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Azerbaijan-Israel: Firm alliance? (1) 18 avril 2012

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Energy / Energie, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) Wednesday, 18 April 2012, p. 10

Zaur Shiriyev

Conspiracy theories about Israeli-Azerbaijan arms deals are abound, each new one spawning the next. One immediate effect of this is that Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Tel-Aviv has become more costly; the relationship has always carried concerns about the potential impact on bilateral relations with Turkey, as well as with other Muslim countries.

In fact, until 2008, Israel, with strong US support, was a vital external supporter of the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgian geopolitical axis. But 2009 saw a deep crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations, when Turkey condemned Israel’s involvement in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Suddenly Baku was Israel’s only strategic ally in the Muslim world — historically Azerbaijan followed Turkey and Egypt in developing deeper bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel. And until 2009, this balance continued, never questioned by Turkey. However, there is a growing tendency in Turkey, among the public as well as government officials, to wonder openly about Azerbaijan’s allegiances. Since the deterioration of Ankara-Tel Aviv relations, Azerbaijan has faced a dilemma: can an enemy of a friend be a friend? Baku has followed the Jewish aphorism, “Don’t sell the sun to buy a candle,” and has tried to maintain cordial relations with the two countries.
 
Thus at this point, the Azerbaijan-Israel relationship can best be described as “strategic, but not diplomatic.” Here are some perspectives on the broader geopolitical significance of the dilemma:
 
Azerbaijan-Israel thaw related to Washington’s policy shift not Turkey’s spat with Israel
 
It is a misunderstanding that Israel developed its partnership with Baku, in order to maintain its only Muslim alliance, after losing the strategic partnership with Turkey. In fact, it’s much more to do with US foreign policy towards Turkey. Since 2008, Washington seems to have moved away from the Caucasus, and therefore it is in US interests to maintain its strategic interest in the countries of the Caucasus via Israel. It’s difficult to believe that the United States and Israel are not coordinating their activities in the Caucasus. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Georgia see Israel as a messenger to the US, and as a country that can help them strengthen relations with Washington.
 
Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel is in Ankara’s interests
 
When Turkey’s relations with Israel deteriorated, strengthening the anti-Israeli front in the Middle East, one of Israel’s main strategies was to take counter-measures against Turkey by establishing close cooperation with the Armenian diaspora in the US, and beginning talks about recognizing the 1915 events as a genocide. In December 2011, when the Israeli Knesset began to discuss the prospect of officially recognizing 1915, the Azerbaijani diaspora, namely the Association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), denied the genocide, and called for the government to refrain from making any official statements, and wait for the decision to be made in an international, academic forum. Hence, in the end Israel decided not to recognize the 1915 events as genocide, from which one can conclude that they were wary of touching upon issues sensitive to Azerbaijan, and understood that any dalliances with the Armenian lobby would be harshly criticized by Azerbaijan. Furthermore, as part of their strategic alliance with Azerbaijan, Israel and the Jewish lobby have refused to support the genocide resolution in the US and have assisted Turkish efforts to block it.
 
Azerbaijan is vital for Israel’s energy sector
 
This might seem surprising, but by 2009 Azerbaijan was providing 25-30 percent of all Israeli oil imports and according to the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan, Israel was Azerbaijan’s sixth largest trading partner, with a turnover of $295.9 million in January and February 2012. An indication of the existence of this odd alliance is that Israeli companies are active in the Azerbaijani energy sector: Modcon Systems Ltd., an Israel-based supplier of high-level technology to the oil and gas industries, has a branch in Azerbaijan. Further, given that Israel cannot buy gas from Iran under the current conditions of hostility, and in light of the fact that Iraq and Israel have technically been at war since 1948, Baku is the country’s only potential gas supplier. But this reliance on Baku depends on the countries relations with Turkey; if they improve, Israel may consider building an underwater gas pipeline to Haifa and an oil pipeline extension from Ceyhan to Ashkelon to reduce their reliance on Azerbaijan.
 
Azerbaijan supported Palestine and Lebanon despite good relations with Israel
 
Even with the strong economic and political cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel, Azerbaijan sided with Palestine. The Azerbaijani government decided to send an official delegation to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC- now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) Parliamentary Assembly on the crisis in Gaza. In addition, last year Palestine opened an embassy in Azerbaijan, in line with Baku’s legal recognition of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. To put this in context, Baku has supported all international legal documents that address the Israel-Palestinian issue. When Israel occupied Lebanon, Azerbaijan was one of the eight OIC states to send an ultimatum to Israel to stop violent action in Lebanon. Baku also agreed to send peacekeeping forces to Lebanon.
 
“Shared strategic interests”
 
Azerbaijan-Israel relations are based on the exchange of oil for technology and military equipment. This quid pro quo of “shared strategic interests” means the containment of Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia. This shared interest dates back to the 1990s when Iran was supplying natural gas and fuel to Armenia, which helped sustain Armenian action, with Iran using Armenia as a potential buffer against the future rise of Azerbaijan. In contrast, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war Israel provided military equipment, including Stinger missiles, to Azerbaijan. That had a major impact on Iranian and Azerbaijani relations; two traditional neighbors became “rival brothers”, and at the same time Israel moved from being a friend to a strategic partner for Azerbaijan. In recent years this cooperation has gained new meaning, as Iran has directly or indirectly sought to start a proxy war, supporting terrorist actions in Azerbaijani territory.
 
Next we will address the question: is this relationship like an iceberg, nine-tenths below the surface?

 

Azerbaijan-Israel: Firm alliance? (2)

19 April 2012, Thursday, p. 11

The Azerbaijan-Israel relationship is described as a Shia-Jewish partnership, a term that initially sounds surprising given the Shia-Jewish rivalry between Iran and Israel. In a continuation of the previous column, we will discuss how the “absolute friendship” became a “strategic partnership,” and the potential impact on the Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance.

Israel is a unique partner in terms of the development of military technology
 
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Azerbaijan has bought surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, communications equipment, drones, mortars and ammunition military satellites from Israel. Israeli firms have upgraded Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era T-72 tanks, and one Israeli firm, Aeronautics Defense Systems, has constructed a factory producing surveillance drones. Back in the ’90s, Azerbaijan’s only access to modern military technologies was via Israel, as was Turkey’s (although Ankara also had access to the American market). The only other source was — and is — post-Soviet states (Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), but they produce old, Soviet-type weapons rather than modern technologies. Between 1993 and March 2002, the US State Department banned arms sales to Azerbaijan and after that, the main military aid from US was limited to maritime efforts. While Western countries have been reluctant to sell ground combat systems for fear of encouraging Azerbaijan to resort to war to liberate Armenian-occupied territories, Israel has been free to make substantial arms sales and benefits greatly from these deals.
 
Military cooperation — not against Iran, nor an ‘immediate deal’
 
In late February of this year, Israeli officials confirmed an arms deal worth $1.6 billion with Azerbaijan, which included drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile defense systems. This created a sensation with some observers claiming that Israel was buying the right to use an airbase in Azerbaijan; Tehran called this sale an anti-Iranian provocation. Interestingly, the Turkish media also quoted anonymous foreign ministry officials, cited the London-based International Institute for Security Studies’ publication, “Military Balance 2012,” as saying that Azerbaijan’s airbases were not sufficiently developed for military use, indeed, that “the air forces suffer from training and maintenance problems” (Military Balance 2012, p. 92).
 
According to the report’s strategy page (“What Israel Sent to Azerbaijan”), Israel sold Azerbaijan Gabriel anti-ship missiles, which will be used to protect the Caspian coast. In terms of air defense, it claims that Baku also bought Barak-8 systems, including 75 missiles, and the Green Pine radar system, which can detect incoming ballistic missiles up to 500 kilometers away and spot approaching warplanes. Obviously, if this is true, these arms purchases are defense oriented. Military experts know that billion dollar arms deals like this one take months, even years, to prepare, and that it is impossible to negotiate and conclude such a deal in a matter of weeks unless there are deep strategic connections that pre-date the deal, and thus it is hard to argue that the deal was a deliberate maneuver against Iran. Not all of the details cited in the report are true, though it is the case that Azerbaijan and Israel have long shared intelligence reporting.
 
Azerbaijan maintains alliance without opening an embassy
 
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, Azerbaijan has been concerned about objections by the Muslim world. Mainly out of reluctance to threaten relations with Iran, Baku has not opened an embassy in Israel and has only unofficial representation for its national airline, AZAL. Despite this, Azerbaijan has no history of anti-Semitism, and Baku, its capital city, was one of the centers of the Lovers of Zion (created here in 1891), followed by the first Zionist organization in 1899. The Jewish community is an important factor in Azerbaijan’s economic and diplomatic relations, not only with Israel but also with the US. There are more than 20,000 Jews living in Azerbaijan, and many more have emigrated to Israel, representing the Azerbaijani Diaspora there.
 
Israel utilizes differing views of Turkey and Azerbaijan on the Iranian issue
 
It would not be wrong to say that Israel fears that due to its strategic partnership with Turkey, Azerbaijan will decrease its relations with Tel-Aviv; Azerbaijan has supported Turkey’s position over Israel’s many times. For instance, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev criticized Israel for the attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in 2010. Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to act as a mediator between Iran and 5+1 countries, and at the same time, Iran is supporting fundamentalist elements in Azerbaijan. Ankara and Baku are diverging on the Iranian issue, and in this regard some observers think that Azerbaijan is asserting its independence from Turkey, and that’s why Baku is deepening relations with Israel, whereby Tel-Aviv can serve as a security guarantor. As Karim Sadjadpour, associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has pointed out, “even the regime hates the regime in Iran.” In this regard, the Iranian regime is trying to transfer the information battle to the Caucasus, while also trying to influence the domestic situations in neighboring countries, which increases antipathy towards Tehran and also Ankara, following its faith in Tehran’s assertions that its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes.
 
Azerbaijan as a potential mediator between Ankara and Tel Aviv
 
In spite of worsening relations between Turkey and Israel, Baku can only pursue its policy of balance until one of the sides — Turkey or Israel — takes radical steps, which will force Azerbaijan to choose. Right now, good relations between Baku and Tel-Aviv are partially aligned with Ankara’s, as Turkey’s friendship with Baku prevents Tel-Aviv from approaching the Armenian lobby. Given that Azerbaijan has the trust of both sides, it could play a significant role in normalizing relations and improving Azerbaijan’s position in the international arena as a neutral broker. Mediation has its own risks, but there is a possibility that Israel, worried about further deterioration of its relationship with Ankara, will leave such tasks to Baku. However, some observers remain pessimistic, arguing that if Washington hasn’t been able to normalize Israel-Turkey relations, Baku has even less chance.
 
In any event: Israel cannot replace Turkey in terms of strategic importance for Azerbaijan; while Israel-Azerbaijan relations may become stronger due to the Iran situation, but the main motivation for Turkey and Azerbaijan must be rational policy, and taking “the right side of history.”

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