.
T

ensions are growing between Iran and its northern neighbor Azerbaijan. Tehran threatens to strike Baku, while the energy-rich Caucasus nation launched joint military drills with its ally Turkey. Are the two countries really on the verge of a full-scale war?

The formal reason for growing warmongering rhetoric is Azerbaijan’s decision to stop Iranian trucks transiting a key road through southern Armenia and charging them a fee for entering Azerbaijan. As a result of the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh region, Baku has captured not only large portions of the mountainous territory, but also sections of the Goris-Kapan road in southern Armenia. Now Iranian truck drivers, on their way to the north, have to pass through the area that is controlled by the Azeri troops who reportedly demand a toll for trucks for using the road. In order to avoid that, Iran has two options: to wait until Baku and Yerevan complete the process of border demarcation—with a highly uncertain outcome—or to build an additional road in Armenia that will bypass the Azeri checkpoints. Alternatively, Tehran could directly negotiate with Azerbaijan and attempt to resolve the issue.

Instead, the Islamic Republic has decided to raise the stakes. On October 1st, it conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan. Thousands of troops, dozens of tanks, artillery, drones, and helicopters participated in the exercises. At the same time, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that “the Islamic Republic will not tolerate any geopolitical changes at its borders and will strongly resist against the enemies' hostile objectives.”

The problem for Iran, however, lies in the fact that the 44-day war has already resulted in significant geopolitical changes. Russia, who has been the major foreign actor operating in the Caucasus for decades, now has to share influence in the region with Turkey. Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have played a major role in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and as a result of the conflict Ankara increased its presence in the Caspian Sea region. In 2021 Turkey and Azerbaijan signed the Shusha Declaration making the two countries military allies. Therefore, it is not surprising that Baku and Ankara launched military drills on October 5, a move which is seen as a response to Iranian actions on the border with Azerbaijan.

“We respect good neighborly relations but we do not tolerate the presence of Zionist regime (Israeli) elements and Islamic State terrorists in the region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said, pointing out that the Islamic Republic we will “carry out any necessary action in this regard.”

Despite harsh threats and warmongering rhetoric, it is not probable Iran will engage in a military confrontation against Turkey-backed Azerbaijan that also has a strategic partnership with Israel. Iranian leaders are aware that besides Turkey, Azerbaijan developed close cooperation with Pakistan, and it is not a secret that Israel supplied Baku with sophisticated drones prior to the war against Armenia. In other words, in a potential conflict, Iran would be on its own, while Azerbaijan would be heavily backed by Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. The Islamic Republic can hardly count on Russia’s help, given that Russian peacekeeping troops are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is questionable if another war in the Caucasus is in the Kremlin’s interest.

Tehran, for its part, can hope to increase military cooperation with Armenia and potentially deploy its troops to the former Soviet republic, although such an option does not seem probable. Armenia is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Moscow would be unlikely to approve any deployment of the Iranian forces in the Russian sphere of influence. Moreover, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently urged Yerevan to normalize relations with Turkey, and Armenia already allowed Azerbaijan to use Armenian airspace for civilian flights on its Baku-Nakhichevan route. In addition, sooner or later Yerevan will be expected to get involved in the construction of the Nakhichevan corridor that will link the Azeri Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with mainland Azerbaijan, through Armenian territory. Aware of that, Iran is encouraging Yerevan to connect the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea via the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). However, Azerbaijan is also part of the INSTC project, and Iran’s potential conflict with Baku would have a negative impact on the very construction of the corridor that will give Iran access to Russia and further to Europe.

Finally, if current tensions with Azerbaijan eventually turn into a military confrontation, Iran risks a potential rebellion in its East Azerbaijan region. Tehran reportedly fears that the Turkish authorities are planning to supply weapons to the province inhabited by Iranian Azerbaijanis which could lead to a full-scale guerrilla war in northern Iran. For all those reasons, Iran is expected to limit its activities in the region to the conduction of massive drills on the border with Azerbaijan.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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What’s Behind Iran’s War Games in the Caucasus?

The Nagorno-Karabakh region. Photo by Vaghinak Vardanyan via Unsplash.

October 14, 2021

Tensions are growing between Iran and its northern neighbor Azerbaijan. Tehran threatens to strike Baku, while the energy-rich Caucasus nation launched joint military drills with its ally Turkey. Are the two countries really on the verge of a full-scale war?

T

ensions are growing between Iran and its northern neighbor Azerbaijan. Tehran threatens to strike Baku, while the energy-rich Caucasus nation launched joint military drills with its ally Turkey. Are the two countries really on the verge of a full-scale war?

The formal reason for growing warmongering rhetoric is Azerbaijan’s decision to stop Iranian trucks transiting a key road through southern Armenia and charging them a fee for entering Azerbaijan. As a result of the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh region, Baku has captured not only large portions of the mountainous territory, but also sections of the Goris-Kapan road in southern Armenia. Now Iranian truck drivers, on their way to the north, have to pass through the area that is controlled by the Azeri troops who reportedly demand a toll for trucks for using the road. In order to avoid that, Iran has two options: to wait until Baku and Yerevan complete the process of border demarcation—with a highly uncertain outcome—or to build an additional road in Armenia that will bypass the Azeri checkpoints. Alternatively, Tehran could directly negotiate with Azerbaijan and attempt to resolve the issue.

Instead, the Islamic Republic has decided to raise the stakes. On October 1st, it conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan. Thousands of troops, dozens of tanks, artillery, drones, and helicopters participated in the exercises. At the same time, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that “the Islamic Republic will not tolerate any geopolitical changes at its borders and will strongly resist against the enemies' hostile objectives.”

The problem for Iran, however, lies in the fact that the 44-day war has already resulted in significant geopolitical changes. Russia, who has been the major foreign actor operating in the Caucasus for decades, now has to share influence in the region with Turkey. Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have played a major role in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and as a result of the conflict Ankara increased its presence in the Caspian Sea region. In 2021 Turkey and Azerbaijan signed the Shusha Declaration making the two countries military allies. Therefore, it is not surprising that Baku and Ankara launched military drills on October 5, a move which is seen as a response to Iranian actions on the border with Azerbaijan.

“We respect good neighborly relations but we do not tolerate the presence of Zionist regime (Israeli) elements and Islamic State terrorists in the region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said, pointing out that the Islamic Republic we will “carry out any necessary action in this regard.”

Despite harsh threats and warmongering rhetoric, it is not probable Iran will engage in a military confrontation against Turkey-backed Azerbaijan that also has a strategic partnership with Israel. Iranian leaders are aware that besides Turkey, Azerbaijan developed close cooperation with Pakistan, and it is not a secret that Israel supplied Baku with sophisticated drones prior to the war against Armenia. In other words, in a potential conflict, Iran would be on its own, while Azerbaijan would be heavily backed by Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. The Islamic Republic can hardly count on Russia’s help, given that Russian peacekeeping troops are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is questionable if another war in the Caucasus is in the Kremlin’s interest.

Tehran, for its part, can hope to increase military cooperation with Armenia and potentially deploy its troops to the former Soviet republic, although such an option does not seem probable. Armenia is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Moscow would be unlikely to approve any deployment of the Iranian forces in the Russian sphere of influence. Moreover, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently urged Yerevan to normalize relations with Turkey, and Armenia already allowed Azerbaijan to use Armenian airspace for civilian flights on its Baku-Nakhichevan route. In addition, sooner or later Yerevan will be expected to get involved in the construction of the Nakhichevan corridor that will link the Azeri Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with mainland Azerbaijan, through Armenian territory. Aware of that, Iran is encouraging Yerevan to connect the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea via the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). However, Azerbaijan is also part of the INSTC project, and Iran’s potential conflict with Baku would have a negative impact on the very construction of the corridor that will give Iran access to Russia and further to Europe.

Finally, if current tensions with Azerbaijan eventually turn into a military confrontation, Iran risks a potential rebellion in its East Azerbaijan region. Tehran reportedly fears that the Turkish authorities are planning to supply weapons to the province inhabited by Iranian Azerbaijanis which could lead to a full-scale guerrilla war in northern Iran. For all those reasons, Iran is expected to limit its activities in the region to the conduction of massive drills on the border with Azerbaijan.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.