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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A suspected bomb blast kills at least 4 Christian worshippers during Mass in southern Philippines

Members of police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) stand guard along a popular market street in Manila on June 1, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2023

A suspected bomb blast kills at least 4 Christian worshippers during Mass in southern Philippines

  • 'Foreign terrorists’ behind deadly Philippine bombing — officials
  • Bombing follows military operations against Islamists

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr condemned a deadly bombing on Sunday, blaming “foreign terrorists,” as police and the military strengthened security in the country’s south and around the capital Manila.
At least four people were killed and at least 50 injured after a bomb exploded during a morning Catholic Mass in a university gymnasium in Marawi, a city in the south of the country besieged by Islamist militants for five months in 2017.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the senseless and most heinous acts perpetrated by foreign terrorists,” Marcos said in a statement. “Extremists who wield violence against the innocent will always be regarded as enemies to our society.”
Law enforcement operations to bring to justice the perpetrators of the “terrorist activity” will “continue unabated,” Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro told a press conference.
There were “strong indications of a foreign element” in the bombing, Teodoro said, refusing to elaborate so as not to compromise ongoing investigation.
Fragments of a 16-mm mortar were recovered at the scene, senior police official Emmanuel Peralta told the press conference.

The blast in Marawi, capital of Lanao del Sur province, followed a series of military operations against local pro-Daesh groups in the southern Philippines, the military chief said, including one on Sunday in Lanao del Sur that led to the killing of a leader of the Dawlah Islamiya-Maute group.
“It is possible that what happened this morning was a retaliatory attack,” Armed Forces Chief Romeo Brawner told the press conference.
The Islamic State-linked Maute seized Marawi on May 2017, seeking to make it a Southeast Asian “wilayat” – or governorate — for Islamic State. In the ensuing five-month battle, Islamist fighters and Philippine forces killed more than a thousand people, including civilians.
Military officials surveyed the gym at the Mindanao State University, which appeared intact except for burn marks in the center where the explosion occurred, according to images shared by the Lanao del Sur government on Facebook. White plastic chairs were strewn about.
Videos posted by DZBB radio on X showed rescuers carrying injured people out of the gym on plastic chairs.
Police offices in Mindanao and the capital region were placed on high alert and police checkpoints tightened “to prevent possible follow-up incidents,” police official Peralta said.
The coast guard directed its districts to intensify pre-departure inspection at ports.
Mindanao State University is “deeply saddened and appalled by the act of violence that occurred during a religious gathering,” the school posted on Facebook. “We unequivocally condemn in the strongest possible terms this senseless and horrific act.”
The university said it was said it was suspending classes until further notice. 

Breaches by Iran-affiliated hackers spanned multiple US states, federal agencies say

Updated 03 December 2023

Breaches by Iran-affiliated hackers spanned multiple US states, federal agencies say

  • Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, the group has expanded and accelerated targeting Israeli critical infrastructure, said Check Point’s Sergey Shykevich

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: A small western Pennsylvania water authority was just one of multiple organizations breached in the United States by Iran-affiliated hackers who targeted a specific industrial control device because it is Israeli-made, US and Israeli authorities say.
“The victims span multiple US states,” the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, known as CISA, as well as Israel’s National Cyber Directorate said in an advisory emailed to The Associated Press late Friday.
They did not say how many organizations were hacked or otherwise describe them.
Matthew Mottes, the chairman of the Municipal Water Authority of Aliquippa, which discovered it had been hacked on Nov. 25, said Thursday that federal officials had told him the same group also breached four other utilities and an aquarium.
Cybersecurity experts say that while there is no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Oct. 7 attack into Israel by Hamas that triggered the war in Gaza they expected state-backed Iranian hackers and pro-Palestinian hacktivists to step up cyberattacks on Israeli and its allies in its aftermath. And indeed that has happened.
The multiagency advisory explained what CISA had not when it confirmed the Pennsylvania hack on Wednesday — that other industries outside water and water-treatment facilities use the same equipment — Vision Series programmable logic controllers made by Unitronics — and were also potentially vulnerable.
Those industries include “energy, food and beverage manufacturing and health care,” the advisory says. The devices regulate processes including pressure, temperature and fluid flow.
The Aliquippa hack promoted workers to temporarily halt pumping in a remote station that regulates water pressure for two nearby towns, leading crews to switch to manual operation. The hackers left a digital calling card on the compromised device saying all Israeli-made equipment is “a legal target.”
The multiagency advisory said it was not known if the hackers had tried to penetrate deeper into breached networks. The access they did get enabled “more profound cyber physical effects on processes and equipment,” it said.
The advisory says the hackers, who call themselves “Cyber Av3ngers,” are affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the US designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2019. The group targeted the Unitronics devices at least since Nov. 22, it said.
An online search Saturday with the Shodan service identified more than 200 such Internet-connected devices in the US and more than 1,700 globally.
The advisory notes that Unitronics devices ship with a default password, a practice experts discourage as it makes them more vulnerable to hacking. Best practices call for devices to require a unique password to be created out of the box. It says the hackers likely accessed affected devices by “exploiting cybersecurity weaknesses, including poor password security and exposure to the Internet.”
Experts say many water utilities have paid insufficient attention to cybersecurity.
In response to the Aliquippa hack, three Pennsylvania congressmen asked the US Justice Department in a letter to investigate. Americans must know their drinking water and other basic infrastructure is safe from “nation-state adversaries and terrorist organizations,” US Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey and US Rep. Chris Deluzio said. Cyber Av3ngers claimed in an Oct. 30 social media post to have hacked 10 water treatment stations in Israel, though it is not clear if they shut down any equipment.
Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, the group has expanded and accelerated targeting Israeli critical infrastructure, said Check Point’s Sergey Shykevich. Iran and Israel were engaged in low-level cyberconflict prior to the Oct. 7. Unitronics has not responded to the AP queries about the hacks.
The attack came less than a month after a federal appeals court decision prompted the EPA to rescind a rule that would have obliged USpublic water systems to include cybersecurity testing in their regular federally mandated audits. The rollback was triggered by a federal appeals court decision in a case brought by Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa, and joined by a water utility trade group.
The Biden administration has been trying to shore up cybersecurity of critical infrastructure — more than 80 percent of which is privately owned — and has imposed regulations on sectors including electric utilities, gas pipelines and nuclear facilities. But many experts complain that too many vital industries are permitted to self-regulate.


Ex-president barred from leaving Ukraine amid alleged plan to meet with Hungary’s Viktor Orban

Updated 03 December 2023

Ex-president barred from leaving Ukraine amid alleged plan to meet with Hungary’s Viktor Orban

  • Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been monitoring safety at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is one of the world’s 10 biggest nuclear power stations

KYIV, Ukraine: Former President Petro Poroshenko was denied permission to leave Ukraine for a planned meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Ukraine’s security service said Saturday.
Poroshenko announced Friday that he had been turned away at the border despite previously receiving permission from Parliament to leave the country. Under martial law, Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years of age are not allowed to leave the country without special approval.
The 58-year-old, who lost his re-election bid in 2019 to current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said that he had planned to meet with US House Speaker Mike Johnson, and the Polish parliament during his trip.
But security officials said that Poroshenko had also agreed to meet Orban, who has previously praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and refused to support Kyiv’s bid for EU accession. In a statement on social media, they said such talks would make Poroshenko a “tool in the hands of the Russian special services.”
Poroshenko, who called his experience at the border an “attack on unity”, is yet to comment on the allegation that he planned to meet Orban.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was left on “the verge of a nuclear and radiation accident” Saturday after it was unable to draw power from two of the lines connecting it to the local energy grid, the country’s nuclear energy operator said.
It said that the plant switched to diesel generators to stop the plant from overheating before off-site power was restored by Kyiv.
Russia occupied the Zaporizhzhia plant in the early stages of the war. Over the past year, the station has become a focal point of concern for international observers, with both Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other of shelling the plant.
In a statement on social media, Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, accused Moscow of “incorrect, erroneous, and often deliberately risky operation of the equipment” at the site.
The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the claims.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been monitoring safety at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is one of the world’s 10 biggest nuclear power stations.
Although the plant’s six reactors have been shut down for months, it still needs power and qualified staff to operate crucial cooling systems and other safety features.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russia launched 11 Iranian-made Shahed drones and one guided cruise missile overnight Saturday, military officials said. The missile and all but one of the drones were reportedly destroyed by Ukrainian air defenses.
The Russian Defense Ministry also said that it had shot down two Ukrainian C-200 rockets over the Sea of Azov.


Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian supporters stage events across Britain

Updated 03 December 2023

Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian supporters stage events across Britain

LONDON: Tens of thousands of people across the UK held protests on Saturday as part of a “Day of Action” against the resumption of Israel’s renewed attack on Gaza following a seven-day pause in fighting, organizers said. 

“Israel’s decision to resume its bombardment of Gaza flies in the face of international law, which prohibits collective punishment and attacks on civilians,” said Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign — one of the organizers of the nationwide call. 

“Every humanitarian agency on the ground has indicated that the scale of destruction already wrought by Israel has pushed Gaza to the brink of catastrophe, where deaths from disease and lack of medical services could outstrip the current casualty figures,” he added.

“In that context not only is it unconscionable that Israel would renew its attacks, (but) it is also shameful and unacceptable that UK political leaders would give their support, tacitly or explicitly.”

At least 193 Palestinians have been killed since the cease-fire ended on Friday, according to Gazan health officials, adding to the more than 15,000 Palestinians killed since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas following a surprise attack on Oct. 7 in southern Israel.

“Ordinary people across the UK will come out again to show the vast majority of them support a permanent cease-fire, they will show their solidarity with Palestinians who are experiencing unbearable suffering, (and) they will also demand the root causes are not forgotten — Israel’s decades-long military occupation of Palestinian territories and its system of apartheid against Palestinians.

“We demand justice for the Palestinian people – their right to self-determination and to live in freedom, dignity and with equality,” he added.

PSC has organized weekly national marches in London since the war began, some of which organizers said drew around 800,000 people and was among the nations biggest demonstrations in history. The next scheduled national march is set to be held on Dec. 9.

Various events were held around the country as part of the call, including cease-fire rallies and vigils in places such as Brighton, Hull in the north of England, Coventry in the center, Canterbury in the southeast, and the Welsh capital Cardiff.

Attacker stabs German tourist to death in Paris

Updated 03 December 2023

Attacker stabs German tourist to death in Paris

  • A police source said the attacker was known for psychiatric disorders

PARIS: A person known to the French authorities as a radical Islamist with mental health troubles stabbed a German tourist to death and wounded two people in central Paris on Saturday before being arrested, officials said.
The attack took place close to the Eiffel Tower during a busy late weekend night and came with the country on its highest alert for attacks as tensions rise against the background of the war between Israel and Hamas.
“We will not give in to terrorism,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wrote on X, formerly Twitter, after the attack.
French anti-terror prosecutors said that they would now take on the investigation.
The attacker was known to authorities as a radical Islamist and was being treated for mental illness, a police source told AFP.
He shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest“) before being arrested, the source added.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said the attacker is French, born in 1997, and has been arrested in an investigation into murder and attempted murder.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin who visited the the scene by the River Seine’s Bir Hakeim bridge said the man had already been sentenced in 2016 to “four years in prison” for planning another attack which he failed to carry out.
“A man attacked a couple who were foreign tourists. A German tourist who was born in the Philippines died from the stabbing,” he said.
A taxi driver who witnessed the scene intervened, Darmanin said. The attacker then crossed the Seine attacking others and injuring one with a hammer, while police chased in pursuit.
Police used a taser to neutralize the man who was then arrested.
“He had threatened them very violently... he will now have to answer for his actions before justice,” Darmanin said.
The suspect told police he could not stand Muslims being killed in “Afghanistan and Palestine,” according to the minister.
Joseph S., 37 years old, a supermarket manager who asked not to give his last name, witnessed the scene, as he sat in a bar.
He heard screams and people shouting “help, help” as they ran. A man wielding an object attacked a man who had fallen down, and within 10 minutes the police arrived, he told AFP.
The country has suffered several attacks by Islamist extremists, including the November 2015 suicide and gun attacks in Paris claimed by the Daesh group in which 130 people were killed.
There had been a relative lull in recent years, even as officials have warned that the threat remains.
But tensions have risen in France, home to large Jewish and Muslim populations, following Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Security in Paris is also under particular scrutiny as it gears up to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.
In October, teacher Dominique Bernard was killed in the northern French town of Arras by a young radicalized Islamist from Russia’s Caucasus region.