Iran & Azerbaijan Indulge in Some Geopolitical Chest-beating
Members of the Iranian Army take part in a military exercise dubbed "Fatehan of Kheibar", in the northwestern parts of Iran, in this picture obtained on October 1, 2021. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Over the past week, social media videos from Iran showed considerable movements of troops and military equipment heading towards Azerbaijan’s border zone. This led to some breathless commentaries about the state of relationships between Tehran and Baku. Then over the weekend, Iran started an extensive series of war games. But is this really a dangerous moment of tension or simply a ‘business as usual’ series of army exercises?
Why Here, Why Now?
The military exercises started on Friday, and although the exact locations remain unclear, Reuters reported drills near both Julfa and Poldasht – two border crossing points on the Araz River. In the Tehran Times, Brigadier-General Kiomars Heydari, commander of Iran’s army ground forces, insisted that the manoeuvres were a routine exercise to test the readiness of the army’s drones, helicopter gunships artillery and electronic warfare units. Heydari underlined that his country has not invaded any other in the past 200 years and has no intentions of starting now. Indeed as recently as September 25, 2021, the Iranian ambassador in Baku, Abbas Mousavi, had reportedly said that links between Iran and Azerbaijan were so strong that no foreign power could drive a wedge between them. However, the relationship is complicated. Though the two countries share a great deal of history and both have a predominantly Shia-Muslim faith, Tehran is ever wary of secessionist ideas amongst Iran’s ethno-linguistically Azerbaijani minority, numbering 25-30 million. Meanwhile, of late, there are at least three more specific bones of contention: truckers, corridor concerns and the Israel connection. Which one of the three is the most important remains to be seen.
Trucking Armenia: tensions on the Kapan-Goris road
For decades, and throughout the period of occupation, Iran has maintained political and trade relations with both Azerbaijan and its nemesis Armenia: a tricky balance to perform. Since the 1990s, a point of contention between Baku and Tehran has been the provision of Iranian supplies and fuel to Armenia and to Armenian-occupied regions of Karabakh. Before the 2020 war, there was little Baku could do to stop the flow. Now, however, things have changed. The main Iran-Armenia trade route uses the Goris-Kapan road, where cartographic quirks mean that the predominantly Armenian road passes through a few short sections of Azerbaijani territory where Baku can monitor and potentially stop unauthorized vehicles. Back in August 2021, Baku sent a message of dissatisfaction to the Iranian ambassador, requesting that Iranian trucks either pay transit taxes or seek other legal permissions before plying the route across areas of Azerbaijani territory. Iran appeared to agree to this request, but, according to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, several Iranian trucks tried to sneak through by switching their number plates for Armenian ones. On September 15, Azerbaijani police arrested two such Iranian drivers for breaking these rules, but the result was a significant political fallout with Tehran.
In an amusingly off-beat form of protest against perceived Iranian belligerence over the war games issue, unknown jokers left three plastic jugs outside the Iranian embassy in Baku. Their colours depict the Iranian flag. However, as such jugs are used uniquely for toilet ablutions, the display creates an unmistakable if artistically post-modernist insult. It is possibly this mild statement that was described as an “attack” by the Tasnim News Agency. Image: Twitter
"Any geopolitical change and alteration of borders of neighbouring countries is a red-line for the Islamic Republic of Iran," read a statement from a group of 165 Iranian lawmakers on Sunday, October 3. This was a curious addendum to an announcement otherwise praising their army’s efforts in the weekend’s war games. The implication seems to be that Iran is concerned that Azerbaijan might be considering some form of land grab in the Syunik/Zangezur area of southern Armenia. Part of the November 9 Agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War was a clause under which Armenia should guarantee transport between Azerbaijan and the disconnected Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. As of yet, this hasn’t happened, and Baku is understandably impatient for a solution. However, whether a fixed corridor or a more general opening of transport routes through Armenia, Tehran stands to lose the influence and trade that it currently garners at present with all Baku-Nakhchivan land transport funnelled through Iran.
The Israeli Connection
Iran’s name for this series of war games is Fatehan-e Khaybar (i.e. ‘the conquerors of Khaybar’). That’s a clear reference to the battle in 628CE when the early Muslims led by the prophet Muhammad put down a Jewish revolt in Arabia. If this didn’t hint strongly enough that the manoeuvres were decrying an Israeli connection, Tehran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spelled it out. On September 28, he said, “Iran will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime near our borders.” This, as many news outlets, including The Times of Israel, agreed, was “an allusion to Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel” rather than any specific suggestion of Israeli forces operating in Azerbaijan. However, the fact that Israel supplied Baku with much of the high-tech arsenal that helped Azerbaijan recover its occupied lands in 2020 causes unease in Tehran, with Israel regularly taking a hawkish stance against Iran on the international stage.
Tehran says that it wants to test out its latest military technology. Image: saeediex/Shutterstock
It can be tough to disentangle hype from news. Iran certainly seems to be sending a few pointedly barbed geopolitical messages, but beyond that, it’s hard to believe that there is even a whiff of real conflict in the air. According to Abbas Mousavi – Tehran’s man in Baku – Azerbaijan had been advised of the upcoming war games well in advance. Much has been made of a September 27 interview during which Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev told Turkey’s Anadolu news agency that he found “very surprising” Iran’s decision to hold military drills close to the countries’ mutual border. However, it seems that the surprise was that such exercises were needed at all rather than that Baku had not received prior warning. And it’s worth remembering that holding military exercises is not by any means unusual. Back in early September, Azerbaijan organized the ’Three Brothers’ manoeuvres with Pakistan and Turkey. And later this week, Azerbaijan and Turkey will start their “Steadfast Brotherhood 2021” war games in Nakhchivan, close to the Iranian border. Hopefully, what we are seeing is no more than a boisterous geopolitical rattling of sabres on both sides.