US State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said Washington will continue supporting its partners against the emerging threats from Iran, including those in close neighborhood with the Islamic Republic.
Price made the statement while answering a journalist’s question about Washington’s possible reaction to Iran’s increasing rhetoric against neighboring countries, including Azerbaijan.
“We’ve been very clear that Iran represents a threat to the region,” he said during a regular press briefing on Thursday. “We will continue to stand with our partners, to support them, and ultimately to stand against the kind of destabilizing influence that Iran presents and – in its region and perhaps beyond.”
Tensions between the two neighboring Caspian littoral states have been on the rise since the 2020 Second Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia. As a result of the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories from nearly three decades of illegal Armenian occupation, including those on the southern border with Iran.
In 2021, Azerbaijani media reported that during the 2020 war Azerbaijan forces, while advancing toward Zangilan, encountered an Iranian unit that had crossed the border and blocked the road. Back then the authorities of the Islamic Republic claimed that the troops were deployed there “to safeguard” the Khudafarin dam on the Araz River, which runs along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. After a day of negotiations, the Iranian military left the territory of Azerbaijan, but during this time the Armenian forces managed to regroup.
Tensions between Baku and Tehran escalated in August 2021 over illegal trips by Iranian lorries to certain parts of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed. As a result, Azerbaijan’s customs officials began collecting fees from Iranian cargo lorries to use the Azerbaijani section of the road between Armenia’s towns of Gafan and Gorus. In response to this, Iran kicked off military drills on the border with Azerbaijan and accused Baku of allowing Israeli forces on Azerbaijani soil.
Last month, Tehran conducted large-scale military drills in the country’s northwestern areas along the Araz River on the border with Azerbaijan. Four days earlier, on October 15, in a telephone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed Tehran's concern over the presence of "foreign forces" in the Caucasus.
However, President Aliyev has repeatedly denied these allegations describing them as “baseless.”
"We are showing good will. But that does not mean that we will accept groundless accusations against ourselves. I am saying this to the Azerbaijani people and the whole world here in Jabrayil, on the banks of the Araz River, that all baseless accusations against us will not remain unanswered," President Aliyev said back in October 2021.
The 2020 war ended in a tripartite statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, under which, Baku and Yerevan agreed to unblock regional communication links. This includes the Zangazur corridor – a multi-modal route that should connect Azerbaijan's mainland with its exclave of Nakhchivan and go further to Türkiye through the territory of Armenia along its 44-kilometer border with Iran.
The project has sparked anxiety among officials in Tehran, who are convinced that it could cut off Iran from its regional ally Armenia. Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi has said that Iran will never accept any geopolitical change in the Caucasus region. Tehran even came up with threats against changing the regional geo-structure saying "the Iranian side is against and will not accept changes in the historical borders in the region, this is our red line."
In October 2022, Iran’s foreign minister officially inaugurated the country’s consulate in Gafan, located in Armenia's southernmost province along the border with Azerbaijan. The minister has said, “Iran considers Armenia’s security to be the security of its own and the region” and voiced Tehran’s consent to host an Armenian consulate general in northwestern Tabriz city, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province populated largely by ethnic Azerbaijanis.
In early November, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan traveled to Iran to hold talks on multiple issues of mutual interest, including trade, economy, energy, construction, and others. While in Iran, Pashinyan met with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi again who voiced Iran’s “concern” over the border issue, warning that issues in the region should be resolved by the countries of the region without “foreign interference,” covertly hinting at Türkiye’s support of Azerbaijan in the realization of the Zangazur corridor project.
Iran’s destabilization attempts in Azerbaijan
On November 1, 2022, the State Security Service of Azerbaijan exposed a clandestine group of Azerbaijani citizens that were illegally involved in military exercises outside the country under direct financing and guidance by the Iranian special services. Nineteen citizens of Azerbaijan were detained and brought to justice for attending military exercises, smuggling banned radical extremist ideology books and video materials, and disseminating them within the borders of Azerbaijan. Four more people, who fled Azerbaijan and are currently hiding in Iran, were established as the leaders of the illegal group.
Recently, the Iranian hacker group "Black Rewards" has revealed documents related to the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Iran, including papers of bank payments to the accounts of Tehran’s agents in Azerbaijan.
According to the leaked documents, in January and March 2022, payments worth €47,158 and €75,000 were made to bank accounts in Baku and €15,083 and €30,000 to those in Nakhchivan. In April 2022, €40,000 more was transferred to a bank account in Baku. All transfers have been reportedly made from the National Bank of Iran.