Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian for the second time in less than two weeks.
Amir-Abdollahian reportedly sounded satisfied with their latest talks, saying that the two sides agreed to boost Armenian-Iranian political, economic and cultural ties. He also said Iran will not allow “some foreign states” to damage its relations with neighbors, including Armenia.
Mirzoyan visited the Iranian capital amid mounting tensions between Tehran and Baku underscored by large-scale Iranian military exercises held along the Islamic Republic’s border with Azerbaijan.
The Iranian military reportedly began massing troops there after Baku set up on September 12 a roadblock on the main highway connecting Armenia with Iran.
The Armenian government controversially ceded a 21-kilometer section of the road to Azerbaijan following last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani police and customs are now collecting a hefty “road tax” from Iranian trucks and other vehicles passing through it, causing significant disruptions in cargo traffic between Armenia and Iran.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry last week linked the drills to Azerbaijan’s military ties with Israel, saying that Iran “will not tolerate Israeli presence near its borders.”
Amir-Abdollahian on Sunday also pointed to the widely documented participation of Sunni Muslim militants from the Middle East in the Karabakh war on the Azerbaijani side. He said those “members of terrorist movements” were deployed in areas south of Karabakh bordering northwestern Iran.
“The presence of Zionists and terrorists [in Azerbaijan] … seriously worries us,” the foreign minister told Iranian state television. “It can create problems for the government of Azerbaijan in the near future.”
“Since we are not sure that they [Sunni militants] have left the area, the drills will convey a message to them,” the commander of the Iranian ground forces, Brigadier General Kiomars Heidari, said, according to Iran’s Press TV.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commented on “the problem that arose on our northwestern border recently” when he addressed graduates of Iranian military academies earlier on Sunday.
“We will not allow alien forces to intervene in processes taking place there. He who thinks that he can ensure his own security by pinning hopes on outsiders will get a slap,” Khamenei said in a warning clearly addressed to Baku.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry rejected Tehran’s “baseless” claims. “Unfortunately, friendly Iran never condemned the [Armenian] occupation of our territory just as resolutely,” said a ministry spokeswoman.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev criticized the Iranian war games on September 27. He also said Baku set up the roadblock on the Armenia-Iran highway because Tehran ignored its repeated warnings to stop Iranian trucks from shipping cargo to Karabakh.
The road mostly passes through Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province which is sandwiched between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave and also borders Iran. Earlier this year, Aliyev threatened to forcibly open a transport corridor to Nakhichevan, drawing strong condemnation from Armenia.
Mojtaba Zonnouri, a senior Iranian parliamentarian, on Monday accused Aliyev of trying to “cut Iran’s access to Armenia” with the help of Turkey and Israel. The official IRNA news agency quoted Zonnouri as warning that Azerbaijan and Turkey “will pay a big price if they pose a threat to Iran.”
Zonnouri was apparently among 165 members of Iran’s parliament who issued a joint statement on Sunday saying that the Islamic Republic will not tolerate “any geopolitical change and alteration of the borders of neighbor countries.”
On September 28, a conservative Iranian newspaper reputedly controlled by Khamenei’s office published a commentary that accused Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of helping the United States and Israel to hatch a geopolitical “plot” against Iran and Russia.
A columnist for the Kayhan newspaper also charged that Pashinian has joined the “hidden alliance” of the four states and is willing to “cede Syunik province to Azerbaijan.”
The Armenian prime minister responded to the allegation on Sunday at the start of an official visit to Lithuania.
“It is no secret that there are some circles that manage from time to time to publish articles in the Iranian press saying that Armenia is involved in some conspiracies against Iran,” Pashinian told members of the Armenian community in the Baltic state.
“I am sure our Iranian colleagues know that Armenia has never been involved and will never be involved in a conspiracy against Iran because those relations [between Armenia and Iran] are extremely important to us.”
Pashinian has been facing similar allegations from his political opponents and other critics at home. They have deplored his government’s failure to explicitly condemn Baku’s decision to start taxing Iranian vehicles.
Pashinian and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi discussed the Armenia-Iran traffic disruptions when they met in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe on September 17.
According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, the foreign ministers of the two neighboring states discussed “developments taking place in the region” and “regional security” at their meeting in Tehran.
Speaking at a joint news briefing with Amir-Abdollahian, Mirzoyan effectively rejected Aliyev’s demands for the transport “corridor” passing through Armenia. The Armenian minister accused Baku of misrepresenting Russian-brokered agreements that call for the opening of transport links between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“In this regard, we highly appreciate Iran’s position on Armenia’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders,” added Mirzoyan.
Amir-Abdollahian was reported to express hope on Monday that Yerevan will speed up the ongoing reconstruction of an alternative Syunik highway that will allow Iranian drivers to bypass the Azerbaijani checkpoint. Armenia’s Deputy Prime Minister Suren Papikian said last week that the roadwork will be completed by the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Iranian army drills continued on Monday, involving special forces, heavy artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships. Images aired by Iranian television suggested that they are taking place on Iran’s border with Nakhichevan.
In what may be a related development, Turkish media reported that Azerbaijani and Turkish troops will start on Tuesday joint exercises in Nakhichevan.