At the end of last month, the Islamic Republic conducted major military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan, a country that has deep and ancient connections with Iran. Since Azerbaijan and its neighbor, Armenia, became independent from the Soviet Union, Tehran has joined Moscow in backing the latter, while Baku has aligned itself with the West and developed strong ties with the Jewish state. Eran Lerman analyzes the situation from an Israeli perspective:
The Iranian maneuvers near Azerbaijan’s borders . . . were designed to intimidate the leadership in Baku, to deter it from curbing Iran’s illegal [oil] trade with Armenia, and to force Azerbaijan to downgrade its strategic relationship with Israel. . . . As tensions rise over its nuclear program, Tehran apparently hopes . . . to warn countries in the region against offering any assistance to Israel and other forces aligned against the Iranian regime. Ultimately, Iran seeks to frustrate what they suspect to be Israel’s plans and to deter Israeli leadership from acting against Iran.
Thus, the implications of Iranian pressure on Azerbaijan extend well beyond the confines of the southern Caucasus. It adds to a growing list of points of friction where the Iranian regime is overtly seeking to test the limits of international, Western, and ultimately Israeli (and Arab) responses. Israel must tread carefully in this complex region, where ancient hatreds often dominate. Explicit statements should be avoided. While the existing understandings with the Azeri government should be upheld and discreet intelligence sharing should continue, it would be unwise for Israel to make any commitments that cannot be realized, and that might exacerbate regional tensions.
At the same time, at the diplomatic level and as part of a broader discussion on Iran’s intentions and actions, Israel cannot ignore the Iranian pattern of intimidation. This should be one of the focal points in Israel’s ongoing effort to alert the U.S. administration and its Western allies to the escalating danger inherent in leaving Iranian actions unanswered.