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The Blooming Friendship Between Azerbaijan And Israel

Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in Baku on June 28, 2009
Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in Baku on June 28, 2009
By Anna Zamejc
When 13 years ago the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Baku, it was considered a bold and politically risky decision. No red carpets were rolled out, and the meeting was purposely kept low-key.

Today, however, no such precautions are needed, as visits of Israeli leaders to Azerbaijan are no longer matters of domestic controversy. However, the peculiar relationship of the two countries continues to elude easy characterizations. Some external observers see it as a typical marriage of convenience, while others tend to take it as an alarming threat.

Although Azerbaijan is a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country and a majority of ethnic Azeris live in neighboring Iran (a ferocious enemy of Israel), Baku routinely shares intelligence with the Jewish state, buys its arms, and considers it trustworthy in security matters, completely contradicting stereotypes about a “clash of civilizations.”

Further, the informal alliance seems to undermine the geopolitical game that the strongest actors -- Russia and Iran -- are determined to play in the region.

Given how advanced bilateral relations are and how strong the mutual trust appears, it might sound surprising that 18 years of diplomatic contacts have not produced a single official treaty between Israel and Azerbaijan. Moreover, Azerbaijani authorities remain vague to this day about the widely anticipated potential opening of an embassy in Israel.

Why? The answer can be found in Iran.

Thorn In The Side

“Today, everyone understands why Iran wants to block the Azerbaijani-Israeli rapprochement by any means,” Baku-born former Knesset member Yosef Shagal, a major champion of Israeli-Azerbaijani ties, said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. “It is one of the most important strategic priorities of the Islamic republic. Tehran is perfectly aware of the following: the stronger the connection between Baku and Jerusalem, the more weakened Iran will be.”

Iran, which aspires to be a regional leader, would like to see Azerbaijan play by its rules. But Azerbaijan, whose secular system is a thorn in the side of the Islamic regime, not only refuses to conform to Tehran’s dictates but has also crossed a red line by befriending the sworn enemy of Iran’s president.

Azerbaijan has always felt threatened and continues to feel threatened [by Iran] from an ideological, economic, and political point of view.
“Very characteristic in this regard is the reaction of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the official visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Azerbaijan in...2009. In hysterical tones, the Iranian leader demanded that the leadership of Azerbaijan immediately cancel the visit of ‘the head of the Zionist entity’ and ‘the main enemy of Muslims,'" Shagal recalls, adding that all Tehran’s efforts proved counterproductive as Peres was received in Azerbaijan with the highest honors. 

“It is worth noting the dignity and tact with which Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recommended that his Iranian counterpart refrain from giving advice to a leader of a sovereign state on to whom to show hospitality and to whom to refuse it,” he added.

Although Iran may not be in a position to keep Israel and Azerbaijan completely apart, it has been successful in one respect: Despite numerous calls from the Jewish state, Azerbaijan has still not opened an embassy in Israel because of pressure from Tehran.

This creates a sort of diplomatic asymmetry as it has been 16 years since Israel established its embassy in Azerbaijan. However, Baku has thus far been reluctant to reciprocate. The advanced contacts with Israel have already put a grave chill on Baku’s relations with Tehran, and provoking Iran with an embassy in Israel could prove too costly for Azerbaijan, even triggering a backlash from other Muslim states.

“Repeated efforts by Baku to find out how its southern neighbor would react to opening an Azerbaijani Embassy in Israel have always encountered Iranian ultimatums,” Shagal says, stressing that it would not only be Iranian-Azerbaijani relations that would suffer a massive blow, but Baku would eventually have to pay the price in the area that is of vital importance for the Caucasus republic: Nagorno-Karabakh.

“If Azerbaijan opens an embassy in Israel, then Iran will declare on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) a refusal to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, and would also disavow all the efforts of Azerbaijan and its supporters in the OIC for the restoration of its territorial integrity and the return of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Shagal says.

Influence Stability

Alexander Murinson, an independent researcher and academic writer who follows developments in Israeli-Azerbaijani relations, is also afraid that Baku could face difficulties once it decides to open the embassy.

“Iran can cause trouble for authorities in Azerbaijan and influence the stability of the country. So obviously that’s another way of Iran trying to influence the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan,” Murinson says.

“Azerbaijan has always felt threatened and continues to feel threatened [by Iran] from an ideological, economic, and political point of view. Iran obviously has a religious network in Azerbaijan that could undermine the secular nature of the current regime in Azerbaijan,” Murinson adds.

Despite those dangers, the IzRus portal reported last month, quoting Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Michael Lavon-Lotem, that Baku will soon open an embassy in Tel Aviv. Murinson warns that this might be mere posturing, like a similar announcement in 2006. But he believes that this time it could be for real.

“That development has been expected for many years, because the relationship is thriving both in terms of economic trade ties and also in the military field,” Murinson says. “It might be an indication that some agreement has been reached on very deep strategic cooperation between the two parties that may not have been publicized.”

A potential embassy would certainly be a culmination of Israel’s long-term efforts to persuade Baku to formalize relations and could boost Israel’s position abroad.

“For Israel, which is now faced by tremendous diplomatic pressure around the globe for many reasons, when a Muslim country, especially a Shi’ite country, makes this kind of announcement, it indicates for Israel that it has a friend in the region. In such an environment, Azerbaijan making this diplomatic move [would] create a very important, positive dynamic for the state of Israel,” Murinson says.

What's In It For Baku?

Aran Amnon, an expert on the Middle East who lectures at City University in London, adds that Israel might be now particularly interested in strengthening ties with Baku as the threat of Iranian nuclear capacity takes center stage in Israeli foreign policy.

“Israel has an interest in trying to improve its standing with as many countries as possible, especially those who may be directly affected by Iran and might by persuaded to be supportive of Israeli efforts,” Amnon says.

But in international relations, every nation acts on its own interests. The gains seem obvious for Israel, but why should Baku be willing to take the risk? Murinson links the potential switch to the new dynamics that were created by Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the deteriorating relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

In fact, Baku has a lot of other reasons for being interested in deepening ties with Israel. Israel is an important source of military equipment, and reportedly it was Israel who helped Baku rebuild its army after the heavy losses it suffered during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The military aspect of the relationship has been present ever since.

“During the visit of Simon Peres, a very important contract was signed which included construction of a plant in Azerbaijan that would produce unmanned aerial vehicles. By doing so, Azerbaijan would become an important producer of very advanced systems in the region -- even Russia doesn’t have advanced unmanned aerial vehicles,” Murinson says, stressing that the lack of such systems proved problematic during the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Israel plays an important role in Azerbaijani security arrangements. The electronic fence around Baku’s international airport was built by Israeli companies. Reportedly, Israeli firms are supplying equipment to ensure the safety of Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, and there were also rumors that Israelis provide security for Azerbaijan’s president on his foreign visits.

Last but not least, Azerbaijan is the home of an ancient Jewish community, which remains an important aspect in mutual contacts.

“We estimate that there are approximately 25,000 Jews living in Azerbaijan,” Mark Levin, the executive director of National Conference of the Soviet Jewry says. “Azeri Jews have lived side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors for centuries, and they are treated very well.”
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Sinav Azerbaycanli from: South Azerbaijan
March 10, 2010 18:22
I think Azerbaijan should feel free to open an embassy in Israel as long as its Muslim partners esp. Iran have their own embassy and consulates in Armenia in spite of Azerbaijan’s dissatisfaction. If I were in Mr. Elmar Mammadyarov’s place I would come up with the announcement that: Iran, a leading Shia country in the world has its embassy and consulates in Armenia, a country occupying Shia Azerbaijan’s territories; why not Azerbaijan should have its embassy in Israel!”

Azerbaijan must convince its Muslim partners that Azerbaijan’s cooperation with Israel is a necessity to counter Iran’s Shia extremism propaganda in Azerbaijan and furthermore from security perspective in order to hedge its bets against its very questionable nature of so called “Cordial Relationship” with Iran, Azerbaijan needs tight ties with Israel.

I don’t think if Iran could change the secular nature of the Azerbaijani Republic with its weak network of extremism in Azerbaijan but Azerbaijan can pave the way for the South Azerbaijani Nationalist movement that can wreak havoc on Iran’s stability.

This is no secret that Iran’s authoritarian and ideological outlook will not help this country bear the existence of Azerbaijan Republic that has been a symbol of Azerbaijani statehood for all South Azerbaijani people residing in Iran that their number counts over 20 million. Azerbaijan republic must do whatever at hand to shield itself from Iranian animosity and threat. This is not a choice but a crucial necessity.

by: RD
March 10, 2010 18:45
It would be interesting to see if Azerbaijan will still have a friend in Israel when it has wasted billions of dollars on Israeli gear instead of spending it on social programs and poverty reduction, especially outside Baku, and Azerbaijan does not have much money left. I doubt Israel will be there for Azerbaijan as a friend. It has always been Azerbaijan's signature moves to waste money for short term gains instead of investing in its people.

by: Ulugbek from: NY
March 13, 2010 00:04
Mr. RD
I think you are permanent serviceman on this site, but still try to change "colors" despite reality. Azerbaijan and Israel know what they are doing on the law base in contradistinction to Armenia and Iran .

by: RD
March 20, 2010 01:58
Ilham Aliev is so good at embarassing himself and his country. Building plants in Azerbaijan to build unmanned aerial drones, buying high end military equipment, developing its military to reclaim Nagorno Karabakh again. I guess he seems to forget that the costs of war far surpass how much he pays for equipment and ammunition. Costs of war will plunge his country into economic turmoil. However, for everyone's sake, especially his country, he knows that. Because, even if he wins a new ware over Nagorno Karabakh, he will lose. He will enter a quagmire that he will never be able to get out of. I wish I had his home address, I would send him a book called; "The Three Trillion Dollar War" by Joseph Stiglitz.

by: C.J Maxwell from: Virginia
March 20, 2010 04:45
Correction, Azerbaijan is only a made up word. It is only an entity inside Iran or Persia.

by: RD
March 21, 2010 20:11
Suck their money dry Israel. When they are no longer important to you, cut the rope on them. Ilham Aliev is too stupid to see that.

by: JS from: Iran
March 24, 2010 19:21
Are these the same Ashkenazi Jews (note the nazi at the end) who lived in tents in the and around the Caspian sea many 100's of years ago? This particular nomadic tribe was famous for plunder and pillage and used to offer their mercenary services to the highest bidder, causing much trouble in the region. Finally an army was sent by a Persian king to get rid of them and they mostly moved/escaped to Europe. Maybe they are nostalgic for a reminder.

by: EH
March 25, 2010 22:28
Well I am pretty sure that Mr. Aliyev knows what he does. Those envy comments from some users above just show how hateful some people can be towards Azerbaijan. Anyway, I would like to say to all the haters: NOBODY CARES WHAT YOU THINK! Armenians and anti-Azerbaijani part of Iranian population can pour their gall during and after reading the news that disappoint their nationalistic views, but it will not change anything. The dog barks, but the Caravan keeps going...

by: RD
March 29, 2010 15:30
EH, obviously if you were a more noetic individual, you would see that what many posters here hate is not Azerbaijan, but hate war. Ilham Aliev thinks he will win a renewed war with Armenia by buying expensive Israeli weapons. All he will do is drag the entire region, including his country, into turmoil. Only party that will benefit are the arms dealers, in this case Israel. They have no stake in your country, but you do. So, take your head out of your back side and push for diplomacy and not war.

by: SK from: NY
April 05, 2010 18:12
I think you should pull your head out of your backside and understand that you are not in the position to judge sitting in your trailor in the outskirts of Knight town, Kentucky. Jewish warlords are not only sucking money from azernaijan but from your neigboor farmer also. I think people should unerstand that even though jewish warlords are sucking money from Azerbaijan, Aliev knows that having jews on his side means not having a lot of other countries on his side. I dont like Aliyev I think he is an a... but when it comes to jews I think you better have them on your side even if it is costly, returning Nagorni Karabakh by all means is worth much more.

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