Iranian escalation in Azerbaijan… New Front against Israel or Confrontation with Turkish Expansion?

Tension still prevails on the Iranian-Azerbaijan border, especially after a series of occurrences that came off last summer and continue until now. The sharp wrangling between the two neighboring countries is accompanied by military maneuvers and moves, which include other parties. Having known this, it is inferred that the relationship between Tehran and Baku may be heading towards further escalation, taking into consideration the many scenarios that are up to more than one possibility.

The declared central point that has caused the tension appears to be the cooperation relations between Azerbaijan and Israel and the possibility of Tel Aviv exploiting them in its open war on the Iranian nuclear file. However, observers opine that Turkey is one of the reasons for the recent escalation between Azerbaijan and Iran. They consider that the joint military exercises Turkey conducted with Pakistan in Azerbaijan seems to have provoked Tehran.

A new front between Iran and Israel

Although the current tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have merely been confined to a war of words and military exercises along their 700-kilometre border, observers expect the tensions to turn into a military conflict between the two countries. A Middle East Eye report believes that the tension may escalate into an all-out conflict.

On October 1st this year, Iran began military exercises on its borders with Azerbaijan. They were the most extensive ones since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Armored and artillery units, helicopters and unmanned aircraft participated, in addition to electronic warfare units. The maneuvers were called “Conquerors of Khaybar,” in a symbolic indication of the purpose of its establishing, which is to deter any Israeli moves luanched from the Azerbaijani territories against Iran.

Political and military analysts warn of the possibility of quarrels developing into a military confrontation between Iran and Azerbaijan. The direct effects of which would extend to the entire Caucasus, Central Asia and some areas of the Arabian Gulf, assuming that Israel does what it has threatened to do by launching an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, which would also affect Azerbaijan.

Khalifa al-Hawzani, a military analyst, does not rule out that Tehran might target Israeli interests in Azerbaijan. He suggests that the threats come in response to what is attributed to Israel of targeting Iranian nuclear facilities and threatening Iranian economic interests by Azerbaijan.

Al-Hawzani also points out that the maneuvers reflect the concerns that Tehran is experiencing as a result of Israel incurring into the Caucasus region and strengthening its relations with Azerbaijan. The analyst considers that these maneuvers and threats come in the context of Iran’s rearrangement of cards and developing strategies after the war that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year.

In addition, the military analyst refers to the trade exchange relations that include military equipment between Israel and Azerbaijan whereby Azerbaijan purchased an Israeli missile system and drones manufactured by Elbit, an Israeli company for defense and military industries. According to Al-Hawzani, this was preceded by a deal concluded of an average of one billion dollars annually between the two countries. As for Azerbaijan, in exchange for these deals, support and Israeli assistance, it allows Tel Aviv to conduct intelligence and military training in its territory without disclosing the nature of them.

Al-Hawzani believes that Iran is concerned with Israel arming Azerbaijan as the support and military advice from Israel and private companies enhances Azerbaijan’s military power, and thus gives it the strength to demand economic benefits and more natural resources which it may share with Iran. This would threaten Iran’s economic interests in case any dispute with Azerbaijan has fallen out.

It is worthy of note that Tehran, through its foreign minister, Hossein Abdollahian, has warned the Azerbaijani side against allowing third parties to act against Iran, confirming that Iran knows how to maintain its security.

 “The presence of the Zionists and terrorists (in reference to Israel) is a source of serious concern to us, and we will not allow foreign interference to affect our relations with our neighbors,” the Iranian minister says.

It is notable that Israel has some military bases in Azerbaijan. The first base was approved at Ehud Barak’s request, the former Prime Minister in 2000. Following this, Israel built a second base in 2003.

These two bases are located in southern Azerbaijan and contain drones and high-tech spy systems which Iran says are directed against its interests.

However, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs has argued that “there are no third forces near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border,” The ministry clearly refers to Israel implicitly without mentioning it by name.

Possible scenarios…

Khaldoun Mahyoub, a political analyst and specialist in Iranian affairs, agrees with what Al-Hawzani said about the possibility of a military confrontation between Iran and Azerbaijan. He, however, believes that the current developments are associated with some scenarios all of which are related to what Israel will do. Mahyoub put emphasis on the similarity of all of these scenarios which delivers that the current situation will not remain the same.

The first scenario, according to Mahyoub, is based on the two countries being drawn into a military clash resulted by an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, with Tehran accentuating that it is impossible to carry out the strike without using the Azerbaijani territory as a launching pad and for logistical support.

Still, this scenario is ruled out despite the Israeli threats repeated since 2000 for many reasons. The most important of which is that Israel cannot unilaterally make the decision without an American green light, according to Mahyoub. “Even if Israel got the approval of Washington, its own potential is still not enough for directing a decisive blow to the Iranian nuclear project, due to the distance and fortification of Iranian nuclear facilities,” Mahyoub believes. The analyst anticipates that the Israeli strikes will be distributed between Lebanon, Syria and even Iraq.

As for the second scenario, it is a joint Israeli-American strike to which the calculations of Iran responding are supposed to be more difficult. Mahyoub relies on this possibility based on high-level American statements that suggested that the Joe Biden administration would resort to other means if diplomatic ones failed to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli military analysts think that it was, and still is, in Israel’s interest that the strikes on nuclear facilities to be carried out under the leadership of the United States and the cover of international powers.

 “The third scenario is based on Israel resorting to three alternatives developed by the Strategic Department and the Third Department in the army, commissioned by Aviv Kochavi, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, in January 2021, to undermine Iran’s nuclear efforts,” Mahyoub adds. He points out that Tehran will determine its response unilaterally or in partnership with Washington according to what Tel Aviv will do.

On Sunday, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister, pledged to prevent Iran by deed, not by words, from acquiring a nuclear capability. The prime minister draws attention to the fact the Iranian authorities have achieved a high leap in uranium enrichment during the past three years, and is today at the closest point to possessing a nuclear bomb in its entire history.

In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly late last month, Bennett considered that Iran’s nuclear program crossed “all red lines”, and he also accused Iran of seeking to dominate the Middle East by creating a nuclear umbrella over the region. He stresses that his country will not allow Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iranian anger…Turkish expansion…

In conjunction with the sudden military maneuvers carried out by the Iranian army on the border with Azerbaijan and Baku’s dissatisfaction with the Iranian escalation, the Turkish Ministry of Defense has announced holding joint military exercises with Azerbaijan in the Nakhchivan region near the border with Iran.  These acts come as the latest manifestations of the escalating crisis among the three countries.

In a development considered by observers to be the most prominent one, the Turkish Ministry of Defense has announced that it will continue to work with Azerbaijan in order to support the Azerbaijani army. “We will continue to stand side by side with our brothers and sisters in Azerbaijan, with whom we meet in sorrow and joy, with all our capabilities as we have been doing so far,” added by the Ministry.

In addition, the various Turkish media outlets have dealt with the news of Iranian maneuvers as threatening messages to Azerbaijan. Turkish newspapers wrote headlines such as “Iran is playing with fire,” “Iran is taking dangerous escalatory steps” and “Iran is taking sudden provocative steps.”

Yılmaz Özdil, a Turkish journalist, stresses that the Iranian tension with Azerbaijan has only come as a result of Tehran’s anger about the Turkish-Azerbaijani victory in Karabakh, and the fear of Turkish influence rising in Asia. The journalist considers that Iran is enraged with Ankara growing influence In Azerbaijan and the Caucasus in general. Iran is also more disturbed by the Karabakh war results, which will soon allow the opening of a direct passage for trade from Turkey to Azerbaijan and from there to Asia. This passage will weaken the significance of Iran’s location to Turkey, which would make Iran suffer economic losses as a result of the expected shift in Turkish trade lines towards Asia.

Regarding Iran’s hints that the main reason for Tehran’s anger towards Baku is the growing relationship with Israel, Özdil says that Azerbaijani and Turkish estimates indicate that this is just “propaganda” through which Iran is trying to hide its mounting anger about the facts imposed by the victory in Karabakh and its consequent vital geopolitical changes in the border area among Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

It is worthy of mention that Turkey supported Azerbaijan in its battle to liberate the Karabakh region a year ago. After fierce battles that lasted 44 days, Russia announced on November 10, 2020, that Azerbaijan and Armenia reached a ceasefire agreement. This agreement stipulated that Baku regain control of occupied provinces, which allowed the opening of a direct passage between Turkey and Azerbaijan passing through the Nakhchivan region. This road came after Iran had for decades been a mandatory passage in order for Turkey to reach Azerbaijan.

In addition to the economic and geopolitical reasons, the Turkish journalist refers to the Iranian fear represented mainly by the increasing separatist tendency that Azeri origin- Iranians have. These people are estimated at 25 percent of the population and live in the border area with Azerbaijan. Tehran accuses Turkey and Azerbaijan of promoting this tendency.

It is noticeable that about a year ago, a diplomatic crisis erupted between Ankara and Tehran as a consequence of Erdogan’s recitation of poetic verses that were considered as an attempt to incite Iranians of Azeri origin to separate.

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