Saturday , 4 December 2021

Tension as Iran Holds Military Drills on Azerbaijan’s Border

Iranwire – In an unprecedented move, the Islamic Republic is holding military drills on the border with Azerbaijan. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has criticized the operation but Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Force, has snapped back: “Neighboring governments know the reasons for these maneuvers better than anybody else.”

Northwestern Iran shares a border with three countries: Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Part of Azerbaijan, known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, is separated from the rest by Armenia.

After a military conflict in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter succeeded in wresting control of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia after 30 years. Since then, Azerbaijan has been busy consolidating its position, and has seized control of a crucial road into the heart of Armenia that runs through Azerbaijan.

The Islamic Republic contends that Azerbaijan is trying to cut off Iran’s border with Armenia in order to join Nakhchivan with the country’s mainland. This road is also on the border between Iran and Armenia, meaning that if Azerbaijan succeeds, these two countries will lose almost the entirety of their common border. It would be the first major change to Iran’s neighboring countries since the Islamic Republic was established.

Last week, Azerbaijan also disrupted the flow of Iranian trucks on the road, and arrested two drivers. Ilham Aliyev has claimed Iranian drivers were using this road “illegally” while Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian occupation and, from now on, they must pay a toll in order to pass.

The Israeli Factor

The presence of forces from Turkey, Pakistan and Israel in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has also rung alarm bells in Tehran. The Islamic Republic believes that Baku is making these moves decisions because it counts on the support of these forces.

For the second time since the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and after notifying officials in Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic has sent military forces to its northern borders officially for military drills.

At first it was announced that this activity would take place under the auspices of the IRGC Ground Force. But a few hours before it was due to begin, it was announced that the regular army would hold the drills instead. The buildup has been code-named “Victors of Khaybar”: a reference to the battle of Khaybar, which was fought in 628 AD between the first Muslims, led by the Prophet Muhammad, and Jews living in Khaybar.

Participating in the current exercise, and supported by Army Aviation helicopters, are the army’s 216th and 316th armored brigades, the 25th Brigade, Artillery Group 11, the Drone Unit, the Jangal (Electronic Warfare) Unit, and the Military Engineering Unit 433.

Army officials have announced that as part of the drills, drones will be surveying the region and once the command center receives their pictures, the 25th Quick Reaction Brigade will be transported to the area by helicopter to start operations.

While preparations were under way, it was also reported – unofficially, of course – that Iran had created proxy group of Shia paramilitary forces for Azerbaijan under the name of Hosseinioon: an echo, if true, of the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabyoun Brigades, which are made up of Afghani and Pakistani Shia immigrants and have been deployed in Syria by the Revolutionary Guards to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

Why Now?

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has conceded that Iran has the right to hold maneuvers on the border, but has also asked why the Islamic Republic never did such a thing during the three decades when Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control.

Azerbaijan is one of the very few other countries in the world with a majority-Shia population. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have been frosty at best: so much so that in the first round of military conflict between Shia Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, the Islamic Republic supported the latter.

Azerbaijan is concerned by the prospect of Islamists within its borders, and by Iran’s potential support for them, including via its Azeri-language channel Sahar TV. Simultaneously, close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel in recent years has been a source of angst for the Islamic Republic.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, writes in his memoirs that each time an attempt was made to improve relations with Baku, General Hassan Firouzabadi, the then-Chief-of-Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces and Iran’s most senior military authority after the Supreme Leader, would deliver a speech that undermined the attempts at diplomacy.

The Volte-Face

During last year’s military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, however, for the first time Iran publicly took the side of Azerbaijan. Ayatollah Khamenei defended the country’s bid to take back the territory, while under President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was permitted to visit both countries after the Russia-brokered ceasefire.

When this week’s military drills got under way, General Kioumars Heydari, commander of the Iranian Army’s Ground Forces, said ominously: “All legal borders must be protected. The likely weakness of a country in protecting its borders does not justify the violation of those borders by another country, assisted by foreigners. The Islamic Republic does not allow such a thing.”

By the “likely weakness of a country” Heydari was referring to Armenia; “another country, assisted by foreigners” related to Azerbaijan and Israel. In the past few months, Israel has engaged in confrontations with the Islamic Republic in more than one regional theater. It has been bombing IRGC  bases and positions in Syria, sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, once the main man behind Iran’s nuclear program, in November last year. The scuffle between the two countries at sea has also continued, with attacks by Iran on Israeli-owned oil tankers.

It appears that officials of the Islamic Republic regard the border strife with Azerbaijan as the latest manifestation of the wider confrontation between the regime and Israel. General  Heydari bluntly confirmed as much this week: “We have one uninvited security breach that has come from somewhere else, and that is the illegitimate Zionist regime. Since this regime has arrived, we have become more sensitive toward this border, and we are keeping a very close eye on activities there.”