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“Historic visit”: Are Azerbaijan and Israel challenging Iran?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Photo: pmo.gov.il

The Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation is breaking new ground. This tendency in the relations of the two countries was discussed in Baku and Tel Aviv yet long before the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Azerbaijan. On December 13, a delegation of Israeli high-ranking officials and businesspersons led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Baku.

Azerbaijani analysts called the visit a milestone. Some sources explained the “historicity” of the visit with its anticipated results that were unveiled yet before December 13. On rare occasions has the leadership of Israel’s Intelligence Agency (Mossad) shared nuances of upcoming contacts of the country’s political leadership with foreign partners. However, this time, they allegedly made an exception. Mossad Director Yossi Cohen allegedly considered it reasonable to unveil the preparations for signing a “memorandum of cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel in the security field” in Baku. Furthermore, they not only “disclosed” that there was an approved text of the bilateral agreement, but also unveiled some details of it.

Yet, the information allegedly leaked from Mossad was not confirmed. Azerbaijan’s mass media refuted the fact of Cohen’s statements prior to Netanyahu’s visit.

Nevertheless, all this leaves no doubts that the dominating factor in the relations of Azerbaijan and Israel is “deterring Iran.” It is safe to assume that despite Azerbaijan’s refutations, after December 13, Israel undertook some additional commitments to ensure Azerbaijan’s security against “potential threats” that may emerge from Iran.

The assumptions that Mossad’s permanent mission is being established in Baku probably at the Israeli Embassy should not be waived off at once. Israel’s security agents have been operating in Azerbaijan for a long time already with a major task to prevent any “destabilizing activity” by Iranians.

Although it is assumed that Mossad’s Azerbaijani branch will be fighting terrorism, religious extremism, hostile actions of the governmental agencies and NGO’s from abroad, reportedly Israel will supply and install “up-to-date equipment and advanced security systems” in Azerbaijan.

Apparently, it will be surveillance systems, technical intelligence data collection. According to sources familiar with the situation, such surveillance systems have been “scanning” Iran’s northern regions from the territory of Azerbaijan for several years already. Now, the sides weigh expansion of that activity.

Once Israel tried to involve U.S. into the “monitoring” of Iran’s territory, but received rejection by Obama’s Administration. Some initiatives by U.S. congressmen unfriendly towards Iran were waived by the U.S. Foreign Policy Department event at the height of the West’s confrontation with Iran. In 2012, Israel failed to install electronic surveillance systems to “monitor” Iran’s territory from the southern borders of Azerbaijan, as despite Israel’s lobby, the Department of State blocked the deal of Azerbaijan and the U.S. suppliers of the corresponding equipment.

Much has changed now, including with the anticipated growth of the U.S.-Iran discrepancies with Donald Trump’s coming to power. Israel will have certain freedom of actions in their policy of “deterring Iran,” since they will no longer have to coordinate their anti-Iranian steps with Obama.

Why does Azerbaijan demonstratively irritate Iran with close cooperation with Israel when its southern neighbor is sending more and more signals for reconciliation?

Prior to Netanyahu’s visit to Azerbaijan, the Israeli press highlighted Iran’s irritation at the Baku - Tel Aviv rapprochement that is gathering pace. Thus, a few hours before Netanyahu arrived at Heydar Aliyev Airport in Baku, The Jerusalem Post published an item with an expressive title “Netanyahu's trip to Azerbaijan draws Iranian ire.” Even Azerbaijani mass media did not consider it expedient to refute the fact that Israel is raising Iran’s ire.

Tehran, in turn, has reduced the degree of “sobering” rhetoric with regard to Baku, and Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff no longer makes ultimate statements to “bring to reason” the Muslim Azerbaijan in the relations with the “Zionist regime” (this is how Tehran calls Israel). At the same time, any sign of substantive cooperation of Baku and Tel Aviv in any field is closely followed by Iran.

It is no secret for Iran that the close ties of Azerbaijan and Israel almost my 100% aim to “deter Tehran”. While Azerbaijan sees nothing anti-Iranian in selling oil to the Jewish state (at different times Azerbaijan satisfied 1/3-40% of Israel’s demand in oil) and buying military equipment «Made in Israel» for oil-dollars, Israel seeks to increase the mutual distrust between Azerbaijan and Iran.

Azerbaijan’s oil greatly contributes to the energy security of Israel, which, in turn, keeps replenishing Azerbaijan’s military arsenal with advanced weapons. Israel has political and military partnerships with only two Muslim countries now: Egypt and Azerbaijan. Unlike Azerbaijan, Egypt avoids making its close ties with the Israeli leadership public: whether it is cooperation of security services or the military. Even Israel’s old and traditional partner in the region, Jordan, has distanced itself from close format of political relations with Tel Aviv, first of all, not to trigger radical Islamic sentiments in its territory.

Israel has serious reasons to hope for substantial rapprochement with Saudi Arabia on the “anti-Iranian platform” and will have to work hard to achieve that.

Azerbaijan has many reasons to enhance its strategic partnership with Israel, but it does try to soften the anti-Iranian component in its relations with Tel Aviv. After all, that 80-million-strong country is close geographically, economically, socially, and culturally, while geopolitically influential Israel is located far from the South Caucasus.

Baku tries to use, though without success so far, the partnership with Tel Aviv in the Karabakh conflict, the acutest issue for it. Azerbaijan is known to have tried to access the resources of the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Congress, but its efforts have not grown into systematic actions. Baku fails to couple its anti-Armenian policy with Israel’s aspirations to involve Azerbaijan into anti-Iranian schemes. With such allies as Israeli PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Azerbaijan’s leadership still fails to make big successes in that field.

Israeli weapons were detected in the Karabakh conflict zone and during the April hostilities too. There are reliable data that Israel supports Azerbaijan not only with striking systems but also with military specialists that help Azerbaijan’s troops on the frontline with their “advices.” Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian priorities is a controversial issue for Israel.

Tel Aviv does not underestimate Turkey’s influence over Azerbaijan and the latter’s OIC (1) membership. Azerbaijan will never become as close partner for Israel as it has been for Turkey for all 25 years of its independence. Although the enmity between Israel and Turkey is not as acute as before, Turkey remains an ambitious and unpredictable actor in the Middle East. Furthermore, at some point, the alliance of Turkey and Azerbaijan may work against carefully crafted partnership of Azerbaijan and Israel.

Much indicates that Israel supports the status quo in the Karabakh conflict. This will help it maintain the relative balance in the relations with the two South Caucasus countries and give Russia no reason to slam it for supporting one of the conflicting sides. Buying oil, selling arms and developing partnership with a Muslim country can be a success only in case of balance of forces, though fragile, in the region.

Baku’s trustworthy relations with Tel Aviv started in August 1997 with the meeting of Netanyahu and President Heydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan. The mutual suspiciousness in the relations of Baku and Tehran emerged approximately in the same period.

The fundamental signs of antagonism in the ties of Azerbaijan – Israel and Armenia – Iran have not changed. It is noteworthy that following Netanyahu’s visit to Baku, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is expected to travel to Armenia. Since his election in August 2013, Rouhani has travelled to Azerbaijan twice (in Nov 2014 and Aug 2016). The visit to Armenia has been announced repeatedly and will take place by the end of the year, according to the latest reports.

Actually, Iran has another reason to demonstrate Azerbaijan its negative attitude to Baku’s friendship with the “wrong” country. It appears that Iran will make certain corrections to the upcoming visit of Rouhani to Armenia to turn it into another “milestone.”

(1) Azerbaijan has no embassy in Tel Aviv for solidarity reasons with the Islamic world, though Israel’s diplomatic mission to Baku has been operating since August 1993 (in June 2011, an Embassy of Palestine opened in Azerbaijan). Netanyahu’s “historic” visit has changed nothing.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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