Saturday, October 2, 2021

Iran begins war games near tense Azerbaijan border, citing ‘Zionist’ presence

Iran’s national army began exercises on Friday near its border with Azerbaijan, state TV reported, putting on a display of military capabilities near a neighbor it is increasingly skeptical of for its ties to the West and Israel.

Artillery, drones and helicopters will participate in the drills, the report said, without elaborating on how long they would last or where exactly they would be held. Iran occasionally holds such events, saying it wants to assess combat readiness and demonstrate capabilities.

The exercises come amid escalating tensions along the border. Iran is wary of Azerbaijan in particular for its deep military cooperation with the Islamic Republic’s rival Israel, and on Thursday voiced its concerns to Azerbaijani ambassador in Tehran Ali Alizadeh.

“We do not tolerate the presence and activity against our national security of the Zionist regime, or Israel, next to our borders,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said. “And we will carry out any necessary action in this regard.”

Ground forces commander Brigadier General Kioumars Heidari told state TV: “We respect good neighborly relations but we do not tolerate the presence of Zionist regime elements and Islamic State terrorists in the region.”

Amirabdollahian described relations between Iran and Azerbaijan as “important,” but insisted Iran had the “right” to hold the exercises.

Earlier this week, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he was stunned by the planned exercises, in an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

“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?” he said.

His comments were rebuffed by Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

“The drills carried out by our country in the northwest border areas… are a question of sovereignty,” Khatibzadeh said in a statement on Tuesday.

Iran and Azerbaijan share a border of around 700 kilometers (430 miles).

Azerbaijan and Israel have strengthened their military alliance in recent months, with Israeli-supplied high-tech drones helping Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year.

The tensions with Azerbaijan have also complicated a vital border passage that trucks use to ferry fuel and other goods from Iran to Armenia. Azerbaijani authorities have detained two Iranian truck drivers in recent weeks for trying to take the route, angering Iran.

Ground forces chief Heidari described the presence of Israel in Azerbaijan as “disrupting security” in the region, the official IRNA news agency reported on Friday. “Our sensitivity toward the border has increased and [Israel’s] activities here is under our surveillance completely,” he said at the exercises.

The military drills come after Azerbaijan hosted joint military exercises in September with Turkish and Pakistani special forces for the first time.

The region remains on edge over Iran’s escalating nuclear program. Talks in Vienna to revive Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 accord with world powers have stalled since June, with no date set for their resumption.