Azerbaijan-Iran tensions risk pulling Turkey into possible confrontation

Azerbaijan and Iran have become locked in a war of words after they held competing military drills next to their common border over the past few weeks.

Any sharp military escalation risks drawing in Turkey, Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said in comments during the latest episode of Ahval’s Turkey Abroad podcast.   

Azizi said that the chances of military hostilities breaking out between Azerbaijan and Iran remained low, but lingering tensions following last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh are bubbling to the surface.

Much of Iran’s anger towards Azerbaijan has revolved around the latter’s detention of Iranian truckers in Nagorno-Karabakh and disrupting their trade with Armenia.

Iranian military and political officials have not been shy about underscoring their defensiveness towards Azerbaijan in recent days by pointing to Azerbaijan's close military relationship with its chief rival, Israel.

Before and during the military drills in its northwest, Iranian politicians and military figures, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, warned that the presence of outside military forces in the South Caucasus was unacceptable to Tehran.

Turkey’s strengthened position in the South Caucasus, strengthened by increased military support for Azerbaijan, has not escaped Iran’s concerns, said Azizi. Despite pledges of regional economic cooperation that would include Iran, Turkish firms have assumed the lion’s share of reconstruction projects in Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving Tehran out in the cold.

In the run-up to Iran’s military drills and in their aftermath, Turkey has joined Azerbaijan in its military exercises together with Pakistan.

Azizi says that the joint military maneuvers “do not help bring stability in the region” from Iran’s perspective and the involvement of Pakistani troops could be seen as a precursor to inviting other outside powers to the region.

Iran sees the involvement of Turkey and Pakistan as violating Azerbaijan’s commitment to international law on the Caspian Sea that forbids military activities by non-littoral states, he said.

Azizi said that Iran does not place Turkey on the same level as Israel as a security threat, and its close bonds with Azerbaijan are nothing new. However, he argues that rivalry with Turkey is taking a broader strategic context and Iran sees Ankara in a stronger position regionally after the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Azizi says that Turkey’s aspirations to serve as a transit route for East-West trade via projects such as China’s One Belt One Road initiative put it into direct competition with Iran’s own interest in playing a similar role.

Ankara’s push for energy cooperation in the Caspian Sea, together with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, to fulfill long-held aspirations of developing its gas transit role to Europe also rankles Iranian decision-makers, he said.

To address its concerns in the South Caucasus, Iran has recently turned to Russia for diplomatic support. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian traveled to Moscow to raise concerns about what Tehran fears is a changing geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus that threatens it.

After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed the importance of the 3+3 format that includes the countries of the South Caucasus as well as Turkey and Iran, but added that Moscow was "opposed to building up military activity in the region or conducting any exercises of a provocative nature" without naming any country.

Azizi said that Iran was also careful not to specifically refer to Turkey’s role. He chalked the omission up to a desire to continue balancing its multifaceted relationship with Ankara, but said relying on Russia was the “only way” for Iran to exercise influence in the Caucasus.

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