Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is conducting military exercises along the country's border with Azerbaijan amid signs of tensions between the two countries.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency has reported that the maneuvers, which commenced Monday in the northwestern region, were being held in accordance with a pre-planned, annual activity calendar.
The location of the exercises, which include Iran’s East Azerbaijan and Ardabil provinces, is home to a large ethnic Azerbaijani population.
Mohammad Pakpour, ground forces commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — also known as Sepah — said the exercises include practicing construction of a bridge over the Arax River and capture of strategic positions.
"The message of these exercises for the neighboring countries is the strengthening of peace, friendship and stable security, and for the enemies it is that the IRGC is ready to protect the borders of the country and respond to any threats," IRNA said, citing Pakpour.
Baku given notice, Iran says
The Iranian Embassy in Azerbaijan issued a statement on the exercises, saying Tehran had given Baku advance notice of the drills, which military leaders from both countries discussed.
“The chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces [Mohammad Hossein] Bagheri had a phone conversation with the minister of defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Zakir Hasanov, during which some proposals were made regarding cooperation in conducting exercises,” the statement read. "The relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, which are two friendly and brotherly countries, have always been the target of extensive propaganda by the enemies, but the vigilance of the leaders of the two countries prevented them from achieving their goals."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi discussed security issues on the sidelines of an October 13 regional summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.
During those talks, Aliyev told Raisi that Azerbaijan was continuing efforts to ensure peace and security in the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus region, according to a statement posted on Aliyev’s official website.
In July, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed concern about a transport corridor promoted by Azerbaijan as “Zangezur Corridor,” which seeks to connect Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave with the mainland via Armenia’s Syunik province, which borders Iran, an idea rejected by the Armenian government.
“Of course, if there is a policy intended to block the Iran-Armenia border, the Islamic Republic will oppose it, for this border is a 1000s-year-old connecting route,” Khamenei tweeted.
In a phone call Monday with Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeyhun Bayramov, top Iranian diplomat Hossain Amir-Abdollahian described the presence of foreign forces in the Caucasus as a common concern among nations in the region, emphasizing Tehran’s opposition to deployments in the area.
Speaking with Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency on Sunday, Brigadier General Ali Akbar Pourjamshidian, deputy coordinator of IRGC ground forces, emphasized the importance of stability and security throughout the Caucasus region. While the Islamic Republic does not consider Azerbaijan a threat to Iran, Pourjamshidian said, Tehran viewed “the presence of the Zionist regime in the Caucasus region” as a serious threat to the entire area, in an apparent reference to Israel.
According to numerous regional outlets, Iran’s Raisi broached the issue of an alleged Israeli military presence in Azerbaijan while meeting with Aliyev on the sidelines of the Caspian Sea littoral states summit this summer in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The latest military drills come just weeks after an early October visit to Azerbaijan by Israel's defense minister.
Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s largest weapons suppliers, and Tehran has long espoused concerns about Azerbaijan's military cooperation with Israel, with whom it recently signed new military and security agreements.
Iran's military exercises on the border have also been met with some criticism in Azerbaijan.
In comments to Voice of America, Tofig Zulfugarov, a former Azerbaijan foreign minister, described Iran's military drills as actions directed against his country.
"The interests of some circles, especially the Sepah, are behind these exercises,” he said. “Because the maintenance of the connection with Armenia has been repeatedly expressed on behalf of the officials of the Sepah. The tension in this direction is also increasing."
Tapdig Farhadoglu and Hamid Malikoglu contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.