Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have been on the rise in recent weeks.
The relationship between the two countries started souring in August, when Azeri forces reportedly detained Iranian trucks passing through Azerbaijan on their way to Armenia.
Relations were further strained when Turkish and Azeri forces held a joint drill in the Caspian Sea. Iran claimed that the drill violated an international convention that barred the forces of countries not bordering on the sea.
On Friday, Iran began a large military exercise close to its border with Azerbaijan. The drill, which Iranian ground forces commander Gen. Kioumars Heidari said was intended to exhibit the country’s capabilities, test the troops’ preparedness and test weaponry, prompted a surprised response from the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev.
In an interview for Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, Aliyev said that he was shocked by the exercise. “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?” he said.
While Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, portrayed the exercise as “a question of sovereignty,” a move whose goal is “protecting regional security,” a series of statements by Iranian officials – including Khatibzadeh himself – have connected the drill to Azerbaijan’s close ties with Israel.
In a meeting with the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not tolerate the presence and activities of the Zionist regime against its national security and will take due measures accordingly,” Fars News Agency reported.
Iranian commander Heidari told state TV, “We respect good neighborly relations but we do not tolerate the presence of Zionist regime elements and Islamic State terrorists in the region.”
Israel is a close ally of Azerbaijan and has supplied it with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry. Azerbaijan in turn has sold oil to its Middle Eastern ally.
Iran and Israel meanwhile, have exchanged blows continuously in the past year. Perhaps most notably, Israel allegedly assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and attacked a nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran.
The Islam Republic, in turn, has supposedly attacked Israeli-affiliated ships, to which Israel has retaliated as part of a quiet maritime conflict between the countries.
Zvi Magen, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Russia said. “Supposedly, there is a basis to Iran’s claim about Israeli activity on the Azerbaijani side.”
He explains though, that Israel and its partnership with Azerbaijan are no more than an excuse, as nothing has happened in the Israeli-Azerbaijani arena recently that is new and could prompt Iranian action.
"Iran generally uses the cover of acting against Israel to generate domestic and Muslim support," Magen said. “The Iranian move here is certainly assertive, problematic, and so it requires the justification [of the struggle with Israel]."
“Israel gives them [Iran] a good excuse for this military maneuver but they mean a lot more by it,” Magen added.
Turkey has a closer relationship with Azerbaijan, as well as a more significant presence in the country, and Magen believes that that is a bigger source of Iranian worry.
Russia is also involved in the region, as part of its activity in the former Soviet Union. While Israel is ostensibly the “foreign influence” that worries Tehran, Turkey and Russia are more likely the intended recipients of Iran’s message, Magen believes.
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Eyal Pinko, a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Political Studies Department and an expert on military strategy and intelligence, believes that Israeli-Azerbaijani relations are at the heart of Iranian discontent with its neighbor, but the larger picture should be kept in view.
“Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan ran off course somewhere in 2018 when Azerbaijan joined Trump’s ban … and stopped buying oil from Iran,” Pinko said.
Azerbaijan sided with the U.S. again in 2019 against Iran, drawing its ire.
During the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh – a long-standing struggle – Iran supported the Armenians, putting further pressure on the relations.
Yet Pinko says he believes that Azerbaijan’s close alliance with Israel “is the most significant point of contention standing between Iran and Azerbaijan.”
“Ultimately, I think that the story is that from the Iranian perspective, Azerbaijan could be a front position for an Israeli assault on Iran, especially with the major tension between Israel and Iran during the past year,” Pinko added.
Pinko also points to Iranian efforts to subvert U.S. sanctions by selling its oil – to Syria, for example – which contributes to the increasingly tense atmosphere in the region.
With these events in mind, Pinko suggests that Iran “wishes to send a deterring message to Israel and Azerbaijan, on the one hand, while also preparing themselves for a scenario in which Israel does actually attack Iran through Azerbaijan.”
Operating from Azerbaijan is a logical option for Israel, explains the military expert. If Israel is in fact working to establish a base of operations there, it should be seen as a wider effort of both countries – which do not share a border – to establish closer bases of operation.
Article written by Daniel Sonnefeld and republished with permission from The Media Line