War Games Shine Light on Deep-Running Iran-Azerbaijan Tensions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 152

Azerbaijani-Turkish troops in exercise in Nakhchivan, September 20 (Source: Anadolu Agency)

On September 21, 2021, Iran kicked off military drills near the Azerbaijani districts of Fizuli, Jebrayil and Zangilan, which Azerbaijan had de-occupied last year, during the Second Karabakh War with Armenia. The Iranian exercises marked the first time in history that Tehran carried out war games along the shared border with Azerbaijan, which is over 700 kilometers long. Yet most of the resulting uproar among Azerbaijanis stemmed from the fact that the Iranian exercises specifically took place near the 130-kilometer-long segment of the border that Azerbaijan has recently restored control over.

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 ask about it,” he added (President.az, September 28). The phrase “Azerbaijanis of the world” was perhaps a deliberate allusion to the several-million-strong ethnic-Azerbaijani population in Iran, which resides near the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijanis notably expressed strong enthusiasm for the advancing Azerbaijani forces during the 2020 Karabakh conflict, greatly worrying the authorities in Tehran (see EDM November 10, 2020). In response to Aliyev’s comments, the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said the drills were a “sovereignty issue” for Iran and that Tehran “would not tolerate the presence of the Israeli regime” along the borders of Iran (Irna.ir, Farsnews.ir, September 28).

Tehran launched the second phase of these exercises, codenamed “Fatehan-e Khaybar” (“Conquerors of Khaybar”), on October 1. The moniker refers to the historic Battle of Khaybar (628 CE), in present-day Saudi Arabia, in which Muslim fighters defeated a Jewish force. Brigadier General Kioumars Heydari, the commander of the Iranian army ground forces, attributed the significance of the drills to what he depicted as “the overt and covert presence of the Zionist regime’s proxies and the possibility of a significant number of Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists in regional countries.” Baku rejected the Iranian accusations (see EDM October 13, 2020; Tehran Times, October 1, 2021; Mfa.gov.az, October 4, 2021).

Azerbaijan’s various military exercises in recent weeks may have served as a trigger for the Iranian maneuvers. Indeed, the Iranian side criticized the Azerbaijani-Turkish naval drills in the Caspian Sea, held earlier in September. Tehran’s argument was based on the provision of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed in 2018 by the littoral states, including Iran and Azerbaijan. According to that accord, no military of a non-littoral state can be present in the Caspian Sea. But the problem is that Iran has yet to ratify the Caspian Convention (the only littoral state signatory that has not done so), and so the document has still not legally come into force (Azernews.az, September 11, 2021; Wilsoncenter.org, September 5, 2018).

Subsequent Azerbaijani-Turkish-Pakistani special forces drills in Azerbaijan were another trigger for Iran in light of Tehran’s uneasy relations with Islamabad. Fada-Hossein Maleki, a leading member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee stated that the “drills carried out by the governments of Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey are worrying” (Turan.az, September 21; Tehran Times, September 24).

Last but not least, Azerbaijani and Turkish Special Forces conducted renewed exercises in the direct vicinity of the Lachin Corridor, which physically connects the Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia and is currently guarded by Russian peacekeepers. While these maneuvers were a source of concern for Moscow, they also somewhat affected Tehran (EurasiaNet, September 10). It is via this corridor that Iranian trucks have been delivering various cargoes to Karabakh Armenians without Baku’s permission. Azerbaijan recently blocked Iranian trucks traveling to the Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh along the Lachin Corridor road, short sections of which pass through de-occupied Azerbaijani-territory; and Azerbaijani authorities arrested several Iranian drivers making this trip—all of which further roiled bilateral tensions (Tasnim News, September 28). Maleki urged Baku to “reconsider its recent actions” and not to obstruct trade between Armenia and Iran. Otherwise, the resulting problems “will impinge on Baku more,” he threatened (Tehran Times, September 24). In his interview to the Anadolu Agency, Aliyev posed another question to Tehran: “Is this market [of 25,000 Armenians] really so important? Is this trade really so significant that you display such blatant disrespect for [Azerbaijan]…?” (President.az, September 28).

With Washington’s encouragement, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has reportedly been mediating between Yerevan and Baku-Ankara (Turan.az, September 9; Armenpress.am, September 27; see EDM, June 14)—presumably one of the reasons for his September 29 visit to Baku (Turkustan.az, September 29). And he apparently communicated Armenia’s desire to reopen talks directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, Erdoğan declared that any negotiations with Yerevan had to be preceded by Armenia’s opening of the transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave (and thus further extending to Turkey) (Civilnet.am, YouTube, September 19; Oc-media.org, September 20). Still, the potential thaw between Armenian and Turkey-Azerbaijan fuels nervousness in Iran. In particular, Tehran interprets the opening of what official Baku calls the “Zangezur corridor” through southern Armenia, along the Iranian border, as a “change in international borders” (Gfsis.org, September 30; Inss.org.il, July 2021).

General Heydari warned that a “possible weakness in one country [Armenia] to protect its borders gives no reason to other countries to change the borders. The Islamic Republic will not allow that” (Iranintl.com, October 1). Another high-ranking Iranian general, Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps ground forces, declared that “any geopolitical change in the region” would be a “red line” for Tehran (Tasnimnews.com, September 30). In turn, President Aliyev has repeatedly emphasized that Azerbaijan drastically disrupted the geopolitical reality in the South Caucasus through the Second Karabakh War, describing the Shusha Declaration on Allied Relations with Turkey as the “greatest celebration of the new geopolitical reality.” The Zangezur corridor epitomizes this new regional reality, the Azerbaijani leader stressed (President.az, July 8; Xalqqazeti.org, July 19). On October 4, Aliyev visited the border region where the Iranian exercises were taking place to condemn Tehran’s accusations and urged the latter not to “meddle in our [Azerbaijan’s] affairs” (Azadliq.org, October 5). A day earlier, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei had tweeted, “… Those who dig a hole for their brothers will be the first to fall into it” (Twitter.com/khamenei_ir, October 3).

The exercises will soon end. But the Azerbaijani-Iranian disagreements will persist and likely reverberate in increasingly novel manifestations (see EDM, September 15). It should, thus, surprise no one that an Iranian media outlet recently called for establishing an Iranian military base in the southern Armenian region of Syunik, where the Zangezur corridor is to pass through, as a more effective alternative to holding military exercises (Javanonline.ir, October 3).