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WASHINGTON DC: Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan are high amid a diplomatic row that is approaching the point of crisis, regional observers say.
Although the two countries normally enjoy cordial relations, they go their separate ways due to conflicting strategic interests and political visions.
Azerbaijani authorities, long frustrated by Iran’s support for its neighbor and rival, Armenia, launched a crackdown on Iranian cross-border smuggling that was a lifeline for the Armenian separatist camp in the Nagorno-Karabakh region .
In 2020, following a Russian-brokered ceasefire, Armenian forces agreed to hand over much of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which marked a significant victory for Baku after a war. 44 days.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian separatists protected by Russian peacekeepers still control the town of Khankendi, also known as Stepankeret, and a handful of surrounding villages.
Iran’s entire border with what was once Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh is now under the control of Azerbaijani authorities.
However, Iranian trucks reportedly continued to enter Nagorno-Karabakh without paying the required customs fees to the Azerbaijani government.
“This is not the first time that Iranian trucks have traveled illegally to the Karabakh region,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said this week.
“This is something that has happened several times during the occupation period. About 60 Iranian trucks entered Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region without permission between August 11 and September 11 this year after Azerbaijan called on Iran to end the practice.
“Then we started to control the road through Azerbaijani territory, and the trucks sent by Iran to Karabakh ended. “
Tensions were further fueled by joint military exercises organized by the Azerbaijani army with Turkey and Pakistan 500 kilometers from the country’s border with Iran.
Aliyev also inaugurated a new military base in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Jabrayil, right on the border with Iran, making sure to be filmed alongside a line of Israeli-made Harop combat drones as Azerbaijan used with devastating effect during the 2020 war.
Iran claimed that Azerbaijan allowed Israel to establish a base on the Iranian border.
“Iran will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime near our borders,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry.
Iran then conducted a multi-day military exercise along its border with Azerbaijan.
According to the Iranian Tasnim News Agency, the Azerbaijani government has ordered the closure of a mosque in Baku linked to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The mosque and representative office of Seyyed Ali Akbar Ojaghnejad, representative of Supreme Leader (Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei in Baku, were sealed and closed today by order of the authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Tasnim said.
Azerbaijan claimed the move was necessary due to “an increase in COVID-19 cases in several locations in Baku”, claiming that the operation of the mosque has been “temporarily suspended”.
Iran’s embassy in Baku said there had been no prior warning of the move.
Speaking to Arab News, Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Baku-based Center for Analysis of International Relations, said: “Only Iran will suffer from these statements. Tehran, first of all, should see the Caucasus as a region for potential cooperation.
“Iran’s statements about ‘third’ or ‘foreign’ forces stationed in Azerbaijan primarily target Israel and Turkey, but they should understand that we are not hiding.
“Azerbaijan enjoys military-political cooperation with Israel and Turkey, as well as strong economic ties. It is designed, above all, to ensure the security of Azerbaijan and not against Iran.
Shafiyev believes there are two main reasons Iran fears Azerbaijan’s growing regional weight. The first is the Zangezur Corridor – a land corridor Baku plans to establish across southern Armenia to connect with the Nakhichevan enclave on the border with Turkey.
According to Shafiyev, Iran fears that the plan, which was agreed upon under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, will leave it cut off from the wider region.
The second factor at play is Azerbaijan’s long-standing relationship with Israel, which angered Iran at a time when its nuclear program was delayed by a series of suspected Israeli covert operations.
Shafiyev says Azerbaijan is unlikely to back down from Iranian saber blows.
“It is our sovereign right,” he said. “Our cooperation with Israel is more about security. Israeli weapons have shown their effectiveness during the Patriotic War (Nagorno-Karabakh).
“As a former diplomat, I would like to see the issues resolved diplomatically and that Iran should (instead) view this region as a potential region for cooperation.”
Ahmad Obali, a US-based Azerbaijani analyst and founder of Gunaz TV, also believes that the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 is driving Iranian policy in the region.
“Iran does not want to accept the fact that Azerbaijan won the Karabakh war and liberated the border between Iran and Azerbaijan from Armenian occupation,” he said.
“Iran lost significant revenue when Azerbaijan took Karabakh from the Armenians. The border area of this region was widely used for smuggling and exporting drugs. Now Azerbaijan is in control.
“Iran also opposes Azerbaijan’s ambitions to build the Zangezur corridor, which would cost Iran more revenue than it would otherwise have received. “
He added: “Iran has been caught in the act. Iranian truck drivers were arrested by Azerbaijani authorities after delivering goods. This has now been stopped, which angered Iran even more.
“The fact that the Turkey-Azerbaijan relationship has developed disturbs Iran. Iran is more aggressive now and they are frustrated that Azerbaijan is getting stronger.
Obali says Baku’s victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war lifted the spirits of the 10 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran who are opposed to Tehran’s policy towards their ethnic relatives.
“Iran has been encouraged by the diminishing US presence in the region, including its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the current US administration’s softer approach to Iran and the potential reestablishment of the JCPOA,” he said. said Efgan Nifti, CEO of the Caspian Policy Center, in reference to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“Iran thinks it can challenge its Western partners with a minimum of hindsight from the American and European powers. Baku’s resumption of control of its sovereign territory halted Iran’s illicit trafficking and commerce.
“On top of that, the opening of the Zangezur corridor and regional east-west communications links will cause Iran to lose control of trade and transit.”
Nifti added: “Iran is also frustrated by the economic hardships and growing popular discontent, which make it insecure of its ethnically diverse population. This tension with Baku helps the regime to distract public attention from the real domestic issues. “
Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan’s recent territorial and strategic gains, coupled with its ability to gain Israeli and Turkish support, could act as a deterrent against future Iranian encroachment.
“Azerbaijan is strengthening its relations with Turkey and Israel,” Nifti said. “Iran sees the latter as an existential threat.”
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