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Why is Israel smiling after Azeri win in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Because it's all about Iran -- that's why neoconservative think tanks here had their thumb on the scale the entire time.

Analysis | Middle East

At the outbreak of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a group of Washington hawks from neoconservative think tanks like Hudson Institute and Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) urged the United States to support Azerbaijan. They pushed the narrative that Armenia was an ally of Iran, while Azerbaijan an ally of Israel. Azerbaijani victory, thus, would be a gain for Israel. 

The fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, is not what interests these neoconservatives. Like in almost everything having to do with a greater Middle East, for them this is all about Iran. According to their expectations, Azerbaijani victory would galvanize Iranian Azeris (around 25 percent of the population) to rebel against Tehran for its supposed support for Armenia — an allegation they sought to bolster through spreading disinformation.  An Azeri uprising would usher into the hawks’ long-cherished dream – the collapse of the Iranian state.

The active military phase of the war in and around Nagorno-Karabakh ended on November 10 with a Russian-facilitated truce. Under its terms, Azerbaijan secured the return of all its territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that had been held for a quarter century by Armenian forces, as well as part of the enclave itself. Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers entered the region to secure the new status quo that cements Azerbaijani gains. 

On the face of it, Israel is a winner in such an outcome. Whether, however, this will bring it additional strategic benefits in its conflict with Iran is far less clear.

 Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are based on a bargain that sees Israel sell weapons to Azerbaijan, purchase its oil (according to some estimates, up to 40 percent of Israel’s arms imports) and lobby on behalf of Baku in Washington. Like many Middle Eastern autocrats, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev seems to believe that the road to Washington lies through Jerusalem.  Israel, in turn, gains a foothold on Iran’s northern borders for intelligence gathering or even a launching pad for a potential military attack on Iran. 

The war has validated the usefulness of this relationship to Azerbaijan. Advanced Israeli weaponry, particularly attack drones, played a fundamental role in decimating Armenian defenses.  Israel thus showed itself as a valuable partner for Azerbaijan. 

This is an asset that Baku will continue to cultivate: from the Azerbaijani perspective, the truce is unfinished business. It essentially refreezes the conflict, even if on terms vastly favorable to Azerbaijan. But part of Nagorno-Karabakh still lies outside Azerbaijan’s effective sovereignty, and the status of the region will likely remain undefined for the foreseeable future. Azerbaijan will need Israel’s help in securing American support in future diplomatic battles over the final settlement, as well as its weapons in order to maintain a qualitative edge over Armenia. In exchange, Azerbaijan will continue allowing Israeli spies to operate on its territory with Iran in their crosshairs. However, the pro-Israeli hawks’ hopes that Azerbaijan would go further and facilitate their plans to destabilize Iran amount to wishful thinking. 

During the war, Aliyev handled relations with Tehran with considerable skill. He denied reports in Azerbaijani media that Iran helped Armenia with arms transfers from Russia.  In a maneuver calculated to neutralize Tehran’s potential tilt to Armenia, he and his aides went out of their way to emphasize “friendship” and “deep ties” between Azerbaijan and Iran. Tehran, meanwhile, wary of its own Azeri minority, sent political and religious messages to reassure Baku of its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed this point in his speech on November 4 laying out Iran’s approach to the conflict. On this basis, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi presented Iran’s peace ideas in his tour of the region.

By appearing to have shifted in a pro-Baku direction, Tehran sought to secure its northern flank from the conflict’s potential ripple effects. This move wasn’t entirely successful. One point of the truce agreement is detrimental to Iran’s interests: a direct land corridor linking Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan through Armenian territory. Previously, it had to run through Iran, providing it an important point of leverage over Azerbaijan. That Iran’s interests were not taken into account highlighted its weakness in the region. 

However, it is questionable whether Aliyev will seek to exploit it to ignite a fresh conflict with Iran. For one, unlike his predecessor in early 1990s, Abulfaz Elcibey, he is not an ideological pan-Turkist.  His ambitions seem to be limited to restoring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in its internationally recognized borders. In other words, Karabakh, rather than Tabriz (the main city in the Iranian Azerbaijan), is Aliyev’s priority. Besides, he has a lot on his plate already; reconstruction of the returned territories will require massive resources, all in the context of economic downturn.  As to other problems — the pandemic, corruption, repression, and the need for economic modernization, to name but few — they may have receded to the backburner during the war but they did not disappear, and the regime will have to deal with them. Under these circumstances, a conflict with Iran is the last thing Aliyev needs.

Azerbaijan will continue its mutually profitable relationship with Israel, but it will be based on expediency and national interest, not far-fetched anti-Iranian schemes hatched by armchair warriors in Washington think tanks. 

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. (Papparazza/Shutterstock)
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