A number of Israel’s former foes share its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but this is mostly on the principle that an enemy of one’s enemy is a friend. Israel can claim to have a genuinely close partnership with only one majority-Muslim country. It is said that Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are like an iceberg: nine-tenths below the surface. But more and more of this iceberg is becoming visible; the Azerbaijani foreign minister’s recent trips to Israel and Washington are the most overt demonstration of the connection to date. The United States should encourage this relationship as an example of pragmatic, interests-based cooperation, devoid of the emotional rhetoric that typically characterizes Middle Eastern politics.
Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, gave a strong speech to the American Jewish Committee’s annual forum in Washington earlier this summer. He denounced anti-Semitism and emphasized his country’s “close, friendly” relationship with Israel.
Even putting oratory aside, his visit to Israel a month earlier indicated that the growing bond between the two countries could have significant geopolitical consequences for the Greater Middle East. On the question of Iran’s regional ambitions in particular, the Azerbaijan-Israel link provides important, but underappreciated, geographical leverage for the United States.
Israeli president Shimon Peres, in his discussions with Mammadyarov, praised Azerbaijan’s religiously tolerant society. It’s long been a haven both for Ashkenazi Jews and the country’s own ancient population of so-called Mountain Jews, commonly considered part of the Sephardic community. But the last couple of decades have produced more direct links between the Caucasus and the Middle East. Energy-rich Azerbaijan provides a major portion of Israeli oil imports, and there has been discussion of building a pipeline for Azerbaijani oil across Israel to the Red Sea for export to East Asia. Azerbaijan’s state energy company is part of an offshore oil drilling project in Israel. In return, a number of Israeli companies have been key investors in Azerbaijan’s economy, from oil services to telecommunications, since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
It is the security and defense technology relationship between the two countries, however, that is surprisingly comprehensive. Last year, the pair signed a $1.4 billion defense agreement, in which Israel Aerospace Industries provides aircraft, drones, and missile defense technology to the Azerbaijani military. This is on top of a joint venture in which Israeli drones are manufactured in Azerbaijan, as well as past provisions of antitank, antiaircraft, and anti-infantry technologies.
A lot of this has to do with the shared threat posed by Iran. In 2008, Azerbaijani police foiled an Iranian-sponsored bomb plot targeting the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Immediately to Azerbaijan’s south, Iran is home to many more ethnic Azeris than Azerbaijan, a result of the Azerbaijani-populated territories being divided between Iran and Russia in 1828. That history helps explains why Tehran sided with Armenia during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s.
Just this spring, a number of Iranian lawmakers called for the annexation of Azerbaijan and the destruction of its Turkic heritage. It seems that Israel is not the only country Tehran wants to wipe off the map.
Understandably, both governments want to keep details of sensitive security collaboration quiet, but rumors persistently circulate that their cooperation on drone technology has expanded to shared basing for surveillance of Iranian activities. This may be partly in response to Iranian agents aggressively trying to export their brand of revolutionary Shia ideology to Azerbaijan. For Iranian citizens, especially the Azeris making up a majority in the north of the country, the Republic of Azerbaijan appeals as a secular society very different from the oppressive religious authoritarianism under which they live. This by itself makes the mullahs nervous, and official Tehran is not shy about its distaste for Baku, with one senior Iranian official declaring recently that Azerbaijan’s leaders are “sick with Zionism.”
Given that the United States already has close relations with both countries, it would behoove American strategists to take advantage of Azerbaijan-Israel ties when crafting strategy on Iran. While Azerbaijan has repeatedly said that it opposes military action against Iran, expanded U.S.-Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan-Israel partnerships send a signal to Tehran that it will face a united front on three different geographical axes.
Azerbaijan is increasingly assuming Turkey’s Cold War-role as a pivotal secular majority-Muslim ally of both Israel and the United States. And at just the right time. Its support may prove invaluable if tensions with Iran escalate.
Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and coeditor of chinaincentralasia.com.