Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said he is “very surprised” by Iran’s decision to hold military drills close to their border amid tension between the two neighbours over a key transport route.
“Why now and why near our borders?” Mr Aliyev said in an interview published on Monday with Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news service. Iran had not held military drills near the border since Azerbaijan became independent from the former Soviet Union almost 30 years ago, he said.
Tension between Baku and Tehran flared in recent weeks after Azerbaijani police and customs officials began imposing a “road tax” on Iranian lorries shipping fuel and other goods to neighbouring Armenia.
A section of the main route to Armenia passes through Azerbaijan on land Armenian forces occupied for decades until last year’s 44-day war between them over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Mr Aliyev said Iran had ignored Azerbaijan’s calls for many years to stop transporting goods to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory.
No Iranian lorry has entered Nagorno-Karabakh since Azerbaijan started imposing the tax, Mr Aliyev said.
Iran’s ambassador to Baku, Seyyed Abbas Musavi, said the exercises “can’t be seen as a threat to our friends”, and that Azerbaijan had been told about them months earlier, the Baku-based APA news service reported.
Iranian officials have also told private companies to stop transporting goods to Nagorno-Karabakh, he said.
A senior cleric in Iran last week defended a decision by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to conduct military drills near the border with Azerbaijan as “a message to Israel not to make any mistakes”, a reference to Israel’s ties to Azerbaijan, semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Iran has been suspicious of Azerbaijan’s links to Israel, a key supplier of drones and other weapons that helped Baku tip the military balance in its favour in last year’s war with Armenia.