Azerbaijan’s armed forces have conducted joint military exercises with Turkey on the border with Iran, in a conspicuous show of force as Baku-Tehran relations continue to deteriorate.
The drills follow Iranian exercises on the other side of the border six weeks earlier, and have been framed as an explicit rebuttal to those drills – down to the most provocative element, a practice crossing of the river that forms the border between the two countries.
Turkey’s defense ministry reported that the drills began on November 20 but they were only announced on December 5, when Azerbaijan’s defense ministry published a press release, photos, and a video including the deployment of a pontoon bridge over a river and a tank crossing it. That was an obvious rejoinder to the Iranian armed forces’ simulated crossing of the same river in the other direction in late October.
“The Azerbaijani Army also took care of the pontoon bridges, which may be necessary for crossing the river Araz, which our Iranian neighbors recently tried to use as an element of intimidation - saying that in a moment we will cross and go further to Azerbaijan,” wrote the website Caliber, connected to Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, using the Azerbaijani name for the river.
“The water obstacle will not stop Azerbaijani soldiers,” Caliber continued. “By the way, the video of the exercises perfectly shows it all - we advise the enemies of our country from the other side of the Araz to watch it.”
It wasn’t announced where precisely the river crossing took place but, as with the Iranian one, it was presumably at a spot where the Aras doesn’t correspond precisely with the border. The Iranian exercise was geolocated to a spot across from Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan; the Azerbaijani MoD said that these exercises took place in Baku as well as the Astara, Jabrayil and Imishli regions; Astara and Jabrayil directly border Iran.
Beyond the river crossing, the main significance of the event was the Turkish involvement. While this phase of the Iran-Azerbaijan conflict has been going on for some time – including less publicized Azerbaijani exercises held immediately after the Iranian ones – this is the first time Turkey has so publicly gotten Baku’s back against Tehran. The exercise was named “Fraternal Fist” – the fist has been a prominent trope in Azerbaijani’s narrative of its victory over Armenia in the 2020 Second Karabakh War.
The Turkish troops even brought along F-16 fighter jets. Also attending was a large Turkish delegation, including the defense minister, chief of general staff, and the heads of the land, air, and naval forces.
"A friend for one of us is a friend to the other and an enemy is an enemy for both of us. There should be no doubt about this," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said at a December 6 ceremony.
“These joint Azerbaijan-Turkey exercises are not just a demonstration of the time-tested military alliance between the two countries, but also a sharp message to Iran, warning its leadership about any attempt to speak with Azerbaijan in the language of force and threats, which could result in dramatic and even fatal consequences for the Islamic Republic,” wrote Haqqin, an Azerbaijani site connected to the country’s security services.
The exercises come as the rhetorical war between Baku and Tehran continues unabated; rarely does a day pass without a story in one or the other country’s official press attacking the other. In recent months the long-running conflict has escalated, with the two sides making implicit territorial claims on the other that previously would have been taboo among officials.
Among the more recent episodes, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on November 25 complained that Iran had held multiple military exercises on Azerbaijan’s border. “So we were forced to start military exercises on the border with Iran, to demonstrate that we aren’t afraid of them,” he said. He added, in what seemed to be a reference to the ongoing protests in Iran: “We are doing everything to defend our way of life, the secular vector of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis, including Azerbaijanis living in Iran. They are a part of our nation.”
A December 4 commentary on the Iranian state Islamic Republic News Agency shot back at Aliyev, arguing that it was Azerbaijan who started the tit-for-tat military exercises, and implied that Azerbaijanis’ true “homeland” was Iran: “He knows very well that the ten million population of Azerbaijan are of Iranian descent and have been rudely separated from their homeland.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.