Iran’s Military Drills Prompt New Challenges for Baku

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On October 1, Iran carried out a series of large-scale military drills at an unprecedented scale in the north-eastern part of the country, near the border with Azerbaijan. In response, on October 3, Azerbaijan, along with its ally Turkey, made an announcement on launching joint military exercises in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijani exclave bordering Iran from the north. The developments of recent weeks have strained relations between Baku and Tehran. While the most recent reason for the escalation could be the increased pressure on Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijani security forces, tense relations between Baku and Tehran have been building up for years. Today, even though Azerbaijan has been victorious in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, it may be confronted by a new threat from the south.

Iran’s fears

The most recent cause of the escalation between Baku and Tehran appears to be the detention of two Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijani security forces. The drivers were delivering goods to Armenia through a land route passing through small slices of Azerbaijani territory. The route is the main artery between Armenia and Iran, and Iranian trucks use it to supply Armenia and the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh as well. 

The land where the drivers were detained has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was taken over by Armenian forces in the aftermath of the first Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Baku regained control over the region in the last year’s war. Since then, Baku has taken control of the territory with a tough policy on entries into the territory via Armenia. According to Armenian media reports, Azerbaijani police checked Iranian vehicles “transporting cement to Yerevan and Stepanakert” and charged them with substantial fees. In September, Azerbaijan officially confirmed that drivers were being checked by police posts situated on “Azerbaijan’s liberated territories”.

After last year’s war, restoring transport connections, specifically a route connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan and Turkey via Armenia was one of the key parts of the Russia-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement. Since then, however, no tangible results have been achieved mainly due to never-ending tensions between Yerevan and Baku.

As Baku has attempted to ratchet up the execution of the construction of the Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan transport link, there have been some statements in Azerbaijan, suggesting that Syunik, the southern region of Armenia (known as Zangezur in Azerbaijan), which is envisioned to host the route, was an “ancestorial land of Azerbaijanis” and that they have the right to “return” there. Such comments, especially from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, have alarmed not only Armenia but Iran as well.

Although Iran is a supporter of Armenia’s territorial integrity and has friendly relations with Yerevan, the route connecting the two countries is essential for Tehran’s economy. Iran does not have a lot of trading partners in its neighborhood, largely owing to geopolitical ostracization from US-aligned states in the region. The land route crossing Armenia and Georgia to the further north remains the main transport gateway for Iran to the Black Sea and Europe and at the same time plays a vital role in the functioning of the North-South Corridor between Russia and Iran. The restoration of control over some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts, which were also under the occupation of Armenia, by Azerbaijan has led to Iran’s transport insecurity. To solve this issue, Tehran has been pushing the idea of building a new route to Armenia that would bypass Azerbaijan proper.

“Zionist presence”

The outcome of the second Karabakh war had a significant impact on the balance of power in the South Caucasus. The victory in the war has come as an opening for both Azerbaijan and Turkey, allied countries often referred to as “one nation with two states”. Since then, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been trying to assert their regional power through military drills, which has been the worst nightmare for Tehran. Particularly painful were the Turkish-Azerbaijani naval exercises in the Caspian Sea.

One of the major factors that have aggravated the situation is the alleged Israeli presence in Azerbaijan and Israel’s support for the country. Since its independence, Azerbaijan has developed strong strategic and economic ties with Israel, and being a secular state, it developed closer linkage with Israel, than its regional rival, Iran.

Israel views Iran as the biggest threat in the region, as it supports anti-Israeli armed groups such as Hezbollah, as well as hostile governments such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Azerbaijan has been purchasing military hardware from Israel, which played a pivotal role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenian forces last year. While Israeli-produced drones were actively involved in the Second Karabakh War, Iran has alleged that Israeli militants have been stationed in Azerbaijan. According to one leaked U.S. diplomatic document from 2009, Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel is “like an iceberg, nine-tenths … below the surface”.

This has been one of the main reasons for Iran’s security concerns. On September 30, a day before Iran began its military manoeuvres, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had announced that Tehran would not “tolerate the presence and activities of the Zionist regime against its national security” and would opt for doing “whatever necessary in this regard”. Strikingly, the title of the Iranian military drills held on October 1 was ‘Conquerors of Khaybar’ referring to the Arabic city where Muhammad defeated the Jews in 628.

Another element of this escalation might have been the opening of a new airport in the town of Fizuli, which is located only 30 kilometres away from the Iranian border. The Fizuli airport is capable of hosting heavy transport and modern fighter jets. Given the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel, there is some possibility that the airport may have a strategic role in the future. If Israel were to benefit from this development, it would certainly prompt concern for Iran.

By Soso Dzamukashvili

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Iranian Shipments into Nagorno-Karabakh Highlight Unreliability of Russian Peacekeepers

Photo by Azeritimes

On August 11, Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was presented with a diplomatic note informing the ambassador of illegal visits of Iranian cargo trucks to the Karabakh region. Although Iran has long facilitated the transportation of military equipment into Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenian forces, the recent increase in the frequency of deliveries has caused concern for Azerbaijani officials.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s official stance regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict follows the position supported by international law, which states that the territory is an internationally-recognized part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iran also officially recognizes United Nations resolutions that recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and call for the removal of Armenian forces from the region.

Iran’s actions suggest otherwise. In June 2020, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister accused Iran of allowing Russian military cargo to be transported through the country into Nagorno-Karabakh. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, videos and images circulated on social media, depicting military equipment being transported through Iran towards the Nordooz-Agarak border crossing point.

Despite the many documented examples of cargo and military equipment being transported from Iran into the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Iran vehemently denies facilitating any shipments. According to Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, “Iran carefully monitors and controls the route of transportation and transit of commodities to other countries…and does not allow [the] country’s soil to be used for the transfer of arms and ammunition whatsoever.”

The recent increase in the number of cargo transfers through Iran to Nagorno-Karabakh highlights several troubling issues, including a possible increase in militarization against a backdrop of increased tensions and recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as doubts over the role of Russian peacekeeping forces.  

In recent months, there have been a series of flare-ups between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On July 19, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of starting a shootout along the border between Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the area near Yeraskh, Armenia. On July 28, three Armenian soldiers were killed and two Azerbaijani soldiers were wounded in another escalation between the two countries. Following this incident, Armenia and Azerbaijan both agreed to a Russian proposal for enforcing the ceasefire in the region of the flare up.

Considering the number of outbreaks of conflict in recent months, the increase in cargo shipments from Iran is concerning. Whether Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh are positioning themselves to be on the offense or defense, indications of further militarization of the region are concerning for regional security and development as well as the security of civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Iran’s role in facilitating the transportation of goods into Armenian-held parts of Nagorno-Karabakh represents another instance that calls into question the role of Russian peacekeepers. The Russian peacekeeping force, consisting of nearly 2,000 soldiers, has been notably absent in mediating conflict and complacent in enforcing the terms of the ceasefire agreement.

For example, on May 12, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced during an emergency Security Council meeting that Azerbaijani forces had advanced more than three kilometers into Armenian territory. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying that troops were present in the region to enforce Azerbaijan’s border. In this instance, Russia remained silent and did not take any action.

Additionally, Russia and its peacekeeping forces were clearly disinterested in contributing to the resolution of one of Azerbaijan’s greatest post-war challenges: obtaining the maps of landmines in territories recovered through the 2020 war. In the months following the war, Armenian officials denied the existence of maps of landmines and referred to the requests as a ‘fake agenda’ pushed by Baku. Finally, in June 2021, the Armenian government provided maps of nearly 100,000 mines in the Aghdam district in exchange for 15 Armenian soldiers. In this case, the Russian government and Russian peacekeepers certainly could have facilitated the exchange of maps and prisoners of war much earlier, which would have reduced casualties and injuries caused by landmines and returned soldiers to their homeland and to their families.

Most recently, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense issued a press release calling for the ‘complete withdrawal of the remnants of the Armenian armed forces from the territory of Azerbaijan.’ Azerbaijan states that Armenian armed forces have been setting up new outposts in the territories east of the administrative boundaries of Kelbajar and Lachin, which is in direct violation of the November ceasefire agreement. Russian peacekeepers are currently deployed in the areas where militarization is taking place, and no action has been taken to enforce the principles of the trilateral agreement.   

In these cases, as well as with the recent reports of equipment being transported illegally from Iran, Russian peacekeepers are not actively contributing to improving relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As demonstrated with other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, Russia thrives on instability. Despite being the negotiator of the ceasefire agreement and being one of the largest players in the region, it is in Russia’s interest to prevent the conflict from being resolved. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war provided Russia with an additional opportunity to physically insert itself in the South Caucasus region. Allowing for violations of the ceasefire, whether through border provocations or illegal cargo transfers, ensures delays in the long-term resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and ensures that Russia can maintain a military presence beyond the five-year term indicated in the November 10th agreement.

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