A new and perhaps surprising country took center stage recently in the ongoing row over Iran’s nuclear program – Azerbaijan. Citing anonymous “high-level sources” from U.S. diplomatic and intelligence circles, a controversial article in Foreign Policy at the end of March suggested the possibility that Israel might have been proffered the use of Azerbaijani airstrips for any strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The article attracted impassioned rebuttals from officials and observers alike. But the question remains: how did Azerbaijan get sucked into the controversy over Tehran’s nuclear plans in the first place?
Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel developed in earnest 20 years ago, and have grown significantly in depth and scope ever since. With bilateral trade currently hovering around $4 billion, Azerbaijan is Israel’s top trading partner among Muslim states, and the second largest source of Israel’s oil after Russia.
Conversely, Israel represents Azerbaijan’s second largest oil customer, and via the Ashkelon-Eilat Trans-Israel Pipeline, a crucial transit point for Azeri oil flowing to Asia’s growing markets. Israeli companies have also made no secret of their stake in the country’s other key, non-energy sectors, including agriculture and communications. However, it’s the military-defense aspect of bilateral cooperation that has kept Iran on its toes of late.
Israel began modernizing Azerbaijan’s ragtag army after its six year, undeclared war with Armenia led to the loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and seven neighboring districts. On February 26 of this year, Baku and Tel Aviv inked the latest in a series of arms deals, this time to the tune of $1.6 billion, on the basis of which Israel Aerospace Industries would supply Heron and Searcher drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems over the coming months and perhaps years.
This closeness represents everything that relations between Iran and Azerbaijan ought to have been right from the start, given both nations’ deep historical ties. Azerbaijan was a Persian satrapy under the Achaemenid, the Parthian and the Sassanian empires, and the Shiite Safavids credited for laying the foundations of modern Iran were mainly ethnic Azeris, a sub-branch of the Turkic peoples. Only after Iran was twice defeated by the Russians in the 19th century was it obliged to renounce the half of the Azeri homeland located north of the river Araxes.
This disjuncture largely stems from the overwhelming secularism brought on by 71 years of Soviet rule (1920-1991) and Azerbaijan’s palpably pro-West, pan-Turkic and anti-Iranian outlook, especially under former President Abulfaz Elçibey and his Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, a factor that prompted Iran to support Christian Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
South of the Araxes, Tehran remains acutely sensitive to potential Azeri irredentism stoked by the existence of independent Azerbaijan, despite the fact that its own Azeris – a fifth to a quarter of all Iranians including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (who is half-Azeri) – are generally well integrated.
Baku has for its part accused Iran of supporting radical Shiite elements, including the now outlawed Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, as well as the Talysh ethnic minority inhabiting the border areas. Nationalist rhetoric has also sharpened with calls for the country to be rechristened “North Azerbaijan” as opposed to what some view as the “occupied” South.
Both Israel and Iran have repeatedly accused each other of using Azeri territory as a base for covert operations, and the Azeri authorities haven’t held back from publicly linking a number of locally arrested individuals with Iranian intelligence.
All this suggests that an Israeli “staging ground” may not be that farfetched, despite a 2005 Baku-Tehran non-aggression pact and official insistence – most recently by President Ilham Aliyev during a cabinet meeting – that Azerbaijan would never allow its territory to be used against its neighbors.
However, while Azerbaijan is eminently suited to Israeli interests, the costs of a potential Iranian backlash toward Baku are unbearable for three key reasons.