Azerbaijani soldiers in Nakhichevan

Azerbaijan and Iran Hold Military Drills amidst Apparent Détente

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By Aytan Farhadova

Azerbaijan and Iran have held joint military exercises in what appears to be a warming of relations between the two countries.

The drills took place in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan (Nakhichevan) on Wednesday, June 12. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced that the two countries would conduct ‘tactical exercises’ to ‘protect strategic facilities and communication lines from possible sabotage’ a day earlier.

Iran and Azerbaijan have long maintained strained relations. Iran has objected to Azerbaijan’s ties with Israel, while Azerbaijan has repeatedly accused Iran of supporting Shia extremists in Azerbaijan.

However, the two countries appear to be easing diplomatic tensions between them, having reached an agreement to develop their military partnership last year, and their implementation of long-awaited projects, such as the construction of a road connecting western Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan through Iran, and the commissioning of the Khudafarin hydropower plant in May.

Shujaat Ahmadzada, an independent Azerbaijani researcher, told OC Media that the drills the two countries held did not herald a potential “military alliance between Azerbaijan and Iran.”

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“To be honest, the two countries’ foreign policies are opposite to each other. For me, it is a tactical act through which Azerbaijan and Iran would like to send a message,” he said, adding that Iranian–Azerbaijani relations were an act of “balance” based on developments in the Middle East.

However, with Israel’s war in Gaza continuing, Ahmadzada argued that Israel might find itself at odds with Azerbaijan’s other partners and allies, such as Turkey and Pakistan, which might, in turn, push Azerbaijan to develop closer ties to Iran.

Ahmadzada also highlighted Iran’s drone and missile strike against Israel in April, which he believed demonstrated to Azerbaijani experts and analysts that it was capable of direct military strikes rather than relying on proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

“This shows that against our cultural point of view, Iran thinks that foreign policy can show its strength. And these facts made Azerbaijan reconsider Iran; to force Azerbaijan to be careful,” he told OC Media. “It feels like in the political vision of both countries, security is important in foreign policy. Azerbaijan cares about Iran’s view of the South Caucasus and wants to avoid this. Iran is trying to have the last say in this region.”

On the other hand, Ahmadzada highlighted that 25–30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Iran’s northwest, which he said could have influenced Tehran’s decision to ease diplomatic tensions with Azerbaijan.

Tensions deepened between Azerbaijan and Iran following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 as the authorities in Azerbaijan began to periodically crack down on and arrest members of its Shia community on suspicion of spying for Iran.

Azerbaijan has also previously demanded that Iran ‘end disrespect for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan’, expressing consternation at the supposed travel of Iranian cargo lorries to Armenian-inhabited parts of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2021.

In January 2023, an armed man stormed into Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Tehran, killing its head of security and injuring two other guards, leading Azerbaijani officials to blame Iran for the attack.

(This article was originally published by the outlet OC Media on June 14.)