By Joshua Kucera *
(Eurasianet) — Iran’s military is conducting large-scale military drills on its border with Azerbaijan, including practicing crossings of the Aras River, which defines a large part of the border between the two states.
The exercises, called “Mighty Iran,” began on October 17. The exact location has not been specified, but Iranian media placed them in between Iran’s provinces of Ardabil and East Azerbaijan, the part of Iran across the Aras from Azerbaijan’s Fuzuli region.
They come as Iran has been stepping up its diplomatic warnings to Baku about Azerbaijan’s intentions for a new transport link connecting Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan with the Azerbaijani mainland, a route that Baku calls the “Zangezur corridor.” The route would pass along Armenia’s border with Iran, with uncertain consequences for Armenia-Iran commerce.
“Iran will not permit the blockage of its connection route with Armenia, and in order to secure that objective the Islamic Republic of Iran also launched a wargame in that region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in an October 19 interview with the IRNA news agency. Amir-Abdollahian was planning to visit Armenia on October 20 to officially open Iran’s new consulate in Kapan, in the flashpoint province of Syunik, which borders Azerbaijan and Iran, Armenia’s foreign ministry reported.
Iranian media have described the exercises as “massive.” Photos have depicted lengthy rows of tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems. Military officials say the forces in the drills have practiced simulations of airborne landings, as well as the use of suicide drones of the type that Russia recently debuted in Ukraine.
The most noteworthy element of the exercise so far has been the practice of crossing the Aras River using pontoon bridges, which Iranian media said was the first time the forces have drilled on that technique. The Aras River forms a large part of the Iran-Azerbaijan border, though presumably they chose a rare section in which the northern bank is Iranian, not Azerbaijani, territory. October 19 video from the exercise showed tanks and supply trucks driving over a pontoon bridge.
The exercise indicates that “the armed forces’ determination to confront any regime that wants to cut Iran’s land connection with Armenia is serious,” tweeted Iranian military analyst Hossein Daliran.
It comes as tensions in the region are growing on several fronts. In August, apparently in response to Iran’s regular warnings about the Zangezur corridor, Azerbaijani pro-government media began attacking Iran on a deeply sensitive issue, encouraging the large ethnic Azerbaijani minority in the country to secede.
In September, Azerbaijan launched an attack against a broad section of the Armenian border, raising fears of a larger invasion. Tension has continued to fester, with a recent increase in ceasefire violations. Iran, meanwhile, has been beset by countrywide anti-government protests while strengthening its alliance with Russia through the drone supplies.
After its infowar threats stoking separatism two months earlier, Baku has been noticeably quieter in the days since this exercise began. There has been no official comment, and pro-government media have been downplaying the story. Some outlets presented the exercises as taking place on the Armenian border, others speculated that the real target was likely Armenia because of the disastrous consequences an attack on Azerbaijan would entail. (One piece, in the pro-government Musavat, was an exception and did not minimize the issue, calling it “a very serious provocation and threat. With this, the Iranian side is demonstrating that it is ready to encroach on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan.”)
But Azerbaijan could be merely biding its time: the last time Iran held massive military drills on its border with Azerbaijan, last year, Baku responded in a similarly low-key manner for several days before President Ilham Aliyev fired back, if only rhetorically.
Iran’s embassy in Baku has been giving mixed messages about the exercises. It issued a statement insisting that the drills were pre-planned and that Azerbaijan was notified in advance, “taking into consideration the friendly and brotherly relations” between the two countries.
The ambassador himself, though, gave a more pointed statement, tweeting a video of the exercises set to martial music and writing that they were a demonstration of Iran’s “readiness to defend the security of the country’s borders and a decisive response to any threats and interventions by countries and regimes in the region.”
While Tehran has for some time been warning Azerbaijan about its threats to Armenia, in recent days its talking points have incorporated a new perceived threat in the Caucasus: the “European military presence.”
Iran President Ibrahim Raisi met with Aliyev in Astana on October 13 and a senior Raisi adviser wrote after the meeting that the Iranian leader “rejected any change in the historical borders, the geopolitics of the region, and the Iran-Armenia transit route” and that that would “elicit a decisive response from Iran.” But he added that Raisi “also rejected European military presence in the region under any cover. He said internal issues won’t distract us from the Iranian nation’s strategic interests.”
The “European military presence” would seem to be a reference to a new European Union monitoring mission that began deploying to Armenia this week. That mission will be modest – 40 members, with a two-month mandate – but it seems to have spooked Iran. More Europeans could be coming: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that it would be sending an “assessment mission” to Armenia between October 21 and 27.
The goal of the European mission(s) appears to be the same as that of the Iranian military exercises: reduce fears of an Azerbaijani attack on Armenia. (One Azerbaijani analyst, improbably, suggested the two sides may be in cahoots.)
How the European presence in Armenia may change Iran’s strategic calculations remains to be seen. But Armenia continues to count on support from Tehran. A delegation of members of Armenia’s parliament visited Tehran on October 13 and met with several senior Iranian government officials, including Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian.
“Iran’s principled position regarding the inevitable need to protect Armenia’s internationally recognized borders and territorial integrity and to condemn the recent military aggression undertaken by Azerbaijan was emphasized,” wrote the leader of the group, MP Gevorg Papoyan.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.