Baku to the Future?
Aug 4, 2023 | Amotz Asa-El
When the Soviet Union suddenly dissolved in 1991, the West responded by unanimously extending full and immediate diplomatic recognition to the 15 republics that had emerged from the ruins of the vanished empire.
That included Israel, as one country on the Western side of the transition, and Azerbaijan as one of the new republics on the opposite side. Jerusalem recognised the Caucasian republic on Christmas Day, 1991. However, unlike the rest of the West, whose concerns at that time focused mainly on remaking the international system’s broader arrangements, Israel was particularly focused on retrieving the Jews of the former Eastern Bloc.
Part of those efforts included the creation of a route for direct flights between Baku and Tel Aviv. This actually happened a full half-a-year before Azerbaijan’s formal independence, through a deal between its Soviet-era government and the Jewish state.
It was the beginning of an improbable and elaborate relationship that, 32 years on, constitutes Israel’s strongest alliance anywhere across the Muslim world.
Baku’s role ended up being relatively marginal to the process of bringing nearly 1 million former Soviet Jews to Israel between 1989 and 2004 – most boarded direct flights from Russia and Ukraine.
Yet the Baku-Tel Aviv flights laid the foundations for a commercial arrangement that was begging to happen: Israel had no oil, and Azerbaijan had vast petroleum fields in the Caspian Sea, and along its shores. Moreover, the distance between the two countries is short, about the distance between Melbourne and Brisbane. Israel’s previous Middle Eastern oil supply had come from Iran, but this had ended abruptly in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution, forcing Israel to seek energy from distant, and thus costly, alternative suppliers, such as Mexico and Venezuela.
During the Cold War, Azerbaijani supply and Israeli demand could not meet – but the new world order post-1991 made their encounter possible, not only because capitalism had suddenly become the international consensus, but because Azerbaijan sorely needed cash. Azerbaijani oil thus began reaching Israel, and Baku has been a steady, major supplier of Israeli energy ever since.
Israel does not publish figures concerning its oil imports, but experts believe Azerbaijan is its largest supplier, averaging around 40% of the Jewish state’s crude imports annually. Traffic on this axis has been so lively that, in 2006, Israel’s then-infrastructure minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer attended the inauguration of the Azeri-Georgian-Turkish pipeline which has since brought Azerbaijani petroleum to fuel millions of Israel cars.
The energy relationship paved the way for commercial traffic in the opposite direction. Israeli firms built Azerbaijan’s telephone system and Israeli consultants were hired to upgrade Azeribaijani agriculture.
However, the main traffic would be in the military sphere.
It was this aspect of the relationship that was most on show when Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant made a very high-profile visit to Baku on July 13-14, meeting President Ilham Aliyev, Defence Minister Zakir Hasanov and other senior defence officials. The defence and security relationship between Baku and Jerusalem is already long, broad and deep, and looks set to get even more intensive and extensive, reflecting both countries’ growing concerns about the behaviour of Azerbijan’s neighbour, Iran, and its proxies.
In 1991, compelled to build an army, an air force and a navy pretty much from scratch, Azerbaijan sorely needed both hardware and know-how – which Israel happily offered. Preliminary deals were struck quickly, and multi-billion-dollar purchases of Israeli defence products followed over subsequent years.
Israeli arms deals are not officially reported, but one particularly sizeable deal with Azerbaijan – US$1.6 billion (A$2.35b) worth of drones, missile interceptors and anti-missile systems – was confirmed by Israeli officials in 2012 in response to an Associated Press report.
Another deal, whereby Israel Shipyards built 14 coastguard and assault vessels for Azerbaijan’s navy over the past decade, was reported by the website Israel Defense this July.
In 2016, while hosting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Baku, President Ilham Aliyev said publicly that his country had signed US$5 billion (A$7.35b) worth of arms deals with Israel. The deals reportedly range from submachine guns and artillery barrels to radars and avionics.
In early 2022, during a visit to Baku, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen confirmed reports that Israel Air Industries will supply Azerbaijan with two satellites. The deal is reportedly worth US$120 million (A$176.53m).
Some of this vibrant activity involves the presence of Israeli experts in Azerbaijan, most notably on the naval vessels which were built in Azerbaijan under Israeli supervision.
Overall, these deals reflect a unique geographic position and strategic predicament that both sets Azerbaijan apart from other post-Soviet republics, and drives its special relations with Israel.
Straddling a 700-kilometre coastline along the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is wedged between Russia and Iran, two historic powers which have, over the centuries, taken turns dominating the multi-ethnic Caucasus region, where Azeris are the single largest nationality. Suspicion of both Moscow and Teheran is therefore both a foundation of the Azeri worldview and a pillar of Baku’s foreign policy.
Moscow’s shadow thickened in 2008, when the Russian army attacked Azerbaijan’s northwestern neighbor Georgia and occupied about a fifth of its land – land which it holds to this day.
The Iranian threat stems from a mixture of ideological and ethnic differences. Most Azeris are Shi’ite Muslims, but they are generally secular and see their Shi’ite neighbour’s fundamentalism as a menace.
While they have a common religious history, the two societies are racially unrelated – Iranians are primarily Persian while Azeris are a Turkic people. Azerbaijan’s secularist and Western outlook was made plain following its independence, when it chose to adopt the Latin script rather than the Persian-Arabic or Cyrillic alternatives.
Moreover, an estimated one-quarter of Iranians are ethnic Azeris, constituting the country’s largest minority, and most are concentrated in northern Iran, and are thus contiguous with Azerbaijan. Although Iranian Azeris have never actively challenged the regime, the ayatollahs fear some kind of a future link-up between the two.
A statement last November by Azerbaijan’s President concerning the Azeri minority in Iran, asserting that “their security, their rights and well-being are of the utmost importance to us,” and vowing “we will continue to do everything to help the Azerbaijanis who have found themselves cut off from our state,” only exacerbated Iranian fears.
Iran is also suspicious of Azerbaijan due to its alliance with Turkey, which is ethnically and linguistically close to the Azeris, and has backed Azerbaijan throughout its ongoing three-decade conflict with Armenia. The prospect of a Turkic belt stretching from Istanbul to Central Asia is a major nightmare for Iran.
This, in brief, is the context in which Iran has taken sides against Azerbaijan in its ongoing territorial and ethnic conflict with its neighbour to the west, Armenia. Last year, responding to a Turkish-Azeri plan to establish a transport corridor that would bypass Armenian checkpoints, Iran opened a consulate in the southern Armenian town of Kapan, sparking Azeri protests.
From Israel’s point of view, the Iranian aspect of Azerbaijan’s situation has turned a vibrant trade partnership into a major strategic asset.
Azerbaijan has reportedly allowed Israel to use its territory for clandestine activity inside Iran, and potentially to use its airbases in case of a military confrontation between the Jewish state and Iran. Considering that Teheran is more than 1,500 kilometres away from Tel Aviv, Azerbaijan’s proximity to Iran would be invaluable in the event of a military clash between Israel and Iran.
Over the years, the Azeris have become increasingly open about their special relationship with Israel – so much so that this past March, Baku opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, something it had previously avoided out of fear of a hostile response from parts of the Muslim world, most importantly, Iran. An Iranian rebuke of Baku indeed resulted, but Azerbaijan’s Government didn’t care.
The relationship is a success story in many ways, yet Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan carry a price tag, and it’s hefty.
First, the authoritarian government in Baku has been accused of broad human rights violations repeatedly over recent years. One Israeli critic, blogger Alexander Lapshin, was arrested in 2016 in Belarus, at Azerbaijan’s request, after writing critically about the regime following a visit to Azerbaijan. Lapshin was indeed extradited back to Azerbaijan, sentenced and jailed before receiving a presidential pardon the following year.
Secondly, the alliance with Baku comes at the expense of Israel’s relationship with Armenia, especially after Israeli-supplied drones played a role in fighting last year that ended with an Armenian defeat.
Israel has stopped short of taking a diplomatic side in the Azerbaijan-Armenia territorial dispute, but the deployment of Israeli hardware against Armenian troops has angered Armenians. Then again, as Iranian allies, the Armenians recognise that they are flying in the face of Israel’s interests, just as Israel’s relationship with Baku is negatively affecting Armenia’s interests.
It’s been this way for centuries in the Caucasus, where myriad tribes and nations wrestled and traded with each other, while exploiting the rivalries of the surrounding powers to manoeuvre against their local enemies. For better and worse, Israel has found itself part of that long-standing Caucasian struggle.