In a move that is alarming regional actors, Iran has begun to mass substantial military forces along its border with Azerbaijan. Footage from Iranian state television and social media shows large numbers of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery being moved by Iran into the area.
Iranian officials have said that they plan to conduct a large-scale exercise in the Northwest of the country, hence the build-up. But the sudden decision to stage this comes as tensions between the two countries have escalated recently – a situation rooted in multiple factors.
On the face of it, the principle current reason for the deterioration is Iranian actions in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. A year ago, this area was taken in a six-week campaign from Armenia by the Azeris. Suffice to say, the capture of Nagorno-Karabakh is a source of tremendous national pride to the Azeri’s – Indeed, the anniversary was marked by a huge military parade.
So, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the Azeri’s are very touchy about other countries actions in this area. In August, the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry called in the Iranian ambassador to protest what it called the illegal travel of Iranian trucks through the Karabakh region without permission.
The issue was that Iranian trucks were travelling to the Armenian towns of Kapan and Goris via a road that now passes through territory held by Azerbaijan. As this road is the only direct commercial link between Iran and Armenia, that isn’t entirely surprising.
But early in September the Azeri’s set up roadblocks and began stopping and taxing Iranian trucks. They have also arrested several Iranian truck drivers.
This was followed up by President Aliyev of Azerbaijan making public statements condemning Iran for “…outright disrespect…”
Iran in turn has expressed outrage at a joint Azeri-Turkish military exercise that occurred earlier this month. The Iranian Foreign Minister stated that according to the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, only countries with shores on the Caspian may deploy military forces there. The allowing of Turkish forces into the area was, they contended, illegal.
This seemed to have been the first counter shot from the Iranians to the somewhat belligerent words coming out of Baku. Several senior Iranian officials have now criticized Azerbaijan, generally stating that their victory over Armenia had gone to the country’s head and made them arrogant.
As much of north-west Iran is populated by Azeri’s, indeed with some in Baku referring to that area as “South Azerbaijan”, Iran is becoming increasingly touchy about their smaller neighbours attitude. The sudden staging of the military exercise seems to be to provide a reminder that they are not a comparatively minor military power, like Armenia.
The Iranians are also using the opportunity to express their displeasure at the international relations that Azerbaijan maintains with Israel. Israeli drones and weapons played a key part in the Azeri victory over Armenia, and Azerbaijan maintains close relations with the Jewish state.
This led to Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the land forces of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to warn two days ago that they expected:
“…our neighboring border areas and neighboring countries…will not allow a foreign element such as the Zionist regime…to make the soil of our neighbors a bedrock to achieve its evil and criminal goals.”
It is probably for this reason that the upcoming exercise is to be named “Conquerors of Khayber”. This was a famous battle where the Prophet Mohammed conquered and subjugated the Jewish inhabitants of that city.
Though this whole affair does appear to be sabre rattling, Iran is facing mounting pressure internationally on other fronts.
The United States has reportedly reached out to China to see about getting the PRC to cut its purchases of Iranian oil, hoping to put further pressure on as part of attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Additionally, two days ago a Pakistani soldier was killed on the eastern Iranian border in an attack described by the Pakistani’s as launched by Balochi separatists from inside Iran. This shortly followed the Pakistan authorities claiming that a suicide attack on Chinese nationals in the port of Gwadar last month was also staged by separatists operating out of Iran.
So, with angry neighbours on most sides, plus concerns about the growing influence of Turkey as a regional rival, simmering proxy wars with both Saudi Arabia and Israel and an economy tanking because of US sanctions, perhaps a bit of posturing is to be expected.
Let’s hope it stays at that.