Though I’m sure in the minds of many Azerbaijan is a country that belongs in the realm of ‘Borat’ and post-Soviet mediocrity, for Israel it is a hugely important ally. In fact Azerbaijan has arguably become Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world since the collapse of the Soviet Union just over twenty years ago. A recent article by Alexander Murinson of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Bar-Ilan University provides an excellent analysis of the political and economic ties that exist between the two countries and how they have developed since Azerbaijan became an independent state in 1991. What it lacks is an acknowledgement of how beneficial this relationship is to Israel and how, although it may on the surface appear to do so, it does not really provide any great benefit to Azerbaijan.
Israeli companies have been providing Azerbaijan with a variety of military gear including tanks, boats, guns, drones and more. This has been especially true of the last ten years as Azerbaijan’s oil-funded government has been able to increase military expenditure by 490 percent from 2004 to 2014 with a 2013 military budget of nearly $2 billion. Israeli Tadiran Communications has, unsurprisingly, been supplying military communication devices and Israeli military Industries have supplied a variety of missiles and guidance systems. Military transactions between the two countries have been discreet but the total almost certainly runs into the hundreds of millions.
Aside from military sales, Israeli high-tech and security companies have a strong presence in Azerbaijan. SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company, uses Israeli companies for its cyber-security and Israeli industrial equipment for drilling and oil extraction in the Caspian Sea. In 2001 Magal Systems, an Israeli security firm, was contracted to build a security fence and to train security personnel at a Baku airport. In the south of Azerbaijan, along the border with Iran, Israeli drones patrol the skies and watch for any unwanted miscreants of the Revolutionary Guard.
A major reason for Azerbaijan’s interest in forming ties with Israel has been its supposed ‘Washington influence’. Jewish advocacy groups, including the Jewish American Congress, in the United States have been lobbying support for Azerbaijan since the 1990s. They may have been influential in Washington’s decision to support the ‘Silk Road Strategy’ adopted in 1999 that sought to promote “stability, rule of law and independence” in the Caucuses. This policy helped Azerbaijan in building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, providing the West as well as Israel with a Russia-free oil supply.
So what does Israel get in return for all of this? As we have already seen it gets a lot of money with military purchases running into the hundreds of millions. Non-military sales to Azerbaijan from Israel have similarly been high, usually running over a $100 million annually in the past ten years. On top of this Israel now receives somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of its oil supply from Azerbaijan meaning they do not have to rely entirely on Tsar Putin. Politically Israel now has a strong ally bordering Iran. An April 2012 article claimed that the Israeli Air Force had purchased basing rights in Azerbaijan causing something of an uproar in Iran. This was downplayed soon afterwards by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Not long ago, however, an Israeli drone was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and it seems unlikely that it flew all the way from Tel Aviv. In essence Israel now has a place from which it can keep a closer eye on Iran and if a first strike is ever taken against Iranian nuclear facilities it seems plausible that the attack would be launched from Azerbaijan.
Despite the seemingly reciprocal nature of this agreement Israel certainly has the upper hand. Azerbaijan has indeed managed to buy a fairly impressive military force but in effect it is completely useless. Firstly, the troops on the ground are not well trained enough to use the equipment they are receiving and they will likely have to pay more money to Israel for training. Even if this does happen then there is no one they can actually use their grand army against. It is unlikely that in the near future Azerbaijan will be able to take on Iran to its south or Russia to its north. Buying huge amounts of military equipment is, however, likely to make both of those countries feel uneasy and strain relations. Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan has had an unresolved conflict since the mid-1990s over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, seems the likely target of any Azeri aggression. Yet despite their verbose warnings and nationalistic shrieking Azeri leaders are unlikely to launch an attack on Armenia any time soon as Russia strongly backs Armenia. They provide them with military equipment at discount prices and there are Russian military bases on Armenian soil. Unless Azerbaijan’s leadership wants to have an indirect face-off with Russia it is unlikely to try to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh any time soon.
This means that Azerbaijan has spent a great deal of money on what seems like something of a vanity project on the government’s behalf. Given the current state of Azerbaijan this is money that might have better been spent on internal institutions and on the Azeri people. Increasing military spending so much has and will continue to strain relations with Russia and Iran. This is particularly true in the case of Iran given that the weapons are coming from Israel. In fact, the relationship as a whole will cause diplomatic problems for Azerbaijan. Though Turkey will undoubtedly remain their strongest ally, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan’s friendship with Israel will please Turkey or head mufti Erdogan (he who referred to a protesting miner as “Israeli spawn” before punching him in the face). Finally, the aforementioned ‘Washington influence’ seems like something of an illusion tinged with mild anti-Semitic stereotypes. It is true that Jewish lobbying groups wield a level of influence (as by the way do Arab, Armenian, Italian and almost any other ethnic group you care to think of) in the United States but the American government is not composed of complete morons and no amount of lobbying by any advocacy group is going to convince them that the Azeri government is not the corrupt, quasi-mafia institution that it is.
Israel on the other hand seems to continue to enjoy all the benefits. A decent spot to keep watch over the Iranians, a steady supply of Putin-free oil, a keen buyer of its military and non-military hardware and a good friend in the Muslim world. Let us hope that the Azeris don’t catch on.