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Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has described Iran’s allegations about the presence of the Israeli forces in the country’s territories as “groundless”, amid the rise of tensions between the two Caspian littoral states.
“We show good intentions. But this does not mean that we will accept groundless accusations against us. I say it here in Jabrayil, on the bank of Araz River, for the people of Azerbaijan and the entire world to hear – groundless accusations against us will not remain unanswered,” Aliyev said during his visit to the southern district of Jabrayil on October 4.
The president’s response came after Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had voiced his country’s concern about the alleged presence of Israelis and the mercenaries of the Islamic State militant group along the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, during a joint press conference with his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan in Tehran. During the Second Karabakh War in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey was accused of deploying Syrian mercenaries to help Baku. Azerbaijan has denied the reports.
“Third forces” near borders?
Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied Iran’s allegations of the presence of “third forces” near the border between the two countries. In a statement on October 4, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that “in general, the presence of any forces, including terrorist elements, in Azerbaijani territory that could pose a threat to our state or our neighbors is out of the question. Unfortunately, during the 44-day war [between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Karabakh region] some parties made such completely baseless claims. We stated then, and we reiterate now, that such allegations are groundless and that no evidence has been presented to the Azerbaijani side up to date”.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have long been at odds over the Karabakh region. On September 27, 2020, the decades-old conflict between the two countries spiraled again, and during the military operations that lasted 44 days, Azerbaijani forces liberated over 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha, from nearly 30-year-long Armenian occupation.
The war ended in a tripartite statement signed on November 10 by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Under the statement, Armenia also returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan. The tripartite agreement addressed the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping contingent in the Armenian-inhabited part of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, including the city of Khankendi.
Aliyev also referred to earlier remarks of Iran’s Ardabil Friday Prayer Imam Ayatollah Seyyed Hasan Ameli who criticized the joint exercise by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, calling on Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps to hold maneuvers near the Azerbaijani border in order to show Iran’s power.
“We did not react when a provincial mullah in Iran trumped up some slander against Azerbaijan. But unfortunately, then officials in Iran started making groundless accusations against us, alleging that Azerbaijan brought Israel to the region. Let them open their eyes and see. Where do they see Israel here? No one lives here. There are no buildings here. Is there any evidence? No, there is not. If there is no evidence, everyone must bear responsibility for things they say. We cannot tolerate it that someone trumps up groundless accusations against us,” the Azerbaijani president stressed.
Aliyev also said that Azerbaijan “does not come out against countries which have close friendly relations with Armenia”, adding that “deep down in our hearts we can be worried about it, or even offended, especially when neighbor countries are very active in relations with Armenia, but we have never voiced it“.
Since gaining its independence in September 1991, Armenia has always viewed Iran as a friendly state and close partner. During the First Karabakh War in 1991-1994, the Islamic Republic had supported Armenia in its dispute with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh region, a policy that essentially contradicted its declared ideology of supporting Muslims.
Iran has numerous economic and trade agreements with Armenia, and Iran is one of Armenia’s most important suppliers of energy. As military clashes began to escalate between the two countries at the end of September, videos were published showing Russian military vehicles being transported by Iranian trailers to Armenia through the Meghri border chekpoint, although Iran’s foreign ministry denied it had given Armenia any military aid.
This footage of Russian military aid to Armenia via Iran sparked protests in northwestern cities of Iran and in Tehran, with protesters chanting anti-Armenian slogans, which had been unprecedented in Iran.
Armenia established a free economic zone in Meghri near the Armenia – Iran border in December 2017, hoping to bolster bilateral economic cooperation. Armenia is the only Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member with a land border with Iran, and Iran – EAEU interim free trade area agreement creates opportunities for EAEU member states to use Meghri FEZ as a launchpad to enter the Iranian market.
Another opportunity for bolstering bilateral economic relations is constructing the Armenia – Iran third high voltage electricity transmission line, which will allow significantly increasing the volumes of the electricity exports to Iran. The agreement was signed back in 2006; however, the actual construction was launched only in 2015 and would be finished in 2022.
Military drills near borders
On October 1, Iran launched a large-scale military exercise involving armored units, artillery, drones, electronic warfare units and helicopters near its border with Azerbaijan which was meant as a message to its arch-enemy Israel.
One commentator affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Dalirian, tweeted on September 30 that “just imagine that a war breaks out with Azerbaijan. The Islamic Republic can fire 1,000 ballistic missiles and hit 1,000 key points. The war will end in one day. And there will be no time to use other equipment.”
Azerbaijan and Turkey will hold joint military exercises near the Iranian border, in Azerbaijan’s exclave Nakhchivan this week. “The Unwavering Brotherhood-2021 drill will take place with the participation of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Nakhchivan between October 5-8,” Major Pınar Kara, the spokesperson of Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense, said in a televised announcement.
“The purpose of the exercise is to develop friendship, cooperation and coordination between the land forces of Turkey and Azerbaijan,” the ministry spokesperson added.
Enmity with Israel
Some analysts believe that Iran’s show of strength has more to do with Tehran’s arch-rival Israel. Azerbaijan has close ties with Israel based on gas sales in one direction and weapons sales in the other. That relationship has been strong for years, although it has been newly visible since last year’s war, in which Azerbaijan used Israeli weaponry to significant effect.
Attending the recent Iranian military exercises, Mohammad-Ali Ale-Hashem, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to the northwestern province of Ardabil, accused Israel of “seeking to create disruption and tension in good relations between Muslim countries.”
In a response to the remarks of Israeli ambassador in Baku, who said that unlike Iran, Israel, the United States and Azerbaijan invested in “diversity and tolerance”, Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Seyyed-Abbas Mousavi, said that “we have special respect for all Jews, Christians and other followers of the divine religions”. “But we are sure that the Republic of Azerbaijan and Palestine will remain Islamic countries forever. The dreams of Zionism for this region will never be interpreted,” Mousavi wrote in a tweet.
Iranian lorries’ illegal trip
News of illegal shipments from Iran to the Azerbaijani territories, where the Russian peacekeeping forces are temporarily deployed, has been making headlines for several months. However, relations have soured between the two countries over the past few weeks after Azerbaijan detained two Iranian truck drivers for illegally using an Azerbaijani-controlled section of a road connecting the Armenian towns of Kapan and Goris. A number of Iranian truck drivers reportedly said that Azeris had demanded up to $120 for every driver to cross the border.
According to data compiled by the Azerbaijani government, around 60 Iranian trucks illegally traveled to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region from August 11 to September 11, 2021. The trucks moved reportedly from Iran to Armenia, then to the Karabakh region via the Lachin corridor. Raoul Lowery Contreras, an internationally recognized author, claimed that they were loaded primarily with gasoline and other petroleum products.
In August, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the reconstruction of the Tatev-Aghvani road – an alternative route to the Goris-Kapan highway, saying that it should be completed by the end of the year.
The proposed “Zangazur corridor” – a transit route linking Azerbaijan with its exclave Naxcivan – will sever Iran’s land connection with Armenia. The establishment of the corridor was agreed as part of the Russian-brokered peace deal that ended the war.
Iranian military base in Armenia?
In an article published on October 3, Iranian hardline newspaper Javan, which is close to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), called for the establishment of an Iranian military base in Armenia’s southern Syunik Province to “calm down the turbulence to the north of the Aras River”.
The paper argued that if Baku rejects Iran’s calls through diplomatic channels, Iran “won’t have any choice other than to establish some kind of base in Syunik Province with Armenia’s permission”. Javan argued that such military presence to the north of the Aras River, which is Iran’s border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, will be better than “constant military drills to the south of the Aras”.
Javan’s article comes after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned neighboring countries against reliance on foreign forces to ensure their security, saying that “the events that are going on in Iran’s north-west and in some neighboring countries must be solved by the same logic, not allowing the presence of foreign forces”.