In recent years, Iranian politicians have viewed neighboring Azerbaijan as Israel’s proxy, which may explain why Iran named its most extensive ground military exercise in recent years on the Iranian-Azeri border, “Khyber Conquerors.”
Khyber refers to the door of an ancient Jewish fortress on the Arabian Peninsula that was conquered by Imam Ali, the first Shia Imam. Therefore, from Iran’s point of view, Azerbaijan is today’s version of that same fortress and its door is the Zangezur corridor—proposed by Azerbaijan to connect the rest of the country with its Nakhchivan enclave via Armenia’s southern Syunik region. According to Iranian hardliners, the crossing could be a gateway for Israel and NATO’s direct entry into the Caucasus and, therefore, would violate Armenia’s territorial integrity and also threaten Iran.
The 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which led to Baku’s recapturing of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from Yerevan, had significant consequences for Tehran. Contrary to expectations, during the war, Iran provided political and military support to Azerbaijan—due to Iran’s sizeable Azeri minority population, which includes the country’s Supreme Leader—and not to Armenia, despite Iran long being geopolitically aligned with Yerevan. This was in part because Iran recognized Baku’s military superiority over Armenia. Nevertheless, a year after a ceasefire was declared, defense, security, and geopolitical developments in the region have evolved in a way that has angered Tehran.
The October 1 Khyber military exercises by the Iranian armed forces on the seven hundred-kilometer northwestern border with Azerbaijan have only added to tensions. The story began when Baku imposed a “road tax” and detained two Iranian truck drivers entering the Nagorno-Karabakh region—a path truck drivers must take to transport fuel and goods to Armenia.
The war games were allegedly prompted after comments made by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to the Turkish Anadolu Agency on September 28. During the interview, Aliyev accused Iran of violating Azerbaijan’s sovereignty by hiding the identity of the Iranian trucks heading to Armenia. To substantiate his claims, Aliyev cited satellite, drone, and ground imagery of what he called “illegal” Iranian actions. This interview came as Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey conducted military exercises on September 12 in Baku.
Upon news of the Iranian military maneuvers on its border, the first since the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev said: “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?”
The military exercises
Initially, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) ground forces conducted a tactical practice on the border by sending hundreds of combat battalions, including infantry, rocket artillery, and armored and electronic warfare units. The ground forces deployed in less than forty-eight hours, which is surprising given that they arrived from numerous provinces. It was also a highly unusual deployment since divisions and combat units are typically deployed from the same area as the military exercises. When the IRGC announced the end of the military drill, it left the combat battalions situated by the border area in a state of readiness.
Iran’s campaign sent a fiery message to Azerbaijan on the first anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was also extraordinary because the drill didn’t appear to be of the traditional sort held to test new equipment. Contrary to official military statements, Iran did not need to send large armored, mechanized, and infantry units to the region. Moreover, unlike when these forces were sent, there is no news of the return of combat battalions to the provinces where they belong. Therefore, it can be concluded that the real goal was to deploy the military force needed for a possible armed conflict under the guise of a military drill.
Tehran’s main concern with Azerbaijan is the increasing military capabilities provided by its patrons Israel and Turkey. This is changing the geostrategic balance to Iran’s detriment. Tehran is also worried that if Azerbaijan succeeds in imposing the Zangzur corridor on the Armenian government, Baku could easily connect to Turkey, Israel, and the European Union by land, thus, excluding Iran from its transit equations. Iran sees this as further expanding the presence of Israel and NATO on its borders and undermining Iran’s relations with Armenia.
On September 30, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told Azerbaijan’s new ambassador to Tehran that Iran had a right to hold war games on the border, adding, “We do not tolerate the presence and activity against our national security of the Zionist regime next to our borders and will take any necessary action in this regard.” Sabotage attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the assassination of its nuclear scientists—including most recently Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020—have widely been attributed to Israel. Azerbaijan denied the allegations.
Similar comments were made by the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, General Kioumars Heidari. “Since the arrival of this regime, our sensitivity to this border has increased and their activities here are fully under our observation,” said Heydari, in reference to Israel. He also noted that Iran was concerned about “terrorist forces that came to the region from Syria,” an apparent reference to reports that Turkey recruited jihadists to help Baku in Nagorno-Karabakh. Heydari claimed that Iran was uncertain whether these groups had left the Caucasus.
On October 5, Azerbaijan reportedly closed a mosque and office in Baku linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Why Iran is worried
The high self-confidence of Azerbaijani authorities today, the coldness of Tehran-Yerevan ties due to Iran’s support of Baku during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the growing influence of Turkey and Israel in the Caucasus have made Iranian officials concerned about the possibility of a limited conflict in the region that would drag northwestern Iran into sectarian warfare—possibly over the severance of Armenia’s land connection with Iran. Nevertheless, this situation results from Iran’s lack of a clear and planned defense policy in border areas such as the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
It is unclear to what extent the new Ebrahim Raisi government and Supreme National Security Council can formulate a clear defense and security policy in the face of the security challenge with Azerbaijan. However, what is clear is the possibility of an aggressive defense and foreign policy given that tensions in the Middle East and the Caucasus are much higher than last year. Despite there being a new prime minister in Israel, its security policy toward Iran has not changed. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure due to alleged covert Israeli actions has increased the risk of Iranian retaliation against Israeli citizens and its interests in the Middle East. This would certainly explain why Iranian officials are constantly talking about their intention to repel the Israeli threat in the Caucasus region.