In recent years, Iranian politicians have viewed neighboring Azerbaijan as Israel’s proxy, which may explain why Iran has named its most significant ground military exercise in recent years on the Iranian-Azeri border, “Khyber Conquerors ”.
Khyber refers to the gate of an ancient Jewish fortress in the Arabian Peninsula which was conquered by Imam Ali, the first Shiite imam. Therefore, from Iran’s point of view, Azerbaijan is the current version of that same fortress and its gate is the Zangezur Corridor, proposed by Azerbaijan to connect the rest of the country to its Nakhichevan enclave via the southern Syunik region in Armenia. According to Iranian hard-line supporters, the crossing could be a gateway for Israel and NATO’s direct entry into the Caucasus and, therefore, violate Armenia’s territorial integrity and also threaten the Iran.
The 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which led to Baku’s recapture of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Yerevan, had significant consequences for Tehran. Contrary to expectations, during the war Iran provided political and military support to Azerbaijan – due to Iran’s large Azeri minority population, which includes the country’s Supreme Leader – and not to Armenia. , although Iran has long been geopolitically aligned with Yerevan. This was in part because Iran recognized Baku’s military superiority over Armenia. Nonetheless, a year after the proclamation of a ceasefire, defense, security, and geopolitical developments in the region have evolved in ways that angered Tehran.
The October 1 military exercises in Khyber by the Iranian armed forces on the seven hundred kilometers northwest border with Azerbaijan only aggravated tensions. The story began when Baku imposed a “road tax” and detained two Iranian truck drivers entering the Nagorno-Karabakh region – a route that truck drivers have to take to transport fuel and goods to Armenia .
The war games were reportedly triggered after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s comments to Turkish authorities. Anadolu Agency on September 28. During the interview, Aliyev accused Iran of violating Azerbaijani sovereignty by hiding the identity of Iranian trucks heading for Armenia. To back up his claims, Aliyev cited satellite, drone and ground images of what he called “illegal” Iranian actions. This interview came as Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey were conducting military exercises on September 12 in Baku.
On hearing of Iranian military maneuvers on its border, the first since the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani President Aliyev said: “Each country can carry out any military exercise on its own territory. It is their sovereign right. But why now, and why at our border?
Initially, the ground forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted tactical practice at the border, sending hundreds of combat battalions, including infantry, rockets, and armored and electronic warfare units. The ground forces deployed in less than 48 hours, which is surprising given that they have arrived from many provinces. It was also a very unusual deployment as divisions and combat units are typically deployed from the same area as military exercises. When the IRGC announced the end of the military exercise, it left the combat battalions near the border area in a state of readiness.
The Iranian campaign sent a fiery message to Azerbaijan on the first anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was also extraordinary because the exercise didn’t seem like the traditional kind used to test new equipment. Contrary to official military claims, Iran did not need to send large armored, mechanized, and infantry units to the region. In addition, unlike when these forces were sent, there is no news of the return of combat battalions to the provinces where they belong. Therefore, it can be concluded that the real objective was to deploy the military force necessary for a possible armed conflict under the guise of a military exercise.
Tehran’s main concern with Azerbaijan is the increase in military capabilities provided by its bosses Israel and Turkey. This changes the geostrategic balance to the detriment of Iran. Tehran also fears that if Azerbaijan succeeds in forcing the Zangzur Corridor on the Armenian government, Baku could easily connect to Turkey, Israel and the European Union by land, thus excluding Iran from its transit equations. . Iran sees it as a further extension of Israel’s and NATO’s presence at its borders and undermines Iran’s relations with Armenia.
On September 30, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told Azerbaijan’s new ambassador to Tehran that Iran has the right to organize border war games, adding: “We do not tolerate the presence and the activity against our national security of the Zionist regime next to our borders and will take all necessary measures in this regard. The sabotage attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the assassination of its nuclear scientists, most recently Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, have been largely attributed to Israel. Azerbaijan has denied the allegations.
Similar comments were made by the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, General Kioumars Heidari. “Since the arrival of this regime, our sensitivity at this border has increased and their activities here are entirely under our observation,” Heydari said, referring to Israel. He also noted that Iran was concerned about “the terrorist forces coming from Syria to the region,” an apparent reference to reports that Turkey had recruited jihadists to aid Baku in Nagorno-Karabakh. Heydari said Iran was not sure these groups left the Caucasus.
On October 5, Azerbaijan reportedly closed a mosque and office in Baku linked to the Iranian Supreme Leader.
Why Iran is worried
The great self-confidence of the Azerbaijani authorities today, the coldness of Tehran-Yerevan relations due to Iran’s support in Baku during the The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the growing influence of Turkey and Israel in the Caucasus have made Iranian officials concerned about the possibility of limited conflict in the region that would drag northwest Iran into a sectarian war – possibly because of the severing of Armenia’s land connection with Iran. However, this situation results from the absence of a clear and planned Iranian defense policy in border areas such as the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
It is not known to what extent the new government of Ebrahim Raisi and the Supreme National Security Council can formulate a clear defense and security policy in the face of the security challenge with Azerbaijan. However, what is clear is the possibility of aggressive defense and foreign policy given that tensions in the Middle East and the Caucasus are much higher than last year. Although there is a new prime minister in Israel, its security policy towards Iran has not changed. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure due to suspected covert Israeli actions has increased the risk of Iranian retaliation against Israeli citizens and its interests in the Middle East. This would certainly explain why Iranian officials constantly talk about their intention to push back the Israeli threat in the Caucasus region.
Abbas Qaidari is a researcher in international security and defense policy. Follow him on Twitter: @AbbasQaidari.