Iran’s military exercises near border areas with Azerbaijan – some of its largest military movements since the late 1980s – indicates Tehran’s growing unease with wider developments in the region. In fact, the maneuvers reflect Tehran’s growing sense of insecurity, rather than a projection of power and intimidation.
Although the hardline Iranian regime feels particularly empowered at present, given the following: the success of Ibrahim Raisi in recent presidential elections; the IRGC’s increasing consolidation of power over state institutions; Iran’s continuing power projection in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon; and its ability to weather the storm of former US President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign and then play hardball with the Biden administration on the JCPOA, it retains key vulnerabilities.
The two major issues of Iran returning to compliance with the JCPOA – which is looking like an increasing distant option – and developments in the Caucuses – notably the aftermath of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in Nagorno Karabakh and strengthening relations between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan – at first sight appear unconnected. However, the issues are intricately linked, and Israel is making itself the common denominator.
It is no secret that Israel first opposed the JCPOA in 2015, however, it came to grudgingly accept the deal. Although it has always considered its terms, especially the so-called ‘sunset clauses’, to be woefully inadequate, Israel has backed US efforts aimed at stalling Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear capability to the point of ‘break-out’ and weaponization. Nevertheless, given that former US president Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, and the Biden administration’s bid to return to the deal, and bring with it, Tehran, into compliance remains out of reach, Israel has taken matters into its own hands. To date, it has carried out a series of clandestine operations against Iran’s nuclear program including assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists, destruction of centrifuge facilities and sophisticated cyber-attacks.
The optimism that the US would return to the JCPOA soon after Biden came into office has dissipated. Moreover, since becoming president, Raisi has made clear to the P5+1 that Iran is in no hurry to return to compliance with the JCPOA and, he has, in fact, increased its ‘demands’ for doing so, including the unfreezing of $10bn assets. As such, the P5+1 states are scrambling to come up with a Plan B, should the JCPOA now fall apart. To that end, Israel has already begun to develop its own Plan B and that includes shifting the threat away from the Middle East only and more towards the Caucus. This move has unnerved Tehran and almost caught it on the back foot.
The increase in tensions between Tehran and Baku, therefore, can be in part attributed to Iran’s suspicion that Azerbaijan has developed strong military ties with Israel and will permit the IDF to launch reconnaissance and sabotage missions into the Republic. Indeed, Iranian military officials have claimed on Iranian national television that Israeli drones have been intercepted en route from Azerbaijan to facilities at Natanz. This aspect of Israel’s covert war with Iran will likely escalate as the Vienna talks continue to stall, carrying grave risks for Iran, especially as the former begins to normalize relations with Gulf Arab states. In other words, one major downside of JCPOA failure is that Israel will not only enjoy greater operational freedom to act decisively against Iran, but it will also cultivate and deepen new partnerships to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program and regional activities. The military drill Victors of Khaybar, therefore, is also intended to warn Iran’s neighbors against normalizing with Israel. It is aimed primarily at Gulf Cooperation Countries, and in particular, the UAE and Bahrain, should they choose to boost military cooperation with the IDF.
Iran’s military maneuvers on its northern borders are also a response to burgeoning relations between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Competition between Iran and Turkey has intensified over the past few years and already plays out in different theatres, such as Syria, Iraq and the Caucasus with the former backing Armenia and the latter, Azerbaijan. Moreover, Iranian-Pakistani relations will now come under increasing strain following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Despite Tehran’s overtures to the Taliban, the regime is fully cognizant that Pakistan is now the most influential external actor in Afghanistan. September’s Three Brothers military drill between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan reminded Tehran that it is surrounded by its own Crescent Alliance, which poses a threat to its security interests both at home and abroad. This point became even more salient when Turkey and Azerbaijan announced a further set of military exercises – Indelible Brothers – in Nakhchivan during early October.
In spite of the hard-liners consolidating their grip on power in Iran and presiding over a decade where it has scored many ‘successes’ abroad, the regime perhaps finds itself at its most vulnerable now. The election of Raisi was seen as a crowning moment – or, in the vernacular, they scored a goal. But as any football fan knows, your team is most vulnerable the moment after they score.