War games stoke the flames of enmity between South Caucasus rivals Iran and Azerbaijan

Iranian army tanks during a military exercise in northwest of the country, close to the Iranian Azerbaijani border. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)
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Updated 09 October 2021

War games stoke the flames of enmity between South Caucasus rivals Iran and Azerbaijan

  • Divergent strategic interests and political visions are pulling the two countries apart
  • Experts say there are two key reasons for Iran to resent Azerbaijan’s regional clout

WASHINGTON D.C.: Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan are high amid a diplomatic spat that is approaching crisis point, according to regional observers.

Although the two countries normally enjoy cordial relations, they are drifting apart owing to divergent strategic interests and political visions.

Azerbaijani authorities, long frustrated by Iran’s support for its neighbour and rival, Armenia, have launched a crackdown on cross-border trade that was a lifeline for an Armenian separatist holdout in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In 2020, following a Russian-brokered ceasefire, Armenian forces agreed to hand over much of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which marked a significant victory for Baku after a 44-day war.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian separatists protected by Russian peacekeepers still control the city of Khankendi, also known as Stepanakert, and a handful of surrounding villages.

The entirety of Iran’s shared border with what had once been Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh is now under the control of Azerbaijani authorities.

However, Iranian trucks allegedly continued to enter Nagorno-Karabakh without paying the requisite customs fees to the Azerbaijani government.

The Iranian army's ground forces began holding manoeuvres near the country's border with Azerbaijan recently, despite criticism from its northwestern neighbor. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo) 

“This is not the first time that Iran’s trucks have illegally traveled to the Karabakh region,” Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said this week.

“This is something that happened repeatedly during the occupation period. Around 60 Iranian trucks entered Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region without permission between Aug. 11 and Sept. 11 this year after Azerbaijan called on Iran to put an end to the practice.

“Then we started to control the road passing through Azerbaijani land, and the trucks sent by Iran to Karabakh came to an end.”

Tensions have been stoked further by joint military drills held by the Azerbaijani army with Turkey and Pakistan 500 kilometers from the country’s border with Iran.

Aliyev also inaugurated a new military base in the city of Jabrayil in Nagorno-Karabakh, right on the border with Iran, making sure to be filmed standing beside a line of Israeli-made Harop combat drones that Azerbaijan used to devastating effect during the 2020 war.

Iran claimed Azerbaijan was allowing Israel to establish a base on Iran’s border.

“Iran will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime near our borders,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman.

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 1, 2017 shows him (R) meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)

Iran then conducted a multi-day military exercise along its border with Azerbaijan.

According to Iran’s Tasnim news agency, the Azerbaijani government ordered the closure of a mosque in Baku linked to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The mosque and representative office of Seyyed Ali Akbar Ojaghnejad, representative of supreme leader (Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei in Baku, were sealed and closed today by order of the authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Tasnim said.

Azerbaijan claimed the move was necessary because of “a surge in COVID-19 cases in several locations in Baku,” saying that the mosque’s operation had been “suspended temporarily.”

Iran’s embassy in Baku said there had been no advanced warning of the move.

Speaking to Arab News, Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, said: “Only Iran will suffer from these statements. Tehran, first of all, should see the Caucasus as a region of potential cooperation.

“Iran’s statements about ‘third-country’ or ‘foreign’ forces stationed in Azerbaijan are mainly aimed at Israel and Turkey, but they must understand that we are not hiding.

“Azerbaijan has military-political cooperation with Israel and with Turkey, as well as strong economic ties. It is designed, first of all, to ensure the security of Azerbaijan and not against Iran.”

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev tours the Military Trophy Park in Baku that showcases military equipment seized from Armenian troops during last year’s war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. (AFP/File Photo)

Shafiyev believes there are two key reasons why Iran fears Azerbaijan’s growing regional clout. The first is the Zangezur Corridor — an overland corridor Baku plans to establish across southern Armenia to link up with the Nakhchivan enclave bordering Turkey.

According to Shafiyev, Iran fears the plan, which was agreed under the terms of the ceasefire deal, will leave it cut off from the wider region.

The second factor at play is Azerbaijan’s longstanding relationship with Israel, which has angered Iran at a time when its nuclear program has been set back by a string of suspected Israeli covert operations.

Shafiyev says Azerbaijan is unlikely to back down in the face of Iranian saber-rattling.

“This is our sovereign right,” he said. “Our cooperation with Israel is more about security. Israeli weapons have shown their effectiveness during the Patriotic (Nagorno-Karabakh) War.

“As a former diplomat, I would like the issues to be resolved diplomatically and Iran should (instead) consider this region as a potential region of cooperation.”

Ahmad Obali, a US-based Azerbaijan analyst and founder of Gunaz TV, also believes the outcome of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war is driving Iranian policy in the region.

An Iranian army helicopter during a military exercise in northwest of the country, close to the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)

“Iran does not want to accept the fact that Azerbaijan won the Karabakh war and liberated the border between Iran and Azerbaijan from Armenian occupation,” he said.

“Iran lost significant revenue when Azerbaijan regained Karabakh from the Armenians. The border area in that region was used extensively for narcotics smuggling and exports. Now Azerbaijan is in control.

“Iran is also opposed to Azerbaijan’s ambitions to build the Zangezur Corridor, which would further cost Iran revenue that it would have otherwise collected.”

He added: “Iran was caught red handed. The Iranian truck drivers were arrested by Azerbaijani authorities after delivering goods. That has now been stopped, which has further angered Iran.

“The fact that the Turkey-Azerbaijan relationship has grown bothers Iran. Iran is more aggressive now and they’re frustrated that Azerbaijan is becoming stronger.”

Obali says Baku’s victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war has lifted the morale of an estimated 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran who are opposed to Tehran’s policies towards their ethnic kin.

Iranian army tanks lined up during a military exercise in northwest of the country, close to the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)

“Iran has been emboldened by the thinning US presence in the region, including its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the softer approach of the current US administration regarding Iran and the potential reinstatement of the JCPOA,” said Efgan Nifti, CEO of the Caspian Policy Center, referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“Iran feels it can challenge Western partners with minimal pushback from the US and European powers. Baku’s regaining of control of its sovereign territory has interrupted Iran’s illicit trafficking and trade.

“In addition to this, the opening of the Zangezur Corridor and regional east-west communication links will cause Iran to lose control over trade and transit.”

Nifti added: “Iran is also frustrated by economic difficulties and growing popular discontent, which make it feel insecure about its ethnically diverse population. This tension with Baku helps the regime divert popular attention away from real domestic issues.”

Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan’s recent territorial and strategic gains, coupled with its ability to win both Israeli and Turkish support, could act as a deterrent against future Iranian encroachment.

“Azerbaijan is strengthening relations with Turkey and Israel,” said Nifti. “Iran sees the latter as an existential threat.”


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Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

Updated 3 sec ago

Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

ROME: Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called Thursday for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and called on Israel to protect the Palestinian population after troops opened fire at an aid convoy.
“The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians,” he said on X, hours after the incident which the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed 104 people.
“We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities,” he said.
The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.
An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat.”
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her “deep dismay and concern” over the violence, calling on Israel to “urgently ascertain the dynamics of the incident and relative responsibilities.”
She also called for negotiation efforts to be “immediately intensified to create the conditions for a ceasefire” and the freeing of the hostages.

India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

Updated 29 February 2024

India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

  • India’s economy grew 8.4% in the October-December quarter, much faster than 6.6% estimate
  • India has beaten market expectations, is ranked as one of fastest-growing economies in the world

NEW DELHI: India’s economy grew at its fastest pace in one-and-half years in the final three months of 2023, led by strong manufacturing and construction activity and bolstering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic record just months before a national election.
Asia’s third largest economy grew 8.4 percent in the October-December quarter, much faster than the 6.6 percent estimated by economists polled by Reuters and higher than the 7.6 percent recorded in the previous three months.
“The ongoing growth momentum is indicative of the Indian economy’s resilience, notwithstanding global headwinds,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, economist at India Ratings, noting that industrial growth continued its good run in the quarter.
India has consistently beat market expectations and is ranked as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with China struggling to recover after the pandemic and the euro zone narrowly escaping a recession.
India revised its growth estimate for the current fiscal year to March 31 to 7.6 percent from 7.3 percent.
Such a strong showing in the last major economic data release before elections due by May could bolster Modi’s chances after he made high economic growth one of his main platforms at rallies across the country.
The December growth “shows the strength of Indian economy and its potential,” Modi said in a social media post.
Modi has sharply raised government spending on infrastructure and offered incentives to boost manufacturing of phones, electronics, drones and semiconductors to help India compete with likes of Vietnam and Thailand.
The manufacturing sector, which for the past decade has accounted for 17 percent of Asia’s third-largest economy, expanded 11.6 percent year-on-year in the December quarter, while investment growth was above 10 percent for the second consecutive quarter, and the construction sector grew by more than 9 percent.
“Manufacturing sector growth was supported by lower input costs,” said Rajani Sinha, Economist at CareEdge
Private consumption, accounting for 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), recovered slightly in the quarter, with a 3.5 percent year-on-year rise, compared with 2.4 percent in the previous three months.
Government spending contracted 3.2 percent year-on-year, compared with 1.4 percent growth in the previous quarter.
The farm sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $3.7 trillion economy, continued to struggle due to unfavorable monsoon rains. It contracted 0.8 percent in the December quarter, compared with 1.6 percent growth in the September quarter.
Slowing rural growth dragged down farm incomes and some farmers have hit the streets
demanding higher procurement prices.
Rural weakness has led to slower growth for major retail companies like Hindustan Unilever and Britannia Industries.
The pace of growth in real rural wages was around 1 percent in 2023 after contracting nearly 3 percent in the previous two years, according to ICRA, while average salaries in urban areas have been going up by nearly 10 percent a year.
However, policymakers remain optimistic about rural recovery.
“With the anticipated better value addition in the farm sector next financial year, rural demand growth and rural income growth will be even better and more evident in FY25,” country’s Chief Economic Adviser V Anantha Nageswaran said.

Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

Updated 29 February 2024

Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

  • 17th edition of Art Dubai runs from March 1-3 in Madinat Jumeirah
  • Over 65% of the fair’s presentations are from the Global South

Jakarta: Indonesian artists are hoping to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics in the Middle East with their showcase at Art Dubai this week, where they will join a diverse group of Global South artists from 40 countries.

The 17th edition of Art Dubai, which runs from March 1 to 3 in Madinat Jumeirah, will showcase leading artists and galleries from developing countries, as it seeks to provide a platform for art from typically underrepresented regions and communities. This year, over 65 percent of its presentations are drawn from the Global South.

Indonesia’s artists, represented by various galleries such as Gajah Gallery and Yeo Workshop, are among a group of Southeast Asian creatives presenting works focused on the region’s heritage.

Erizal As, a painter from Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, is hoping that Dubai will help boost the global visibility of his, and other Southeast Asian artists’ work.

“I am indeed hopeful to garner greater recognition in the Middle East, a region experiencing rapid growth and burgeoning appreciation for the arts. I am confident that the universal themes and expressive depth of my work will resonate with the discerning Gulf audience, fostering a meaningful dialogue transcending cultural boundaries,” Erizal told Arab News on Thursday.

“I also think that the inclusion of more Indonesian and Southeast Asian artists may bring a fresh perspective to the local art scene … Maybe the different visual language that we bring actually has the same soul or essence as what Dubai has been feeling and communicating through their arts. The two visual languages can communicate with each other.”

After spending the COVID-19 years painting outdoors in the West Sumatra mountains, Erizal returned to his studio to transform his experiences into a series of abstract paintings, presenting various forms through texture and strokes, to capture the essence of nature. Some of those works are being showcased in Dubai this week.

“With my recent creations, my foremost aspiration is to evoke contemplation on the intrinsic essence of nature, spirituality, and the profound energy that permeates our existence,” Erizal said.

Yunizar, who is also from West Sumatra and is known for his childlike creations seeking to capture the psyche of ordinary individuals, will present his paintings and bronze sculptures at Art Dubai.

“My work depicts my observations of life around me. I mix visualizations of objects with things that are fantastical in nature,” Yunizar told Arab News.

Indonesian artist Yunizar working on his “Detail of Bonsai,” 2021. (Gajah Gallery)

He believes in the “common relatability towards art between humankind everywhere” and hopes to amplify the reach of his work at the international art fair.

“Dubai, in my opinion, has a burgeoning art scene with a rich cultural background that can support the development of new visual trajectories. Showcasing my work on such a global scale, I can only strive and attempt to deliver my best work,” he said.

“I believe that my work transcends cultural boundaries and reverberate with viewers from diverse backgrounds. In terms of quality, my work is not less than that of artists from other regions, such as those from Europe. And with its rich visual language and unmistakable Southeast Asian essence, in my opinion, my art will find resonance among the Gulf audience, fostering meaningful dialogue and appreciation for art across borders.”

Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

Updated 29 February 2024

Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

  • Crew of Iuventa charged with ‘facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya’
  • Prosecution said this week a lack of evidence means case should be dismissed

London: Amnesty International has welcomed news that charges against the crew of NGO ship the Iuventa, which worked to rescue thousands of people from the Mediterranean, could be dropped.

An investigation was opened by Italian authorities in 2017 into the activities of the Iuventa. Four crew members were eventually charged with “facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya,” amid suggestions that they had collaborated with people traffickers, with possible sentences of up to 20 years in jail.

A court in the Italian city of Trapani is set to rule on whether the crew, alongside members of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, will be indicted on Saturday, but on Wednesday prosecutors said a lack of evidence meant the charges should be dropped.

“The Iuventa crew has endured six and a half years of court proceedings with unfaltering grace and resilience, and we are glad that there is new hope that the court case will finally be thrown out,” said Elisa De Pieri, regional researcher at Amnesty International.

“The Iuventa ship has saved more than 14,000 lives, including children, and its crew has done so upholding the law of the sea.

“We urge the authorities to stop misusing criminal proceedings and charges of facilitation of irregular migration to obstruct life-saving activities.

“Humanity must come first as we recognize the fearlessness of the Iuventa crew and others who work to battle the horrors that take place in the treacherous waters across the Mediterranean.

“Their acts of solidarity with refugees and migrants should be championed and never be punished. Without them, the already horrific death toll in the central Mediterranean would only get worse.”

Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

Updated 29 February 2024

Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

  • War in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin told Western countries on Thursday they risked provoking a nuclear war if they sent troops to fight in Ukraine, warning that Moscow had the weapons to strike targets in the West.
The war in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Putin has previously spoken of the dangers of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, but his nuclear warning on Thursday was one of his most explicit.
Addressing lawmakers and other members of the country’s elite, Putin, 71, repeated his accusation that the West was bent on weakening Russia, and he suggested Western leaders did not understand how dangerous their meddling could be in what he cast as Russia’s own internal affairs.
He prefaced his nuclear warning with a specific reference to an idea, floated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, of European NATO members sending ground troops to Ukraine — a suggestion that was quickly rejected by the United States, Germany, Britain and others.
“(Western nations) must realize that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?!” said Putin.
Speaking ahead of a March 15-17 presidential election when he is certain to be re-elected for another six-year term, he lauded what he said was Russia’s vastly modernized nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world.
“Strategic nuclear forces are in a state of full readiness,” he said, noting that new-generation hypersonic nuclear weapons he first spoke about in 2018 had either been deployed or were at a stage where development and testing were being completed.
Visibly angry, Putin suggested Western politicians recall the fate of those like Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte who had unsuccessfully invaded Russia in the past.
“But now the consequences will be far more tragic,” said Putin. “They think it (war) is a cartoon,” he said, accusing Western politicians of forgetting what real war meant because they had not faced the same security challenges as Russians had in the last three decades.
Russian forces now have the initiative on the battlefield in Ukraine and are advancing in several places, Putin said. Russia must also boost the troops it has deployed along its western borders with the European Union after Finland and Sweden decided to join the NATO military alliance, he added.
The veteran Kremlin leader dismissed Western suggestions that Russian forces might go beyond Ukraine and attack European countries as “nonsense.” He also said Moscow would not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union and allow the West to “drag” it into an arms race that would eat up too much of its budget.
“Therefore, our task is to develop the defense-industrial complex in such a way as to increase the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country,” he said.
Putin said Moscow was open to discussions on nuclear strategic stability with the United States but suggested that Washington had no genuine interest in such talks and was more focused on making false claims about Moscow’s alleged aims.
“Recently there have been more and more unsubstantiated accusations against Russia, for example that we are allegedly going to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Such innuendo... is a ploy to draw us into negotiations on their terms, which are favorable only to the United States,” he said.
“...On the eve of the US presidential election, they simply want to show their citizens and everyone else that they still rule the world.”