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Iran’s army to hold drill near tense border with Azerbaijan

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s army put its wary neighbors on notice Thursday that it’s about to conduct a wide-ranging military exercise near its northwestern border amid long-simmering tensions with Azerbaijan.

The commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, Gen. Kioumars Heidari, said the drill would test weapons, assess the combat readiness of troops and demonstrate the country’s military capabilities. It would involve drones, attack helicopters, tanks and artillery.

The state-run IRNA new agency’s report did not specify the exact area the exercise would cover. But the drill, which starts on Friday, is bound to put Iranian troops and weapons close to the tense border with Azerbaijan — a prospect that has already raised alarm in the ex-Soviet Caspian Sea nation.

Earlier this week, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he was stunned by the planned drill in an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

“Every country can carry out any military drill on its own territory. It’s their sovereign right. But why now, and why on our border?” he said, noting it was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that Iran was intending to stage such a show of force so close to its border.

Iran long has been skeptical of Azerbaijan over its ties to the West and deep military cooperation with the Islamic Republic’s archrival, Israel.

Azerbaijan and Israel have strengthened their military alliance in recent months, with Israeli-supplied high-tech drones helping to tilt the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Baku’s favor last year.

Iran’s foreign ministry drew a direct connection between the country’s military drill and Azerbaijan’s ties to Israel in remarks earlier this week.

“It’s clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate the presence of the Zionist regime, even demonstratively, near its borders and in this regard it will take any action it deems necessary for its national security,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency.

The tensions with Azerbaijan have also complicated a vital border passage that trucks use to ferry fuel and other goods from Iran to Armenia. Azerbaijani authorities have detained two Iranian truck drivers in recent weeks for trying to take the route, angering Iran.

The drill comes as the region remains on edge over Iran’s escalating nuclear program. Talks in Vienna to revive Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 accord with world powers stalled since June, with no date set for their resumption.