A diplomatic cable from January 2009 released by Wikileaks exposed the true nature of the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan. The cable notes that, Ilham Aliyev describes the relationship like an iceberg “nine tenths of it below the surface”. It would appear that the relationship is based around a deep mutual mistrust of Iran, and the need for Azerbaijan to build up its weapons capability, and for Israel to have a source of oil. The cable also quotes:
“Through its close relations with Israel, Azerbaijan gets a level of access to the quality weapon systems it needs to develop its army that it cannot obtain from the US and Europe due to various legal limitations, nor from its ex-Soviet suppliers, Belarus and Ukraine. Where other Western nations are reluctant to sell ground combat systems to the Azerbaijanis for fear of encouraging Azerbaijan to resort to war to regain [Nagorno-Karbakh] and the occupied territories, Israel is free to make substantial arms sales and benefits greatly from deals with its well-heeled client.”
Since 2005, Israel has sold surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, communications equipment, drones, mortars, ammunition military satellites and more. Israeli firms have upgraded Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era T-72 tanks and installed a public surveillance system in the capital of Baku.
In 2009, the Israeli President Shimon Peres said “You bring the oil, we’ll bring the ability and technology”. Israel gets about a third of its oil from Azerbaijan through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that transits through Turkey. Work by the Azeris on a new source of oil in Israeli waters off Ashkelon will help mitigate dependency on the use of the BTC pipeline which is a potential issue due to the frosty relations between Turkey and Israel. The Turkish Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Khulusi Kylych, hinted at their concern “We know about the Azerbaijani oil transit to Israel via the Turkish [port of] Ceyhan,” he said. “Israel should think about it.”
It would appear that Israel wants to retain Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, as well as a platform for reconnaissance , and it is reported that Israeli Mossad agents are in Baku, and the surrounding areas monitoring developments across the border. A quote from an anonymous Mossad agent “This is ground zero for intelligence work. Our presence here is quiet, but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country.” So porous, that there are many Iranian Revolutionary Guards also operating inside Azerbaijan watching the Israelis. It has all of the hallmarks of Casablanca during World War 2.
There then comes the issue of whether an enemy of a friend can be a friend? Turkey was very supportive of Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and continues to keep its borders closed in support of it’s fellow Armenian neighbour. However, over the last few years, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has become frosty following the killing of 9 people on the Mavi Marmara, a ship bound for Gaza from Turkey, with aid for local Muslims.
In a bizarre twist of politics, the Azerbaijani lawmakers have recently proposed that the country change its name to Northern Azerbaijan to recognise that the Greater Azeri nation is split into two , with a significant element being in Iran – Southern Azerbaijan. This can only serve to annoy Iran rather than consolidate 2 Muslim nations.
Azerbaijan is firm, but occasionally ambivalent in its relations with Israel, has close associations with Turkey, but is friendly with their enemy, Israel. It is extremely cautious with Iran, who has close associations in the region with Armenia, their foe from the war in the 1990’s, and has a very ambiguous link with Russia and the West who they are separately courting.
If Israel starts bombing Iran, Azerbaijan should be strongly considering its alliances. Their arms and weaponry from Israel may give it a false sense of security and start causing unnecessary trouble in the Caucasus before the West decides that they are too unstable and need to be occupied to protect sources of oil and gas. Whichever way, Azerbaijan is in the centre of the potential storm and could do worse by keeping a safe distance from conflicting politics – I suspect that this won’t happen!