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Geopolitical rivalry in Caucasus gets militarized

The geopolitical power struggle in the Caucasus is growing increasingly militarized as converging interests pit Iran and Armenia against Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Israel.
KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images

Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey began five days of military exercises this week to enhance their preparedness to protect regional economic projects. The Eternity 2021 exercises, which kicked off in Georgia Oct. 4, aim to develop capabilities on both command and staff level to ensure the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, according to the Georgian Defense Ministry. 

Meanwhile, the three countries' defense ministers met in Georgia’s Kakheti region Oct. 5 to discuss ways to advance military cooperation, including in the fields of military technology and education. The ministers signed a protocol on trilateral military cooperation and Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze said Turkey and Azerbaijan had been invited to another military exercise called Eagle Spirit to be held in Georgia in the near future. 

The growing military cooperation between the three countries has led observers to question whether a trilateral security bloc is emerging in the Caucasus.

The military rapprochement between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, coupled with growing military ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, seems to be ringing the alarm bells in Iran. Last week Tehran launched surprise military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan. Tellingly, the drills were named “Conquerors of Kheibar,” a reference to the Battle of Khaybar waged by early Muslims against Jews in the 7th century at Khaybar, an oasis in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula. In a clear sign that Tehran now sees Azerbaijan as Israel’s chief ally in the region, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said, “Iran will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime near our borders.”

Ostensibly, many in Tehran have come to conclude that Azerbaijan, counting on Israeli and Turkish support, is seeking to redraw borders by annexing a strip of territory across Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik, which borders Iran and separates mainland Azerbaijan to the east from the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan to the west. In the Russian-mediated cease-fire deal that Azerbaijan and Armenia signed in November 2020 after a six-week war over the nearby Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenia committed to guarantee transportation links between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan, a route that Baku calls the Zangezur corridor and has threatened to secure by force if need be. Azerbaijan’s capture of the strip could cut the direct border connection between Armenia and Iran while establishing a land link between Azerbaijan and Turkey via Nakhchivan.

Such a move by Azerbaijan would deal a major economic and geostrategic blow to Iran by cutting its only land link of trade and transit to Armenia and thus the entire northern Caucasus. Logically, Israel would support the move in the interest of containing Iran from the north. Azerbaijan’s quiet but close ties with Israel, including its purchases of Israeli military equipment, have long irked Iran and added to rising tensions between the two neighbors in recent days. According to reports this week, Azerbaijan is considering buying Israeli-made Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile systems, one of three flagship interceptor missiles built jointly by Israeli and US producers.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Oct. 3 against Israeli influence in the region. “The military forces of the region are able to ensure the security of the region and should not allow foreign armies to interfere or have a military presence there to secure their own interests. What is happening in northwestern Iran, in some neighboring countries, should be resolved with the logic of avoiding foreigners' presence," he said. In an apparent reference to Turkey’s alleged role in the current standoff between Iran and Azerbaijan, Khamenei warned, “The person who sets a trap for his brothers is the first one to fall into it.” 

Iranian officials have thus far refrained from explicitly targeting Turkey, focusing their attacks on Israel. Baku, for its part, denies any Israeli military presence in Azerbaijan. 

The tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran flared up in mid-September as Azerbaijan began charging fees from Iranian trucks on a road through southern Armenia, a section of which has come under Azerbaijani control as a result of Baku’s territorial gains from last year’s war with Armenia. Azerbaijan has established police and customs checkpoints on the road, which connects the Armenian towns of Goris and Kapan and is in the same region with the envisioned Zangezur corridor.

In response, Iran and Armenia have intensified contacts. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan traveled to Tehran Oct. 4 for talks with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The two sides have reportedly agreed to cooperate on the speedy completion of an alternative route bypassing Azerbaijan. 

In further trouble for Armenia, the Georgian authorities have reportedly been keeping about 200 Armenian trucks from crossing to Russia, while letting other vehicles cross the border.

Azerbaijan's joint military exercises with Georgia and Turkey are of great importance in terms of improving security cooperation, increasing interoperability between their militaries, dominating the airspace of the Caucasus, securing energy pipelines, limiting Armenia's land connection with Russia and surrounding Armenia geographically from the west, north and northwest. 

Joint military exercises between Azerbaijan and countries neighboring Iran also point to a shift in the strategic balance in the Caucasus. Israel's strong defense cooperation with Azerbaijan is a clear indication that Iran is now under threat from the north.

A possible operation by Azerbaijan to control a strip connecting Nakhchivan to Nagorno-Karabakh and then mainland Azerbaijan, thus disabling Iran's direct land passage to Armenia, would cause many stones to be moved in the Caucasus.

In fact, some in Baku have been expecting Armenia to cede the Zangezur area to Azerbaijan instead of paying war reparations over the Nagorno-Karabakh clashes. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly asserted that Armenia’s provision of a corridor to Azerbaijan enabling the free movement of people, vehicles and goods in both directions is a must for normalization and a lasting peaceful solution to the problem. 

Azerbaijan’s increased profile in the area would constitute a major obstacle to Iran's trade route to the north Caucasus, although the area remains under Armenian sovereignty. The latest row is thus about Baku’s resentment toward Tehran for providing economic sustenance through trade and transit options to its landlocked arch-nemesis, Armenia. 

Such spats between Baku and Yerevan over the implementation of the cease-fire deal have been further exacerbated by recent border tensions. Yerevan has accused Baku of a military buildup at the border, a charge Baku has denied. 

Thus, Tehran is seriously concerned about the risk of a Zangezur corridor falling under Azerbaijani sovereignty in the future and thus losing Iran’s border connection with Armenia.

Also, Iran has been carefully monitoring Israel’s alleged increasing military and intelligence profile in the Caucasus as well as northern Iraq, wary that it could end up contained from both the north and the southwest. Last month, Iranian Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib threatened “active and aggressive” moves against US and Israeli bases in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan should they try to stoke instability in Iran and urged the expulsion of Iranian-Kurdish dissidents based in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the same vein, Tehran sees Azerbaijan as a Trojan horse letting Israel into the Caucasus.

Russia has offered help for a diplomatic solution of the Zangezur spat through the formation of a border commission, but such efforts have yet to yield tangible results. At the geopolitical level, Russia has been keeping Turkey and Azerbaijan at bay, while trying to keep Armenia under its full domination and defuse Iran's concerns. However, Russia’s balancing policy is hardly sustainable, given the fragility of the Nagorno-Karabakh deal and the increasing geopolitical complexity in the Caucasus due to the power game between Turkey, Iran and Israel.

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