Iran-Azerbaijan: Baku releases Iranian truck drivers as tensions thaw with Tehran
Azerbaijan released two Iranian truck drivers on Thursday, a month after they were arrested on charges of illegally crossing into the country, a move that strained ties between Baku and Tehran.
Azerbaijan's customs department said it had handed them over to Iran in a decision "guided by principles of humanitarianism, mutual respect and good neighbourliness".
Baku said the Iranian drivers bypassed border controls when they entered the country to avoid customs duties it had recently imposed - to Tehran's fury - on cargo transit to Armenia.
The release of the drivers marks a thaw in relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, a week after their foreign ministers agreed to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Reports emerged last month that Azerbaijan was imposing restrictions on Iranian trucks using a road previously connecting Armenia and Iran, that was seized by Azerbaijan during its six-week war with Yerevan last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Iran had previously used the route to reach Russia and West Asia without restrictions. The new restrictions include checkpoints and road tax for Iranian drivers, which reportedly contradict the provisions of the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement safeguarding the free flow of traffic in the area.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev claimed in a recent interview that Iranian trucks had been "illegally" entering Karabakh since before the 2020 war.
He said about 60 Iranian trucks had entered the Karabakh region without permits between 11 August and 11 September, and that the new controls were a response to that breach.
Tensions between the two neighbours had been increasing over recent weeks, sparked by Tehran's allegations that Israel, a major arms supplier to Baku, maintained a military presence in Azerbaijan. Baku denied the claims.
Despite the denial, the Islamic Republic has conducted large-scale army drills along its border with Azerbaijan since the beginning of October, just weeks after Baku and its allies Turkey and Pakistan conducted joint military drills in the Azeri capital.
The war last year ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire that saw Armenia cede swathes of territory - including a section of Azerbaijan's 700-kilometre (430-mile) border with Iran.
During that conflict, Azerbaijan deployed Israeli "Kamikaze" drones on the battlefield, while Turkey provided arms and technical assistance to Baku, which contributed to the country's military victory over Armenia.
The two countries have also been at loggerheads over Tehran's backing of Armenia in the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Tehran has, meanwhile, been wary of separatist sentiment among its ethnic Azeri minority, who make up around 10 million of Iran's 83 million population.