Don't shrug off the latest Iranian military exercise

As Iran continues to insist on sanctions relief in talks over reviving U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration seems intent on acceding to the regime's demands, lifting sanctions last week on two Iranian entities involved in military missile programs.

At the same time, it would be easy for many onlookers in the West to yawn or shrug at the recent "Conquerors of Khaybar" exercise near Iran's border with Azerbaijan, dismissing the development as typical pomp and circumstance from Tehran.

Indeed, we are all too well accustomed to news of Iranian military parades.  But the first military exercise that Iran has held in its northwest border area in almost 30 years when Azerbaijan gained independence from the former Soviet Union, is far from a garden-variety event.  Rather, it should be squarely on policymakers' radar when they evaluate Washington's broader approach to Tehran.

In his criticism of the drill, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev asked, "Why now and why near our borders?"  The question was rhetorical, yet Iran still revealed its true motive.  Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh asserted that Tehran "will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime near our borders."  Khatibzadeh was referring to the deep and multifaceted ties between Israel and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan since 1992.  After Ahmed Ali Goudarzi, commander of Iran's Border Guard, claimed that Israeli forces are conducting intelligence and espionage work in "sensitive areas" in neighboring countries, Azerbaijan's State Border Service denied that accusation.

Iran also repeatedly makes clear that it will not tolerate Jews — and the Conquerors of Khaybar drill should be understood in the same realm as Iranian threats to wipe Israel and Jews off the map through its nuclear program.  The drill's name refers to a legend surrounding the Jewish stronghold of Khaybar in the Arabian Desert, which fell into the Prophet Muhammad's hands in 628 C.E.  This military exercise, therefore, represents Iran's affirmation of its ultimate goal to annihilate the Jewish people. 

Harsh rhetoric against Israel also recently emerged from the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the lobby group promoting the interests of Armenia on Capitol Hill — and Iran is firmly part of that picture as well.  Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek tweeted September 30, "While Iran oppresses its religious and ethnic minorities and targets Jews in other countries, we — Israel, the United States, and Azerbaijan — invest in our diversity and tolerance."  The ANCA responded with an assault on Deek, the first Israeli-Arab Christian to rise to the rank of ambassador.

"Amb. @GeorgeDeek — Israel's envoy in Baku — has publicly cited his Armenian heritage, tweeting that his paternal grandmother was Antaram Hambarian (a survivor of the #Armenian #Genocide). Today he openly conspires with #Azerbaijan to complete the crime his ancestors survived," the ANCA tweeted.

Given how Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has pledged to deepen Armenia-Iran relations "in spite of U.S. sanctions," and how Armenia has historically acted as a sanctions-buster on behalf of the Tehran regime, it hardly surprising to see the U.S. lobby that supports Armenia come to Iran's defense.  And much like Iran's disdain for the fellow Shi'a-majority nation's warm relationship with Israel, the ANCA persistently seeks to undermine the pioneering interfaith alliance between Azerbaijan and Israel.

The threats emanating from Iran and the ANCA must be understood as branches of the same tree, and their targets are unmistakable: Israel, Jews, and a longtime Jewish-Muslim alliance that they simply cannot tolerate.  On a parallel track, amid the Biden administration's determination to rejoin the nuclear deal, U.S. policymakers must consider Iran's recent aggressive move near Azerbaijan's border as part of the full spectrum of Tehran's destabilizing behavior — before it is too late.

Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center.  Follow him on Twitter at @pauliespoint.

Image: Foad Ashtari.

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