Tensions have increased recently between Tehran and Baku over three issues: a joint military drill that Azerbaijani troops conducted alongside their Turkish and Pakistani counterparts some 500 kilometers from the Iranian border; Azerbaijani restrictions on Iranian truck drivers' access to Armenia and the detention of two drivers; and Azerbaijani ties to Iran’s archenemy Israel.
On October 1, Tehran added to those tensions by launching its own military drills near its northwestern border, days after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deployed military equipment to the region.
The move was met with expressions of concern from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who earlier this week said he was surprised by the planned drill.
"Every country can carry out any military drill on its own territory. It’s their sovereign right. But why now, and why on our border?” Aliyev said. He noted that it was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago that Iran had planned such a show of force so close to its border.
Linking Drills To Israel
Iranian officials reacted by saying that the decision to hold war games is a matter of sovereignty, but others linked it to an Israeli presence in Azerbaijan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran had the right to hold exercises and underscored the “importance” of cooperation between Iran and Azerbaijan, who share a 700-kilometer border.
“We do not tolerate the presence and activity against our national security of the Zionist regime next to our borders and will take any necessary action in this regard," Amir-Abdollahian said at a meeting with Azerbaijan's new ambassador on September 30.
Separately, Iran's ambassador to Baku, Abbas Musavi, said last week that Iran’s military maneuvers, which he said had been planned in advance, were not "a threat” to Azerbaijan.
Speaking during the drills, Kioumars Heydari, the commander of the Iranian Army’s ground forces, also made an allusion to presumed Israeli ties to Azerbaijan. Tehran has accused Israel of sabotaging its nuclear program and assassinating its nuclear scientists, including top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was credited with leading a secret Iranian nuclear program that U.S. intelligence and the UN atomic watchdog say was abandoned in 2003; he was killed in a remotely operated roadside ambush in 2020 widely attributed to Israel.
“Since the arrival of this regime, our sensitivity to this border has increased and their activities here are fully under our observation,” Heydari said. He added that Tehran was also worried about the presence of “terrorist forces that came to the region from Syria,” an apparent reference to reports that Turkey last year recruited Islamist fighters to go to Azerbaijan and help Baku in its war against ethnic Armenians in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Heydari said Tehran wasn't sure the fighters had left the region.
Iran, which engages in proxy wars in the region, had last year expressed concern over alleged attempts to bring terrorists from Syria near its borders.
The Iranian drills, which include artillery, drones, and helicopters, followed military drills by Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan that were launched on September 12 in Baku.
The stated aim of the Three Brothers-2021 drills was “further strengthening the existing ties” between the armies of the three countries, and they prompted a warning by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in Ardebil, who told Azerbaijan “not to play with the lion’s tail.”
Iran Concern At Being Left Out
Touraj Atabaki, professor emeritus of the social history of the Middle East and Central Asia at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that Tehran was concerned it was being sidelined.
“Turkey has the second-largest NATO army, and Pakistan is a nuclear power in the region. When these two countries join Azerbaijan in military maneuvers, it worries Russia and Iran -- and the Islamic republic’s military maneuver [reflects] its concern,” Atabaki said.
On September 17, Friday Prayers leader Ayatollah Hassan Ameli said countries have the right to hold military exercises, but added that “here, there has been an incident that we cannot easily let go."
“On the eve of the exercises, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, which expresses the view of the government and of the president of Turkey, chose the following headline for an interview with a member of the Azerbaijani parliament: ‘Iran Will Disappear From The Map,'" Ameli was quoted by Bornanews as saying.
He added: "Since Azerbaijan and Turkey did not respect Iran’s rights as a neighbor, we ask the Supreme National Security Council to allow the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to demonstrate just one-half of Iran's power on this side of the border and to tell them, 'Do not play with the lion's tail.'"
The comments came after Azerbaijan imposed a “road tax” on Iranian truck drivers transporting goods and fuel to neighboring Armenia via a route across Azerbaijan on lands Baku regained control of last year during six weeks of intense fighting with Armenia in a dramatic escalation of their decades-old "frozen conflict." Azerbaijan also detained two truck drivers, which resulted in a call for their immediate release by Iran's Foreign Ministry.
Iran and Azerbaijan have enjoyed good relations in the past, but Tehran has increasingly expressed concern about alleged Israeli influence there.
Speaking on September 24, Ameli was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying the drills sent a message to Israel.
“Israel has come to Azerbaijan to plot against Iran," Ameli said, without offering details.