War games shed light on profound Iranian-Azerbaijani tensions

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On September 21, 2021, Iran started military exercises near the Azerbaijani districts of Fizuli, Jebrayil and Zangilan, which Azerbaijan depopulated last year during the Second Karabakh War with Armenia. With the Iranian exercises, Tehran carried out war games for the first time in history along the more than 700 kilometers long shared border with Azerbaijan. The biggest turmoil among Azerbaijanis, however, was due to the fact that the Iranian exercises took place specifically near the 130-kilometer stretch of the border over which Azerbaijan recently regained control.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev publicly voiced his objection. “Why now? Why exactly on our border?” He asked rhetorically during his interview with the Turkish Anadolu News Agency. “The Azerbaijanis of the world are asking for it,” he added (President.az, 28.09.). The phrase “Azerbaijanis of the world” was perhaps a deliberate reference to the several million ethnic Azerbaijani population in Iran who live near the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan. In particular, during the Karabakh conflict in 2020, the ethnic Azerbaijanis of Iran expressed their great enthusiasm for the advancing Azerbaijani armed forces, which worried the authorities in Tehran very much (see EDM 11/10/2020). In response to Aliyev’s remarks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the exercises were a “sovereignty” issue for Iran and that Tehran would “not tolerate the presence of the Israeli regime” along Iran’s borders (Irna.ir, Farsnews.ir, 28.09.).

On October 1st, Tehran started the second phase of these exercises with the code name “Fatehan-e Khaybar” (“Conqueror of Khaybar”). The nickname refers to the historic battle of Khaybar (628 CE), in what is now Saudi Arabia, in which Muslim fighters defeated a Jewish force. Brigadier General Kioumars Heydari, the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, attributed the importance of the exercises to what he called “the overt and covert presence of the Zionist regime’s deputies and the possibility of significant numbers of Daesh [Islamic State] Terrorists in regional countries. ”Baku rejected the Iranian allegations (see EDM October 13, 2020; Tehran times, October 1, 2021; Mfa.gov.az, October 4, 2021).

The various military exercises in Azerbaijan in recent weeks may have triggered the Iranian maneuvers. Indeed, the Iranian side criticized the Azerbaijani-Turkish naval exercises in the Caspian Sea, which took place in early September. Tehran’s reasoning was based on the provision of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which was signed by the neighboring countries, including Iran and Azerbaijan, in 2018. According to this, no military from a non-bordering country may be present in the Caspian Sea. The problem, however, is that Iran has not yet ratified the Caspian Convention (the only riparian country that has not), and therefore the document has still not legally entered into force (Azernews.az, September 11, 2021; Wilsoncenter.org, September 5, 2018).

Subsequent Azerbaijani-Turkish-Pakistani special forces exercises in Azerbaijan were another trigger for Iran in view of Tehran’s difficult relations with Islamabad. Fada-Hossein Maleki, a senior member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament, said that “the exercises carried out by the governments of Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are worrying” (Turan.az, 21st September; Tehran times, 24.09.).

Last but not least, Azerbaijani and Turkish special forces carried out new exercises in the immediate vicinity of the Lachin Corridor, which physically connects the Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia and is currently guarded by Russian peacekeeping forces. These maneuvers gave Moscow cause for concern, but also affected Tehran (EurasiaNet, September 10). Iranian trucks have used this corridor to deliver various loads to Karabach Armenians without Baku’s permission. Azerbaijan recently blocked Iranian trucks traveling along the Lachin Corridor Road to the Armenian-inhabited parts of Karabakh, short stretches of which pass through depopulated Azerbaijani territory; and Azerbaijani authorities arrested several Iranian drivers who were making the trip – all of which further stirred up bilateral tensions (Tasnim news, 28.09.). Maleki called on Baku to “reconsider its recent actions” and not to obstruct trade between Armenia and Iran. Otherwise the resulting problems would “hit Baku harder,” he threatened (Tehran times, 24.09.). In his interview with the Anadolu agencyAliyev asked Tehran another question: “Is this market? [of 25,000 Armenians] really that important? Is this trade really so significant that you show such blatant disrespect for it? [Azerbaijan]…? “(President.az, 28.09.).

With Washington’s encouragement, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is said to have mediated between Yerevan and Baku-Ankara.Turan.az, the 9th of September; Armenpress.am, September 27; see EDM, June 14) – probably one of the reasons for his visit to Baku on June 29.Turkustan.az, 29.09.). And he apparently communicated Armenia’s wish to resume talks directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan stated, however, that all negotiations with Yerevan must be preceded by the opening of the transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its enclave Nakhichevan through Armenia (and thus further expansion to Turkey) (Civilnet.am, Youtube, September 19th; oc-media.org, 20.09.). Nevertheless, the potential thaw between Armenians and Turkey-Azerbaijan is fueling nervousness in Iran. In particular, Tehran interprets the opening of what the official Baku calls the “Zangezur Corridor” through southern Armenia along the Iranian border as a “change in international borders” (gfsis.org, 30. September; Inss.org.il, July 2021).

General Heydari warned of a “possible weakness in a country” [Armenia] Protecting its borders does not give other countries any reason to change their borders. The Islamic Republic will not allow that “(Iranintl.com, October 1). Another senior Iranian general, Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s ground forces, stated that “any geopolitical change in the region” would be a “red line” for Tehran (Tasnimnews.com, 30.09.). In turn, President Aliyev has repeatedly stressed that Azerbaijan has drastically disrupted geopolitical reality in the South Caucasus with the Second Karabakh War, calling the Shusha Declaration on Allied Relations with Turkey the “greatest celebration of the new geopolitical reality”. The Zangezur corridor embodies this new regional reality, emphasized the Azerbaijani leader (President.az, 8th of July; Xalqqazeti.org, July 19). On October 4th, Aliyev visited the border region where the Iranian exercises were taking place to condemn Tehran’s allegations and urged Tehran not to interfere “with ours” [Azerbaijan’s] Affairs” (Azadliq.org, 5th October). The day before, the supreme Iranian leader Khamenei tweeted: “… Anyone who digs a hole for his brothers will be the first to fall into it” (Twitter.com/khamenei_ir, October 3).

The exercises will be finished soon. But the Azerbaijani-Iranian disagreements will continue and will likely reverberate in new guises (see EDM, 15.09.). It should therefore come as no surprise that an Iranian media company recently called for the establishment of an Iranian military base in the Syunik region of southern Armenia, where the Zangezur Corridor is supposed to run, as a more effective alternative to military exercises (Javanonline.ir, October 3).



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