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A telegram from the US embassy in Azerbaijan that was published in Wikileaks claimed that the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, compared Israel-Azerbaijan relations to an iceberg, with most of the relations being below the surface and only the edge visible. Moreover, the strategic relations between the two countries, as long as they do not prompt the actors for adventurist policies, are consistent with the interests of the US and the West. It can even be asserted that Azerbaijan is the Muslim country with which Israel currently enjoys the closest relations. This might seem surprising, given that Azerbaijan has a common border with Iran and that most of its population is Shiite (although it has a strong secular tradition). Nevertheless, after more than two decades of diplomatic relations, it appears that relations are at a peak.
Following the visit by Israel’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon to Azerbaijan in September 2014, Israeli daily Haaretz published several op-eds about arms exports from Israel to Azerbaijan, a key aspect of the relationship. One contributor argued that continuation of Israeli arms exports to Azerbaijan was liable to help cause a renewed outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and lead to massacres by Azerbaijan against the Armenian population.
In contrast, articles written in response stressed the problems for Israel posed by the close relations between Armenia and Iran, and argued that Azerbaijan was a true partner of Israel. The ethnic cleansing committed by the Armenians against the Azeris in the 1990s, the responsibility of the Armenians for the failure to reach a solution to the dispute concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby regions, and the Russian support for Armenia were also cited as contributing to the deadlock. This argument raises anew the question of the characteristics of the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan and to what degree the strategic relations between them are stable.
From Azerbaijan’s perspective, one of the main goals of its foreign policy is redeeming territory lost during the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. Azerbaijan states that it does not rule out a return to violent conflict if the diplomatic negotiations to resolve the dispute are unsuccessful, and that it is preparing for such a conflict, in part through its relations with Israel.
Another issue linking Azerbaijan and Israel is the Iranian threat, which the two countries regard as existential. Iran’s anxiety about aspirations among the Azeris in Iran (where they are the largest minority in the country, believed to account for a fifth of Iran’s population) to secede from Iran and establish a “Greater Azerbaijan” constitutes part of the fundamental problems in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. In addition, during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the nearby areas Iran was (and still is) an ally of Armenia.
Another source of dispute between Azerbaijan and Iran is the division of natural resources in the Caspian Sea. In addition, the Azerbaijanis accuse Iran of encouraging a religious revival among their Shiite population.
Azerbaijan is also trying to maintain a delicate balance in its relations with Russia, and regards its relations with the West, especially Israel, as essential to its efforts to retain an independent foreign policy. Azerbaijan does not wish to be a Russian satellite, even though it is quite aware of how much damage Russia can cause if it decides to engage Baku in confrontation. Azerbaijan is actually convinced that without Russian aid to Armenia, Armenia would be unable to continue controlling Nagorno Karabakh and the nearby areas. Azerbaijan finds the existence of Russian bases in Armenia – one of the factors deterring Azerbaijan from acting against Armenia – disturbing.
The Israeli Interests in Relations with Azerbaijan
The fact that it borders Iran makes Azerbaijan an ideal site for gathering intelligence about the Islamic republic. Electronic intelligence gathering stations were built along the border between Azerbaijan and Iran in the 1990s in cooperation with Israel, and in 2011, Israel began to supply Azerbaijan with unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the border.
From time to time, allegations are sounded that the two countries are engaged in tactical cooperation against Iran. Israel also cooperates with Azerbaijan in the war against terrorism and helped expose Hizbollah terrorist cells poised to take action, including against the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan and a Jewish school run by Chabad in Baku.
In March 2012, a report published in Foreign Policy stated that Azerbaijan had granted Israel permission in principle to use a number of bases for an attack on Iran, a report that attracted a great deal of attention. The Azeri authorities fervently denied the report, and Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Liberman commented that some of the military correspondents had an overactive imagination and would be better off writing science fiction film scripts.
The relations between Israel and Azerbaijan developed with American encouragement as part of a triangular relationship between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel. In the 1990s, the idea was that the Israel-TurkeyGeorgia-Azerbaijan axis, supported by the US, would be a counterweight to the Syria-Iran-Armenia-Russia axis.
The crisis in relations between Israel and Turkey over the past decade and the war in Georgia in 2008 challenged the idea of this axis, but Azerbaijan and Israel still regard the relations between them as matching the interests of the West in the region.
Another important Israeli interest is the import of oil from Azerbaijan. A significant portion of the oil consumed by Israel (an estimated 40 percent) is imported from Azerbaijan or by way of Azerbaijan through the BakuTbilsi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan should be regarded as part of its attempt to breach its isolation in the Muslim world, and as part of the continuing influence of the notion of the “Peripheral Alliance.” The close relations with Azerbaijan are likewise part of an attempt to foster close relations with countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia in accordance with the plan by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enhance its partnership with Georgia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekhistan.
While many countries perceive Iran, and especially its nuclear program, as a threat, most do not regard it as an existential threat; the few countries that do, include both Israel and Azerbaijan. At the same time, the fact that Azerbaijan is a neighbor of Iran forces it to act cautiously in coping with this threat, while attempting to preserve a degree of communication and relations with the regime in Tehran.
As with Israel’s other “special” relationships, doubts arise about the stability of the relations with Azerbaijan in the event of significant regime changes there. The lesson that can be learned from the collapse of previous relationships is that it is difficult to predict the collapse of regimes in real time, and in the event of a change in regime, relations with the new regime will almost certainly be poor (the most prominent examples in this context are Iran and South Africa, but Turkey can also be cited). In order to avoid this situation, signs of weakness in the current regime should be monitored closely.
At the same time, in many respects Azerbaijan is irreplaceable for Israel, and the proximity of this country to Iran makes it especially attractive. It can therefore be argued that the current gains from the relations are worth the risk that Israel is running with regard to the possibility of a future regime change in Azerbaijan. In any case, caution should be exercised, and a situation in which there is no prior preparation for a change in regime should be avoided as much as possible. The positive strong statements by Israeli spokesmen about the Aliyev regime, which are deemed objectionable by the part of the population protesting against the regime, should also be reviewed.
Azerbaijan regards the community of immigrants from Azerbaijan in Israel as an asset for it, and as one of the reasons for the current close relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. Israel should likewise see this community as an asset that can help solidify a link between the countries and as a source of information about changes in internal Azerbaijani politics.
Written by: Gallia Lindenstrauss