Iran Appears to Accept Azerbaijan’s Concerns over Cross-border Supply Routes as Truckers are Released
Iran’s Road & Transport Organization has issued a circular to Iranian transport companies, which underlined that Iranian drivers should not enter Azerbaijan’s territory through a third country. Image: MEHR
In an important move in de-escalating recent tensions between Tehran and Baku, Iran’s Road & Transport Organization has reaffirmed Tehran’s commitment to “respect Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” More specifically, it issued a circular to Iranian transport companies, which underlined that Iranian drivers should not enter Azerbaijan’s territory through a third country and avoid entering Lachin and most of the formerly occupied regions of Azerbaijan via Armenia. It further warned against signing trade or shipping agreements with companies in the area where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed without the approval of the Baku authorities.
The circular came as Baku reverted towards what Iran calls a “framework of good neighbourliness” by releasing two Iranian drivers, a move agreed on October 13 and confirmed on October 21. The two truckers, Shahroud Norouzi and Jafar Barzegar, had been arrested in September, kicking off what developed into a significant geopolitical spat. Their crimes had been illegal entry to Azerbaijan through Lachin to deliver merchandise to the areas where ethnic Armenians continue to reside.
In August, Baku had become increasingly annoyed that the Iranian trucks were entering its territory without proper clearances and invited the Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry to share those grievances.
After Azerbaijan reclaimed its border with Armenia and Iran following the de-occupation of its territories, some stretches of road from Iran to Armenia came under its control. At first, Baku made no attempt to stop traffic on the route. Tehran initially had agreed to halt supplies entering the peacekeeping zone, but Azerbaijani surveillance soon discovered that some Iranian haulers had been changing their trucks’ licence plates to avoid losing the business. Azerbaijan thereupon introduced checkpoints/toll stations and arrested the two drivers who had reportedly tried to slip through. The result was a rapid ratcheting-up of tensions between the two countries.
The two Iranian drivers after their release. Image: ILNA
By early October, this had reached the stage of large-scale war games, with shows of strength on either side of the Aras River (the countries’ shared border). Un-diplomatic accusations saw Iran ranting over Azerbaijan’s cozy relationships with Zionists (i.e. Israel), while Baku angered Tehran by implying that Iran was behind a cross-border drug smuggling operation. News media also reported the arrest of several Shiite clerics in Azerbaijan for voicing views that were considered unduly sympathetic to Iran’s theocratic regime.
However, both countries have too much to lose from allowing such chest-beating to go too far. As predicted by regional analyst Alex Vatanka in a recent interview – the neighbours now seem to have found a formula for building bridges again.
Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on an intriguing if less obvious element underlying the trucker saga. Almost comically, the situation has been one where drivers who themselves are often ethnic-Azerbaijanis, have been trying to disguise their Iranian trucks with Armenian plates in order to slip past Azerbaijani guards and supply ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan. Such ironies were notably apparent in a recent interview broadcast by BBC Azerbaijan: here, an ethnic-Azerbaijani trucker tells an Armenian reporter in Yerevan of his exhaustingly circuitous route via the Tatev mountain road to circumvent checkpoints. “Those in Baku are our brothers. We’re just poor drivers! Why do they put us through this? They have a problem with Armenia, not with us!”
 Armenia-licensed vehicles are allowed to drive the route based on the spirit of the November 2020 statement that ended the war, but third-party vehicles would need special permission from Baku