed, Elchibey was decidedly Pro-Turkish, secularly oriented, pan-Azeri and vehemently anti-Iranian. This meant that Tehran had exactly the kind of government in Baku that it did not wish to have. President Elchibey did not show any diplomatic tact either. On several occasions, he blasted Iran as a doomed state and predicted that within five years, Azerbaijan would be reunited. It remains clear that during the Elchibey's rule, Iran drifted towards close contacts with Armenia.||”|
|“||Allegations of Iranian involvement have also been voiced by Azerbaijan, especially concerning the coup d'etat that overthrew Elchibey in the summer of 1993. Azeri conspiracy theorists even see a joint Russo-Iranian action behind that coup. Although no credible evidence has been presented to prove such allegations, it remains clear that during Elchibey's rule, Iran drifted towards close contacts with Armenia. Also, it must be noted that whereas Iran sought closer relations with all newly independent states, Armenia was one of the few to welcome such relations, whereas Central Asian republics showed little interest. However, Iran's support for Armenia fell short of any military involvement of the Russian type. Rather, Iran supplied Armenia with necessary goods and energy, hence counteracting the Turco-Azeri embargo on the country which actually considerably weakened Azerbaijan 's main bargaining chip against Armenia. Iran is today Armenia's largest trading partner. The Azeris also suspect Iran of involvement in support of radical Islamic political movements in Azerbaijan, as well as of encouraging ethnic unrest among Azerbaijan's Talysh minority; which lives near the Iranian border. Thus the curious legacy of the Elchibey era: an Islamic state, Iran, ended up supporting Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan.||”|
He also states:
|“||Religious and ethnic Azerbaijani forces advocated support to the brethren in Azerbaijan against the Armenian infidel. Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment saw the weakening of the republic of Azerbaijan as concomitant to Iranian national interest, and therefore pursued a policy of tacit support for Armenia in the conflict. Whereas Iranian vacillation and hesitation in the first years of the 1990s can be ascribed to these internal divisions, the general direction of Tehran’s policy soon became clear. With the exception of instances where it became necessary to restore a balance by preventing Armenia from turning the region into chaos (since too much suffering and chaos in Azerbaijan would risk arousing Iranian public opinion) Tehran used the conflict to pressure Baku. Iran served as Armenia’s main purveyor of electricity and goods, and after the Armenian conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, Iranian trucks have been supplying most of the secessionist enclave’s needs. The decisive factor tilting Tehran towards Yerevan was nevertheless the policies of the Popular Front government in Baku...Led by President Abulfaz Elcibey the Popular Front government gradually developed a vehemently anti-Russian and anti-Iranian policy.||”|
Ironically, Elchibey was against the breakup of his own nation based on ethnic lines, stating "Armenians have been living in Azerbaijan for centuries, and as full citizens of the state - just like the Lezgins, Tats, and Talyish...let them continue to live here as equal citizens before the law - but they must obey the laws of the state, no country would demand any less. He also denounced Iran's peace efforts during the Nargorno-Karabakh conflict, claiming Iran was attempting to give Armenia the advantage. However, during Nagorno-Karabakh War, Iran pressured Armenia and Karabakh Armenians to halt the offensive. Veiled threats first appeared in the English-language Kayhan International:
|“||If our peace and border security is going to be threatened... our leaders cannot afford to let the situation take care of itself||”|
This statement was followed by official warnings from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, accompanied by military reinforcements along Iran's borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Iran also gave financial aid to Nakhchivan and pressured Armenia to refrain from attacking the enclave.
In 1992, Elchibey, during a visit to Turkey, described himself as a soldier of Ataturk and called for the downfall of Iran, which prompted a member of the Iranian parliament to threaten retaliation.
Since then however, the two nations have had relatively good relations, although tensions have sometimes been high, cooperating in many different areas including trade, security, and the energy sector. However, some tensions include the growing relationship between the United States, Israel, and Azerbaijan, Caspian Sea territorial issues, and Iran's support for Armenia. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan had said that he did not support a United States attack against Iran. Novruz Mamedov, Azerbaijani presidential international affairs department head in 2005, has also said that Azerbaijan would not allow the United States to build bases within Azerbaijani territory and would not help in an attack against Iran.
There were incidents involving of the use of force or its demonstration on the part of Iranian military forces. On July 23, 2001, an Iranian warship and two jets forced a research vessel working on behalf of British Petroleum (BP)-Amoco in the Araz-Alov-Sharg field in sector of the Caspian Sea which is claimed by Iran. On February 22, 2007 Azerbaijani media outlets reported that Iranian helicopters had violated the air space of Azerbaijan by flying over the southern town of Astara for over 20 minutes. Reportedly, the flight took place right over the city administration building and caused considerable panic among the local residents. But for the most part Azerbaijan and Iran avoided any serious military clashes. In May 2005 Baku and Tehran signed a non-aggression pact barring third countries from using their territories for offensive operations against each other.
In March 2006, during the World Congress of Azerbaijanis convention in Baku, a number of participants addressed both the concept of a "unified Azerbaijan" and "human rights abuses" against Azeris in Iran. A diplomatic controversy erupted when Iran's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Suleymani, an Azeri himself, expressed indignation concerning the views of some speakers who advocated the union of "southern" and "northern" Azerbaijan. Certain anti-Iran claims during an official seminar in Baku were harmful to relations between the two countries and were especially against the interests of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
According to Karl Rahder, "Most analysts agree that the Iranian government has attempted to infiltrate Azerbaijan with agents and fifth column sleeper cells to weaken Azerbaijan from within for many years." Opposite views stress on Azerbaijan’s territorial claims over Iran
President Ilham Aliyev's attitude of calling Iranian Azeri's as "Azerbaijanis who live in Iran" has angered some in the Iranian Azeri community. The last time that a minister of the Azerbaijan republic referred to Iranian Azeri's in that manner, the representative of Ardabil province in the Iranian parliament protested.
On December 20, 2005 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the opening ceremony of a new gas pipeline from Iran to Azerbaijan's landlocked Nakhchivan Autonomous Region, which is separated from the mainland of Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory. Nakhchivan has been cut off from gas supplies as a result of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Under a 25-year swap contract signed between the two countries in August 2004, the new pipeline will supply the region with Iranian natural gas. Azerbaijan will also deliver its gas to Iran's northeastern provinces. The volume of gas imports to Nakhchivan is expected to reach 250 million cubic meters in 2006 and 350 million cubic meters in 2007.
On February 3, 2007 Azerbaijan’s minister of communications and information technology, Ali Abbasov, and the head of the Iranian State Broadcasting Agency, Ezzatollah Zarghami, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on bilateral media cooperation. Previously, Azerbaijan urged Iran to cease its "broadcasting and unauthorized transmission of Iranian Sahar-2 television into Azerbaijan" and "criticized the Azeri-language broadcasts beamed into southern Azerbaijan for containing "anti-Azerbaijani propaganda" aimed at destabilizing the southern regions of the country, and faulted the Iranian government for "interference in Azerbaijan's internal affairs. Iranian officials have claimed that the broadcasts are beyond their control, as Sahar-2 is a privately owned station and merely expresses "its own position" in its programs"
On March 19, 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran joined President Robert Kocharyan of Armenia to inaugurate a gas pipeline to pump Iranian natural gas to Armenia. Armenia is Azerbaijan's arch-foe. Likewise, in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy analysis, analysts Soner Cagaptay and Alexander Murinson alluded to reports that Israeli intelligence maintains listening posts along the Azerbaijani border with Iran.
In October 2007, according Human Rights Watch, an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down to Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of Azerbaijan’s two largest independent newspapers, for terrorism and other charges. The terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred charges derive from an article Fatullayev wrote in Realni Azerbaijan, in which he argued that the government’s support of the United States’ position on Iran makes Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack from Iran, and he speculated on likely targets of such an attack.
In December 2007, Court consideration on the cases of Novruzeli Mammadov, Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences Linguistics department chief, editor-in-chief of Tolishi sado newspaper and linguist Elman Guliyev, official of was started in the Court of Grave Crimes. The two were accused of receiving 1000 US dollars from Talish organizations in Iran after their newspaper published articles showing well known Persian poet Nizami and Iranian historical hero Babak Khoramdin as Talysh. Also in another incident in December 2007, the Court for Grave Crimes on sentenced 15 members of so-called Said group and its alleged leader, Said Dadashbeyli to lengthy prison sentences convicting them of treason and passing information on Israeli, U.S., and British activities in Azerbaijan Republic to Iranian intelligence. Iranian government summoned the Azeri ambassador to Tehran in protest to the claims and called them "baseless" accusations.
Azerbaijan's reel of Eurovision Song Contest 2009 depicted the Maqbaratoshoara, a famous monument and a symbol of the Iranian city of Tabriz and the northwestern region of Iran, shown among Azerbaijani national monuments. This has been perceived by many Iranians as a violation of Iranian territorial integrity and as an evidence that Azerbaijan Republic has claims on Iranian territory.
On November 11, 2009, Iran unilaterally lifted visa regime for Azerbaijani citizens.
Azerbaijan's president Aliyev has stated that he supports the U.S. sanctions against Iran. In a meeting with U.S. officials in Baku in February 2010 Aliyev expressed his support and he also criticized European oil and gas companies for sabotaging the international sanctions regime. This information came out in one of the released diplomatic cables of the United States diplomatic cables leak in November 2010.
According to STRATFOR Iran has politically and financially supported the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), a pro-Iranian and religious Shiite opposition party officially banned by Baku. The leader of the AIP, Movsum Samadov, has called for the overthrow of the Azerbaijani government.
Iran-Azerbaijan Visa Free Regime
Azerbaijan agreed to visa free regime with Turkey while Iran also demanded visa free regime Azerbaijan. Iran had threatened to cut off the critical supply line between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic if Azerbaijan lifts the visa requirements for the Turks, but not extends the same privilege to the Iranian citizens.
Deterioration of relations in 2012
In 2012, three men were detained by the Azerbaijan Ministry of National Security for planning to attack Israelis employed by a Jewish school in Baku. Security officials in Baku linked Iran to the planned terror operation. The men allegedly received smuggled arms and equipment from Iranian agents, possibly as retaliation to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Wafa Guluzade, a political commentator close to the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, warned Iran that "planning the murder of prominent foreign citizens in Azerbaijan by a band of terrorists, one of whom [Dadashov] resides in Iran, amounts to 'hostile activity' against our country."
Iranian-Azeri relations deteriorated further after the Azeri Communication Minister, Ali Abbasov accused Iran of carrying out cyber attacks against the country.
On March 2012 Azerbaijan arrested 22 people on suspicion of plotting attacks on the U.S and Israeli embassies in Baku on behalf of neighboring Iran. The ministry said that the suspects were recruited from 1999 onwards and trained in the use of weapons and spy techniques at military camps in Iran to enable them to gather information on foreign embassies, organizations and companies in Azerbaijan and stage attacks. All 22 were found guilty and given jail terms of at least a decade.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has denied reports that Israel has been given permission to use Azerbaijan bases for an attack on Iran. Top Israeli security officials blamed the leak of the plan on Obama administration officials who were trying to prevent the strike on Iran. The plan apparently involves using an Israeli tanker aircraft painted in the colors of a third country airline company that would land and refuel in Azerbaijan and then refuel the Israeli strike aircraft.
Iranian officials objected to Azerbaijan hosting Eurovision 2012 song contest, claiming that Azerbaijan was going to host a gay parade. Ali Hasanov, head of the public and political issues department in Azeribaijani President's administration, said that gay parade claims were untrue, and advised Iran not to meddle in Azerbaijan's internal affairs. In response, Iran recalled its ambassador from Baku, while Azerbaijan demanded a formal apology from Iran for its statements in connection with Baku's hosting of the Eurovision song contest, and later also recalled its ambassador from Iran.
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