Huda al-Husseini

When Iran Challenges Azerbaijan, Israel Benefits!

According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Azerbaijan became the second-largest importer of Israeli weaponry between 2018 and 2022. Purchasing 9.1 percent of Israeli arms exports, it came second to India, which purchased 37 percent. The Philippines (8.5 percent) was third. Israeli exports account for 2.3 percent of the global arms trade over this same period. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan ramped up energy exports to the State of Israel, supplying it with 40 percent of its energy needs since the Ukraine war broke out.

Alongside these pragmatic underpinnings, the close ties between the two countries also have a basis in history: Azerbaijan is home to the last remaining Jewish community in the Caucasus in Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town), and it has also been home to a large Ashkenazi community (mostly in Baku) since the late 19th century.

Cooperation between them has also had implications on both countries’ foreign policies more broadly, as made clear by the latest rapprochement between Israel and Turkiye. The 2010 Mavi Marmara incident created a major wedge between the countries, after the Israeli navy raided a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. In 2016, Turkiye and Israel reconciled on the condition that Israel pay around 20 million dollars in compensation to the families of the activists who had lost their lives. However, this agreement did not last long, as Turkiye cut ties with Israel in 2018 after the United States recognized Jerusalem as its capital.

The Abraham Accords supported by Washington, which saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco normalize relations with Israel in August of 2020, was another pivotal juncture in the politics of the region.

Turkiye’s initial reaction was negative. However, soon after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to sever ties with the UAE, Ankara and Jerusalem found themselves on the same side of the war that broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh. This conflict seemed to remind both countries of what they could accomplish together. By December 2020, Erdogan’s administration had woken up to the fact that its diplomatic spat with Israel left it in an awkward position. And after a decade of tensions, the Turkish government decided to change course and patch things up.

As part of its policy shift vis a vis Israel, Turkiye went as far as quietly accepting the Abraham Accords despite its initial condemnation of the agreement. Azerbaijan was well placed to act as a bridge in the normalization process. In December 2020, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov announced that Baku could mediate talks between Tel Aviv and Ankara. Hikmat Hajiyev, an advisor to the president of Azerbaijan, followed this up by declaring that Baku could host tripartite negotiations.

Bilateral relations were thus eased after over ten years of tensions. The visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Turkiye in March 2022, which was followed by visits by both nations’ foreign ministers, warmed relations further. In June of last year, Turkiye and Israel cooperated to foil an Iranian plot to kidnap Israeli tourists from Turkiye. Two months later, they announced that diplomatic relations had been fully restored. After that, in October 2022, a meeting between the defense ministers of Turkiye and Israel reinforced the normalization process. Indeed, Benny Gantz’s visit to Ankara was the first by an Israeli defense minister in more than a decade. Moreover, an Israeli team rescued 19 Turkish citizens after last month’s earthquake. Thanking Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Erdogan said that Turkiye would always remember the aid Israel had provided.

Azerbaijan has made Turkish-Israeli normalization a foreign policy priority. Given the repeated threats of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the enhancement of relations between its two closest allies could not have come at a better time for Baku.

The escalation of tensions between Iran on the one hand, and Azerbaijan and Israel on the other, has strengthened the bilateral strategic partnership between the latter. Two weeks after the clashes that broke out on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Azerbaijan, where he met with President Ilham Aliyev and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Zakir Hasanov.

The Abraham Accords, the rapprochement between Turkiye and Israel, and the tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have added a new dimension to Azerbaijan and Israel’s partnership. Despite Israel having opened an embassy in Baku in August 1993, Azerbaijan had rejected Israel’s request that it do the same until recently, when it made a historic decision to return the favor nearly 30 years later. Azerbaijan had been hesitant because of concerns that doing so would upset fellow Muslim-majority countries and provoke Iran, which holds Israel responsible for the deterioration of relations between Baku and Tehran.

Under the short-lived Bennett-Lapid government, Azerbaijan and Israel’s cooperation reached new strategic heights. Yair Lapid called Azerbaijan a pivotal partner. Moreover, Israeli’s Defense Minister at the time, Benny Gantz, made a decisive visit to Azerbaijan, where he repeatedly emphasized the importance of “maintaining the strategic relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan” and “being mindful the changes underway in the Middle East following the Abraham Accords.” He and Azerbaijani officials also discussed Israel’s enhanced relations with Turkiye and other countries in the region and the world. The discussions he held during this visit could be said to have played a crucial role in paving the way for Azerbaijan’s decision to establish an embassy in Israel.

The change of government in Israel did nothing to undermine this strategic partnership. Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government has maintained close cooperation with Azerbaijan. On January 11, Ilham Aliyev appointed the first Azerbaijani ambassador to Israel, Mukhtar Mammadov. Last February, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met President Aliyev on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

While Tehran is clearly a larger and more powerful actor than Baku, it cannot put these geopolitical considerations to one side as it contemplates the prospect of a conflict between the two countries. Iran’s need to maintain positive ties with Turkiye and Russia, as well as its dependence on Azerbaijan for logistic services, should be at the top of its mind. Thus, the prospect of an armed conflict between the two countries seems far-fetched.