Israel-Azerbaijan Relations: An Iranian Approach

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Vali Kouzegar Kaleji
Researcher of Eurasia Studies Center at the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent visit to Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku on April 23, 2012, which marked the 20th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Azerbaijan, drew renewed attention from analysts of political and security issues to expanding relations between the two countries. During the past few years, relations between Tel Aviv and Baku have seen a rapid spurt and been remarkably expanded in all areas. Political relations between the two sides have been developed at very high levels with senior officials from both countries, including Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and his prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, having frequently met in Tel Aviv and Baku. From an economic viewpoint, while Israel’s exports to Azerbaijan accounted for a meager 50,000 dollars in 1992 and its imports from Azerbaijan did not exceed 12,000 dollars the current volume of economic exchanges has surpassed 4 billion dollars. At present, Azerbaijan provides more than one-sixth of Israel’s needed oil. However, increased attention to the two countries’ relations is not merely a function of their vast political and economic ties. The main element in bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, which has greatly increased Iran's sensitivity toward those relations, is unprecedented development of defense, intelligence, and military collaboration between the two countries. Iranian officials have clearly called this a major threat against the national security of Iran.

But what has led to this high sensitivity and why senior political, intelligence and defense authorities of Iran are showing such reaction to increasing trend of intelligence and military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan? To answer this question, first it should be made clear why Israel has gotten so close to Azerbaijani Republic in the southern Caucasus region. As international pressure has been mounting on Iran over its peaceful nuclear energy program, Israel considers that program an essential threat to its national security and has taken preventive diplomatic, defense, and security measures in order to bar Iran from getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Senior Israeli officials have frequently talked about possibility of “preemptive operations” aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear sites. Meanwhile, Israel’s dire need to observe Iran's military and nuclear developments, on the one hand, and growing tension in Tel Aviv’s relations with Ankara (as Iran's neighbor), on the other hand, have caused Israel to show special attention to Iran's northern neighbors in South Caucasus. Out of three countries in South Caucasus, Georgia has no land border with Iran and its geographical distance from Iran has reduced its importance to Israel. Tel Aviv, therefore, prefers to limit its relations with Tbilisi to such defense affairs as selling arms to and training the armed forces of Georgia. The other country in South Caucasus, that is, Armenia, could not be an attractive option for Israel either. Close traditional relations between Iran and Armenia have proven a major obstacle on the way of expanding Tel Aviv’s cooperation with Yerevan. Therefore, Azerbaijan appears the most suitable option for Israel in South Caucasus. In addition to geographical propinquity to Iran, the two countries’ relations have been cold and sometimes full of tension in the past two decades. The main reasons for tension in Tehran-Baku relations can be enumerated as presence of religious and secular political systems in two countries, differences over the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, different economic policies adopted by two countries in the fields of energy and oil, the crisis in Karabakh, tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Azerbaijan’s membership in and cooperation with Euro-Atlantic institutions.

This is why the expansion of defense and security cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan during recent years has gone far beyond proclaimed goals of Azerbaijani government for establishment of defense and security balance with Armenia over the dispute in Karabakh. In fact, that cooperation has been directly targeting Iran's national and territorial security. In the field of intelligence and espionage, Baku has deployed satellite-based espionage and intelligence systems of Israel on its soil, examples of which include Aerostar and Orbiter unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] (which can be controlled from the ground) as well as Hermes-450 UAVs (with GPS satellite navigation system). Azerbaijan has also paved the way for the presence of intelligence agents of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, thus giving them a good ground for conducting espionage activities against Iran. The remarks made by senior Israel officials also attest to this fact. For example, the Times of London newspaper interviewed an Israeli spy in Azerbaijan, who was simply identified as Shimon. “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,” he said. Confidential cables released by Wikileaks in April 2011 also disclosed that the Zionist regime of Israel has been using the soil of this former Soviet Union republic for espionage activities against Iran during the past four years. Those documents belonged to the US embassy in Baku which had been sent by Washington to Baku in January 2009. They were related to a visit by Azerbaijani president’s security advisor Vahid Aliyev, to the Palestinian occupied territories. According to Wikileaks documents, the visit had been aimed to sign a contract with Tel Aviv according to which Israel would have been able to use Azerbaijan’s soil for spy activities against Iran. Such measures were taken in parallel to free presence of terrorists related to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in Azerbaijan, who used that country’s facilities to travel to Israel and cooperate with the Israeli spy networks. As a result, the Iranian Foreign Ministry decided to summon Azeri Ambassador to Iran Javanshir Akhundov to convey the Iranian government’s vehement protest to his respective government. During the meeting, Director General of the Iranian Foreign Ministry' Office for Commonwealth and Caucasus Affairs served the Azeri ambassador with a letter of protest while emphasizing that the government of Azerbaijan should prevent activities of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Attention to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s remarks, which have been disclosed in Wikileaks cables, will shed more light on the nature and dimensions of Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan. Aliyev has described Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel as an iceberg of which only one-tenth is visible and nine-tenth is hidden under the water. Baku has been resorting to various excuses to justify its cooperation with Israel. Once they claimed that purchasing arms from Israel is meant to bolster the Azeri military forces for the liberation of Karabakh. At other times, they alleged that buying weapons from Israel was not in conflict with international regulations. They have even noted that close ties to Israel is a response to Iran's cordial relations with Armenia. However, there is no doubt that expansion of relations between Azerbaijan and Israel is neither logical, nor can it be continued for a long period of time. For example, purchasing such military equipment as Green Pine radar system which is used by Israel to beef up its strategic defense system and is capable of detecting ballistic missiles at a distance of 500 kilometers cannot be meant for war with Armenia. Given the nature of the Israeli regime and its frequent threat of military strike against Iran, purchasing such items of military equipment by Baku raises many questions.

Another important point is the reaction that Russians have shown to Azerbaijan’s increased intelligence and military cooperation with Israel and the United States. For example, during his recent visit to South Caucasus in Yerevan, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov officially warned Azerbaijan about its cooperation with Israel against Iran. Lavrov said if the push came to the shove and the worst option, namely military strike against Iran, was actually chosen, it would threaten not only Armenia, but also Azerbaijan itself. Therefore, defense, intelligence, and military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan as well as technological level of that cooperation, various remarks made by senior political and security officials of Israel and Azerbaijan, and official reaction shown by Russians, prove that Iran is the main target of expanded defense and security cooperation between Tel Aviv and Baku. This will have no other result but increased misunderstanding and tension in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan whose negative consequences will benefit neither of the two neighboring nations.

Key Words: Intelligence & Military Relations, Israel, Azerbaijan, National Security, Iran, Kaleji

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