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How the budding Azerbaijan-Israel alliance is more than just 'good business'

Add Turkey to the mix and see how this is building to become the next step in a strategic security axis against Iran.

Analysis | Middle East

On August 2, Azerbaijan opened a trade and tourism promotion office in Israel. Seen by many observers as a prelude to a full-blown embassy, this event points to a consolidating Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership, with potentially far-reaching implications for the Caucasus and Middle East geopolitics.

The opening ceremony took place during the visit to Israel of Azerbaijan’s Economy Minister Mikayil Jabbarov. Meeting his Israeli counterparts, Jabbarov pitched his country as an attractive business destination for Israeli firms and invited them to invest in territories Azerbaijan wrested from Armenian control during the war in 2020.

Azerbaijan supplies up to 40 percent of the oil Israel buys. In the year before the outbreak of COVID-19, as many as 50,000 Israeli tourists reportedly visited Azerbaijan, an increase compared to previous years. 

Whatever the prospects of trade and tourism between the two countries, however, this relationship was always driven by geostrategic considerations. 

For Israel, Azerbaijan is a key cog in its latest iteration of its “periphery strategy” “” — or balancing its regional enemies, mainly Iran, — by cultivating ties with so-called “moderate” Muslim regimes. As a neighbor of Iran that shares a mistrust of the Islamic Republic, Azerbaijan fits the bill. 

For Azerbaijan, Israel is a source of modern weaponry, which helped it to win last year’s war against Armenia, and a lobbying asset in Washington that grants its access to politically influential sectors it would otherwise be difficult to reach. Israel has also made itself available for the regime in Baku as a valuable source of surveillance technology to suppress Azerbaijani dissidents.

While Jabbarov and other Azerbaijani officials limited their public comments to trade and tourism, Israeli officials were much less subdued about emphasizing the strategic dimension of Baku’s move. Israel’s ambassador in Baku gushed about “Azerbaijan’s flag now waving in Israel.” And back when the decision to open the tourism office was announced, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi placed the event in the same category as the so-called “Abraham Accords” -- Israel’s recent “normalization” deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. 

Adding Azerbaijan to the list of “Abraham countries,” however, is misleading: Baku has enjoyed close relations with Israel since becoming an independent state following the Soviet 

collapse in 1991. Two years later, Israel opened an embassy in Baku, a move that  Baku refrained from reciprocating for fear of alienaing the Muslim world whose support it needed in its conflict with Armenia. Now that it has liberated its occupied lands, however, Baku may have fewer qualms about deepening its official relations with Jerusalem.

Another factor explaining the timing of Baku’s decision is the tentative moves by its main ally — Turkey — to lower tensions with Israel. Ankara may see improving ties with Jerusalem  as a way to curry favor with the Biden administration with which it had a somewhat bumpy start. Also, as political Islam recedes within Turkey, and conservative nationalism increasingly becomes the glue holding together the disparate elements of the Turkish ruling coalition — from Islamists to the traditional center-right to the nationalist far-right — opposing Israel loses some of its inherent ideological appeal. That explains why the Turkish leadership has shown a readiness to mend ties so soon after the most recent crisis in Gaza. Ankara may not be overly excited about Baku’s close relations with Jerusalem, but in the Caucasus context it is seen as compatible with the Turkish power projection. 

Azerbaijan senses a diplomatic opportunity in these shifts. Baku has a strategic interest in Turkish-Israeli rapprochement and actively seeks to mediate in order to bring it about. Azerbaijan sees an alliance with Turkey and Israel as a means to increase pressure on Armenia and very possibly to gain the two countries’ backing for annexing Yerevan’s only remaining geographic link to Iran, the so-called Zangazur corridor, that is sandwiched between the Azerbaijan mainland and its Nakhchevan exclave. (Such a move would not only make Armenia even more dependent on its two hostile neighbors; it would also give Ankara a direct land link with Baku  and, from there, to the Turkic republics of Central Asia.) It is no wonder that Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan showed up at last week’s inauguration of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and the rather nervous reaction to his presence in Tehran expressed by Baku’s pro-government media.  (Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev chose not to attend the event.)

The bigger picture is that Azerbaijan, since its victory over Armenia, has escalated its rhetoric from the defense of its territorial integrity, which had been violated by the Armenian occupation for almost three decades, to irredentist claims on parts of the Armenian territory proper, including the capital, Yerevan. Those claims are based on the same assumptions that have asserted against Iran’s northern provinces— that any territory where Azerbaijani Turks are -- or were at some point in recorded history — in a majority qualifies as “ancestral Azerbaijani land and thus subject to hypothetical annexation. On the official level, Baku, starting with the President Aliyev, currently only claims the lands of Armenia. However, the anti-Iranian irredentism, with the notion of a “south Azerbaijan” supposedly languishing under the Persian yoke, is deeply rooted in Azerbaijani political culture. Once unleashed, the jinn of irredentism may be difficult for Aliyev to tame.

This is where Israel comes into play. While it has been long engaged in a “shadow war” with Iran, recent statements by Israeli officials point to a radicalized posture. In just the past week, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. stated publicly that Israel seeks a coup d’etat and regime change in Iran, while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened to take military action against Tehran. Moreover, an Israeli establishment think tank, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, or BESA, published a paper openly calling for military support for non-Persian ethnic minority groups that allegedly favor secession from Iran. In that sense, Iran hawks in both Washington and Jerusalem have long placed their greatest hopes on Azerbaijanis, the largest of Iran’s minorities, in particular.

Before the BESA paper was published, the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which enjoyed significant influence in the Trump administration, unveiled its own paper calling for Washington to adopt a policy designed to encourage minority mobilization against Persians and ”Tehran.” The paper’s author, Brenda Shaffer, has long worked for the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR and currently teaches at Azerbaijan’s Diplomatic Academy. These connections expose Baku to suspicions of fomenting Iran’s disintegration.

In this context, the opening of Azerbaijan’s office in Israel is seen in Tehran as potentially much more and much more threatening than the promotion of bilateral trade and tourism as Baku insists. Instead, it is likely to be understood as the next step in the strengthening of a de facto Azerbaijani-Israeli-Turkish axis aimed against the Islamic Republic. How Tehran responds remains to be seen, but these latest developments bode ill for regional stability. 

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

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - DECEMBER 10, 2020: A Hermes-450 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries is seen during a military parade marking the end of the Nagorno Karabakh military conflict. Valery Sharifulin/TASS.No use Russia.
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