|Presidents of Israel and Azerbaijan – Shimon Peres and Ilham Aliev|
Two non-presumable news came this December about Azerbaijan – the Muslim post-Soviet Republic located between Iran and Russia. Recently Iranian channel Press-TV informed that Azerbaijan uses ultra-light Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles “Orbiter” and “Hermes-450” to patrol the border with Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Press-TV quoted Iranian experts, according to which, these drones can be integrated with the Israeli intelligence satellites. In addition, this month the British Sunday Times reported that Israel is going to use drones “Eitan” stationed in Azerbaijan, to intercept Iranian rockets fired at Israel.
It’s a really interesting question how so contradictory trends like growing hostility towards Iran and increasing dependence from Israeli special services can take place in Azerbaijan. Especially taking to consideration, that Azeri population of Iran more than 3 times exceeds population of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and Iran are connected and at the same time divided by the same Azeri ethnic and religious heritage. Prior to 1828, Iran and Azerbaijan were integral parts of a single Safavid Empire. With the conquest of the northern lands of that Empire by Russia one part of the Shi’a Azerbaijani population of Iran was included into Russian state, and formed the basis of the future Republic of Azerbaijan.
At the same time, a larger part of Azerbaijani lands remained within Iran. Today, there are two big Azerbaijani regions within Iran – West and East Azerbaijan. Various sources estimate number of the Azerbaijani population of Iran of 25-30 million people. As for Republic of Azerbaijan it has a population about only 8 million people.
Ismail, shah of Iran, who made Shi’a Islam the state religion of the whole Empire, was an ethnic Azeri like most dynasties of Iran before coming to power of Pahlavi dynasty. Today, much of the Iranian political elite are of Azeri origin. Thus, even the spiritual leader of Iran Ali Khamenei is Azeri.
Reasons of alienation
But today Azerbaijani-Iranian relations getting worse at an ever-increasing rate. The reasons behind that trend are numerous.
Azerbaijani authorities fear the imperial ambitions of Iran, while Iran looks with suspicion on its northern neighbor, fearing it would be a reason of raising separatist ideas and movements among its multi-million Azeri population. Thus in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods Moscow and Baku several times tried to play the card of separation of Azerbaijani lands from Iran.
Baku considers Iran’s Shi’a influence as a threat to the Western political and social model of Azerbaijan. So, today, almost all Islamic literature from Iran banned for distribution in Azerbaijan.
Then Iran’s reaction to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh – region of Azerbaijan inhabited by Armenian people and separated from Baku immediately after collapse of the USSR – turned to be a cold shower for the Azerbaijani ruling elite. Iran has refused to support Baku in the conflict and called on the both countries to resolve the conflict through negotiations.
The next level of alienation between the two countries began when Teheran realized the possibility of Azerbaijan becoming an outpost for a military operation against Iran. Last year witnessed a series of loud scandals between Baku and Tehran. The Azerbaijani secret service uncovered a plot of “Iranian terrorists” against Azerbaijani high ranked officials.
The last straw that forced Tehran to recall its Ambassador, Mohammad Bahir Bahrami, from Baku was the incident where demonstrators in Baku protesting against “anti-Azerbaijani policy” of Iran insulted the supreme Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei.
All these factors pushed the political elite of Azerbaijan from Iran and urged it to begin close cooperation with Israel in order to ensure its own security. And such anti-Iran policy of Baku is already bearing fruit.
Baku’s statements are becoming more open and aggressive. The deputy of Milli Majlis (Parliament of Azerbaijan) Fazil Mustafa, recently complained to reporters about the “violation of the rights of millions of Azerbaijanis” in Iran, calling the regime in Iran “bloody”.
There were such words in the recent statement of United People’s Front of Azerbaijan “To Azerbaijanis and other peoples of Iran: “The rulers of Iran, using as a cover the toga of Islam, in fact, pursue a policy that serves the forces of darkness.” Knowing rigid internal censorship in Azerbaijan, there is no doubt that these politicians voiced the official position of Baku.
|Azerbaijani soldiers with Israeli mahine-guns|
Approaching with Israel
Behind this background, experts draw the attention to the rapid growth in the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations on the threshold of possible attack on Iran. What is worth mentioning also is the 2009 WikiLeaks document where US Deputy Ambassador in Baku Donald Lu stated: “President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev said that relations of his country with Israel resemble the iceberg – nine-tenths is hidden from eyes.”
Bilateral trade of Israel and Azerbaijan in 2010 amounted to more than $ 2 billion, twice as much than the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and brotherly to Azeri’s Turkey in the same period.
“Israel and Azerbaijan have strong economic and political basis of cooperation, based on the very important human bridge – the Jewish community in Azerbaijan and community of Azerbaijani Jews in Israel” – writes the international analyst Arye Gut.
Today, 45% of Israel’s energy imports are of Azerbaijani origin. And Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said about launching of long-term, lasting 20-30 years, program for the supply of Azerbaijani gas to Israel.
Fears of Baku
Interest to develop such a close relationship with Baku Tel-Aviv interest for several reasons.
First of all analysts believe that Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are part of the Jewish state’s efforts to improve its image. “Israel is in need of friendly relations with Muslim countries,” said Elhan Shainoglu, director of the Baku-based Atlas political research center. He said that Israel also backs Azerbaijan over the issue of separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Then during the visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Baku Azerbaijan was invited to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, as well as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Also, before Baku there are several obstacles in achieving regional hegemony: Russia, Iran, the situation with Nagorno-Karabakh region and the cool attitude of the US to any attempts of military solution of the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Baku’s interests in reducing these factors coincide with Israeli interests which are the same. Thus, the military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to Israel, will inevitably worsen the position of Russia in the region, because it will create significant problems in the vicinity of its borders.
As a consequence, it will weaken attention of Moscow to the affairs of the Middle East. In addition, the threat of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could serve as an additional argument in demanding from Moscow to reduce Russian-Iranian cooperation.
For such a prize Israel opened for Azerbaijan virtually unlimited access to a new level of Israeli armaments. This technique Baku could not get no from the US or Europe, due to various legal restrictions, neither from the ex-Soviet suppliers like Belarus or Ukraine.
Re-recruiting Azerbaijani regime
In addition, to support Azerbaijan’s claims to leadership in the region, Israel actively uses its lobbying capabilities in the US. “The representatives of the Jewish community provide a decent help in bringing the truth about the realities of Azerbaijan to the world community and assist in the developing of international relations of Azerbaijan” – writes analyst Arye Gut.
Ilia Burtman from Israeli Center for Strategic Studies Begin-Sadat (BESA) writes that the Jewish lobby in Washington actually neutralize the anti-Azerbaijani policy of the Armenian lobby, trying to limit US assistance to Baku.
“As a result of the activity of the Jewish lobby in the US Department of State annuled the ban on arms sales to Azerbaijan, which operated from 1993. US government in the mid-2000s, has allocated to Azerbaijan a grant of $ 4.4 million for the purchase of military equipment”, – wrote Burtman.
But another goal unites Azerbaijan and Israel more than deterrence of Russia and Armenia. And the name of that goal is Iranian threat. As correctly noted American diplomat Robert Garverick, Both countries perceive Iran as a real threat to their existence.
Russian analyst Igor Pankratenko writes that by all these reasons Israel could easily re-recruit Azerbaijani elite: the latest weapons, lobbying capabilities and support of claims for regional hegemony – in exchange for a joint struggle against the “Iranian threat.”
Israeli rocket artillery, small arms, mortars, communication systems, unmanned aerial vehicles – with their help the Azerbaijani army is going to expand its capabilities in the face of a possible conflict with Armenia and growing power of neighboring Iran.
Behind this background Azerbaijan’s Muslims are growing angry with expanding cooperation between their country and Israel. Moreover, today’s Azerbaijan greatly suffer from unresolved internal conflicts between the government and the opposition, between secular part and religious part of society, between Shi’a and Sunni communities, between ethnic minorities and the Azerbaijani ruling elite.
In addition, Azerbaijan is an object for completely divergent strategies carried out by neighboring powers. All these problems mentioned above rapidly increase the tensions within Azerbaijani society and radicalism among opposition, ethnic, and religious minorities.
In such situation growing number of experts and politicians began to discuss about possible export of Arab revolutions to Azerbaijan. That is why it is so difficult to predict how the situation within Azerbaijan and around it will develop in nearest future.
Just the same way for some time ago no one could predict the growing hostility of Baku towards Tehran and the increasing of its dependence from Tel-Aviv.
Dr. Ruslan Kurbanov, senior research fellow of Institute for Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences