Relationships with Israel have always been used by official Baku to demonstrate its uniqueness among other Muslim nations, including those which are as secular as Azerbaijan. These relationships, sometimes called special relationships, sometimes even alliance, are based to a certain on the strong cultural ground. There are tens of thousands of Jews living in Azerbaijan since ancient times. And there is almost equal amount of citizen in Israel with Jewish – Azerbaijani origin.
Nevertheless, it is cold pragmatism and Realpolitik that make military element of this partnership so strongly articulated. In the last decade Israel officially sold to Baku broad variety of nonlethal and lethal weapons - from small firearms, armoured vehicles, and mortars, to UAVs of various sorts, radars and air defense systems or rocket artillery systems. To certain degree this cooperation has evolutionized also – some of the weapon systems initially purchased by Baku now are being produced independently under licenses granted by Israeli military industry.
But there is one thing about pragmatic relationships in foreign policy of any kind – it is that they are pragmatic. In other words, their perspectives are closely tied to the context and cost/benefit rationale of decision-making on alliances and alignment. And in case of the alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan, it is the very pragmatism that potentially can undermine the relationship.
There is no doubt that problematics around Iran has been the cornerstone of the issue for both Israel and Azerbaijan in designing mutual cooperation. This is quite well covered in works of Ariel Cohen, Alexander Murinson, Gallia Lindenstrauss, Brenda Schaffer, and other less prominent experts. In short – Iran has been “the sum of all fears” for Jerusalem since Tehran’s nuclear ambitions added up to anti-Israeli rhetoric of its leaders; and on the other side, relationships between Iran and Azerbaijan have always been full of at least mutual suspicion.
But the recent years were marked with considerable positive changes in Azerbaijani – Iranian relations. It all started with series of preliminary mutual visits of “personal envoy” category figures. Then President Ilham Aliyev has visited the Islamic Republic in April 2014. During this visit President Ilham Aliyev was accompanied by several Azerbaijani ministers, a number of other high-ranking officials and business people. He met high-ranking Iranian officials, including president Hassan Rouhani and the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although the bilateral documents signed were not of a high significance, Presiden's administration was quite positive and optimistic. And indeed, November 2014 it was Tehran’s turn - Hassan Rouhani visited Baku. It was the first official visit of an Iranian leader in Azerbaijan since four years. And the atmosphere was extremely warm. Besides meeting president Aliyev, Rouhani made also a speech in the Azerbaijani parliament. And another bunch of bilateral documents was signed.
April 2015 was marked by another visit, this time Iranian defense minister, Brig. Gen. Houssein Dehqan visited Baku and conducted meetings on high level, including president Aliyev. Uniqueness of the visit was in the statements made - Dehqan voiced Iran's readiness to start military cooperation with Baku, and underlined that Iran is ready to enhance the level of defense and provide required military equipment to the Azerbaijani army. The major result of the visit was establishment of joint commission on cooperation in military are between the states.
Iranian minister’s statement could be considered as pure intent or sign of goodwill at that moment. But year later, on April 2 – 5, 2016 the Azerbaijani Armed Forces conducted a successful three-day offensive operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, having regained control over 20 km2 (according to the Armenian side only 8 km2) of land and number of strategic heights and outposts controlled by Armenians since the 1994 ceasefire agreements. It was the former Azerbaijani general and war veteran Yashar Aydemirov who initially (immediately after the operation ended) gave the leak that there had been some sort of military cooperation between Baku and Iran. Presumably in the form of weapon sales. But a few weeks later proof came from the highest level – President Ilham Aliyev himself mentioned Iran as one of the actual military partners of Azerbaijan (together with Russia, Turkey, and Israel) whose cooperation played role in the April success. Of course, those who remember the hostile rhetoric between Baku and Tehran on the eve of the Eurovision song context in Azerbaijan in May 2012 could hardly anticipate anything like that in less than five years.
Finally, the ambiguous role that Baku played in Russo – Iranian cooperation on Syria and Russian military transit to the Syrian battlefields through the Caspian Sea and Iran, adds up to the issue. At least in one or two cases, reportedly, Russian airplanes flew through the Azerbaijani airspace on their way to Syria. There was also unconfirmed information that in early October 2015 Russian warships launched missiles on targets in Syria from the Azerbaijani waters in the southern sector of the Caspian Sea. The peak was the trilateral summit of Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani, and President Ilham Aliyev in Baku in August 2016 – event instrumentalized by official Baku to demonstrate the country’s regional weight and role. There were many issues of mutual interest discussed, including transport and infrastructural cooperation along the North – South axis through the territory of Azerbaijan. But supposedly not only that.
So, what is going on and what sort of implications should one wait in terms of Azerbaijan’s alliance with Israel?
There are number of reasons to the changes in Azerbaijan’s attitude toward Iran and none of them are surprising, bearing in mind that the South Caucasus, although with its own problematics and dynamics, is, in Barry Buzan’s terms, just a subsystem of a broader geopolitical space – the post-Soviet regional security complex. A security complex is defined as a group of states whose primary security concerns are linked together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another. The links, which ties together a security complex may be of many types – geographical, political, strategic, historic, economic, or cultural. States outside the complex may play a major role within it, without the complex itself being central to their security concern.
Azerbaijan although economic and military leader of the South Caucasus as a subsystem of the post-Soviet space, is at the same time just one of the minor actors here, while those who play the major role are Russia, and to lesser degree Turkey and Iran. And from the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 to the current war in the Ukraine, from the early days of the Arab Spring in 2010 to the current battles under Mosul, there were just too many events with too many implications for the regional security in the South Caucasus and alignment behaviour of Baku.
The ultimate problem is that the Western presence in the region at the moment is limited to occasional comments on democracy and human rights problems in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and symbolic military exercises with Georgians once a year. Azerbaijan had to give realistic and cool headed evaluations to security guaranties of the West in the South Caucasus. Bearing in mind that the West is much more preoccupied with war in Syria, ISIS terror, and refugee crisis in the Central and Western Europe, these evaluations were not in favour of going for integration with NATO and the European Union. Moscow’s growing “one man show” abilities in the post-Soviet regional security complex, initially demonstrated during the Russo – Georgian war of August 2008, became even more obvious after the start of war in the Eastern Ukraine. And the West was not able to support the victim’s territorial integrity by any reasonable and effective means. Similar threats are faced by Baku in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, but after the war of 1988 – 1994 is controlled by Armenia - member of the Moscow-centered Collective Security Treaty Organization.
On the other side, the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, birth and rapid growth of ISIS – all these factors considerably increased the role of militant Sunni factor in the Middle East. Azerbaijan is a secular, nevertheless still a Muslim country, predominantly Shia. At the same time, along with militants from other Muslim and non-Muslim countries there are also several hundreds of Azerbaijani fighters in ISIS. There is a strong opinion among number of Azerbaijani officials and analysts that potential risks of spread of radical Sunni Islam can be successfully hedged for Baku only in the framework of regional security cooperation, first of all with Russia, which has a relevant experience in Northern Caucasus and Iran, which is a Shia stronghold. There is also some degree of Shia inspired political Islam in Azerbaijan and it would be naïve to frame the danger of Islamic fundamentalism in the South Caucasus around the Sunnis only. But in most of the cases these are in this or another way linked to Tehran. And in case Baku has decent level of relationships with its southern neighbour, there may be hope for conservation of Iranian Shia networks’ political activity in Azerbaijan.
The U.S. – Iranian rapprochement is also important. For years Baku has been using Iran’s tensions with the West as a considerable element of its own positioning in the region. With perspective of rapid improvement in Iran’s relations with the U.S. and EU, Baku had nothing to do but to go proactive and improve its relations with Tehran.
Finally, Azerbaijan is a close military ally of Turkey. Current unnatural “honeymoon” between Ankara and Moscow has foggy perspectives, but it is still there, at least for the nearest perspective. Besides that, there are strong synergies between Russian and Iranian interests in Syria. Bearing in mind that Russia is actor Number One in the South Caucasus, all that creates such a unique set of circumstances for the region in general and Azerbaijan in particular, that at least short- and midterm bandwagoning with this huge force becomes inevitable for Baku. These are realities of local geography. And in this geography big and strong neighbours sometimes don’t ask before coming through your yard.
Sure, Israel is not quite “the West” and it is not NATO or the European Union. There are number of issues in the Middle East and the South Caucasus where their interests are very different. But current trends increase Azerbaijan’s rationale to concentrate on cooperation with the immediate neighbours – only this can minimize the eminent risks. Some of these neighbours, at least Iran, and in serious degree also Turkey, have their own views on perspectives of military and political cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel. Despite of this fact Azerbaijani government invited the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu to visit the country in December 2016. Military cooperation between two countries was one of the main topics of the negotiations in Baku. But it is not only about military cooperation. Azerbaijan considers Israel as a key player that can help the country establish a confident relationship to the administration of Donald Trump. The reaction from Iran on Netanyahus visit to Azerbaijan was critical as expected. Nevertheless there was no more threatening towards Azerbaijan by any high ranked Iranian military officer like it was the case on the eve of the visit of Shimon Peres to Baku in 2009. The security circumstances in the region changed since that time, and the relations between Baku and Tel Aviv are not to be considered by Iran as planning of Israeli military actions against Iran any more.
Azerbaijan’s military cooperation with Israel already proved its effectiveness. During successful Azerbaijani offensive in April this year only four of eighteen destroyed Armenian tanks and BMPs were destroyed by fire from Azerbaijani machines – all the rest were destroyed by Azerbaijani infantry armed with Israeli made SPIKE-LR anti-tank missile systems. Israeli made HAROP kamikaze-drones were not less effective – tested first time in real war situation they destroyed seven Armenian targets, including a command post, self-propelled artillery squadron, a runway on an airfield, and a bus with Armenian volunteers moving to the frontline. Thus so far it is very early to question perspectives of current alliance between Jerusalem and Baku. Azerbaijani diplomacy has traditionally been skilful in balancing and counterbalancing – the fact that Baku manages to purchase weapons from and develop military cooperation with Russia, which is Armenia’s ally and security guarantor, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Pakistan speaks for itself. Nevertheless, time will show how much space there is left for manoeuvring, provided pragmatic character of military cooperation between Baku and Jerusalem.
Heydar Mirza is an expert in foreign policy and security studies with focus on the South Caucasus and Caspian region. In 2003 he graduated with MBA degree from the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK. In 2010 – 2014 he worked as a leading research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies under the president of Azerbaijan. Currently Heydar is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.
Dr.des. Orkhan Sattarov worked in 2008 - 2011 as political assistant at the German Embassy in Baku and was a scholar of the German Parliament. 2016 he defended his PhD thesis on the topic of “Iranian soft power in Azerbaijan” at the Berlin Center for Caspian Region Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Sattarov publishes articles with focus on the Caucasus and Iran in diverse regional news agencies and is a co-founder of a political consulting firm in Berlin.