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Military exercises and a war of words between Iran and Azerbaijan

5 October 2021
Vehicle-mounted self-propelled rocket launcher systems arranged for 1 October Iranian military exercises. Photo: IRNA.

Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have spiked in recent days, with the Iranian military holding exercises near Iran’s border with Nakhchivan and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei making thinly veiled threats against Baku.

‘Those who dig a hole for their brothers will be the first to fall into it', Khamenei tweeted on 3 October, while commenting on ‘issues concerning Iran's northwestern neighbours’.

The previous day, coinciding with the start of the military exercises, Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian told a local news channel that ‘Zionists’ had been ‘present in some parts of Azerbaijan’ during ‘failed attempts’ by ‘terrorist groups’ to approach the Iran-Azerbaijan border. 

On 4 October, Aliyev replied to the statements from Tehran. 

‘Recently, when some Iranian provincial mullahs opened their mouths and fabricated slanders against Azerbaijan, Baku did not pay attention to it’, Aliyev told reporters during a visit to the Jabrayil region. ‘Let them open their eyes and see. Where did they see Israel here?’

‘We cannot allow anyone to fabricate baseless slander against us’, the Azerbaijani president said.

On 5 October, Azerbaijan closed the Baku office of Supreme Leader Khamenei's representative in Azerbaijan, Ojag Necat — supposedly for reasons of COVID-19 safety.  

Tensions between the two countries have been strained since Azerbaijan has been stopping and levying customs fees on Iranian cargo lorries travelling through Azerbaijani controlled portions of Armenia’s Goris-Kapan road. 

Azerbaijan took control of roughly 20km of the road, which crosses the internationally-recognised Armenia-Azerbaijan border, after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. 

Ahmad Alili, the director of the Caucasus Center for Political Analysis, a Baku-based independent think tank, told OC Media that the recent war of words is unlikely to escalate into an actual military confrontation. 

Iran is well aware that any military confrontation with Azerbaijan could result in a joint alliance of Israel, the West and the United States’, Alili said. ‘I do not think Iran is ready for such a risk.’

Meanwhile, ‘periodic press skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Iran will continue’ which, Alili said, especially as questions of who might succeed the 81-year-old Khamenei as Supreme Leader only become more acute. 

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