Warming Israel-Azerbaijan ties and the Iranian ire they stoke
On January 11, Azerbaijan appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel after 30 years of bilateral relations. Baku’s historic decision comes against the background of the growing tension between Azerbaijan and Iran. The opening of an embassy in the Jewish state by the Shiite majority nation may be new, but the bilateral relations are not. Israel and Azerbaijan started their diplomatic ties in April 1992, six months after the latter declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
Baku and Jerusalem are natural allies partly because Israel and Azerbaijan share the same goals. They both seek to diversify their foreign relations in a hostile neighborhood. They both consider Iran their archenemy and favor an assertive strategy against Tehran. They both view political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism – practiced by Iran – as a threat. And they both view Russia with suspicion. So, Azerbaijan’s move to open an embassy in Israel should come as no surprise to Iran and other neighboring states in the region.
Iran’s violent reaction
Tehran has stepped up its espionage and other malicious activities against Baku since Azerbaijan started taking steps to open its embassy in Israel. Azerbaijan arrested a group of 19 of its citizens it accused of spying on November 2, five of its nationals on November 14, and recently on February 1, 39 Azerbaijani nationals in connection to an Iranian espionage network.
In addition to its spying activities inside Azerbaijani territory, Iran has threatened its northern neighbor with serious consequences and military retaliation. Some Iranian diplomats, and Revolutionary Guard commanders, openly threatened Azerbaijan against cozying up to Israel.
Iran’s actions to disrupt the Baku-Jerusalem partnership have been bloody, too. It is likely not a coincidence that the opening of the Azerbaijani embassy in Israel coincides with the evacuation of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran as a result of an attack that Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev called a terrorist act. On January 7, a gunman entered Azerbaijan’s embassy in the Iranian capital and killed the head of the embassy’s security and wounded two others, an attack that prompted Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry to close its embassy and evacuate its staff from Tehran.
Needless to say, attacking foreign embassies is not rare in Iran as the Iranians have attacked, among other diplomatic centers, US, UK, Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Danish diplomatic missions, with total impunity, if not outright government support. In other words, such attacks don’t happen unless the clerical regime wants them to happen. Thus, the recent attack on the embassy of Azerbaijan is likely Tehran’s way of telling Baku not to be too close to Israel.
The Iranian threats have backfired and have brought Baku and Jerusalem even closer. Azerbaijan already plays an important role in the energy security of the Jewish state surrounded by oil-rich but often hostile Arab nations. Israel receives 40% of its oil imports from Azerbaijan, whereas the Jewish state is the largest supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan.
Since the establishment of bilateral relations, Azerbaijani-Israeli ties have seen ups and downs, but it has always been a win-win game where both parties have had strategic merchandise to offer to one another: Sandwiched between Iran and Russia, the South Caucasus republic sits at a key geographical intersection that can provide Israel with unique reconnaissance, surveillance and military access to Iran and perhaps exactly for this reason the then Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman once uttered that “Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France.”
Conversely, Jewish Israel is a time-tested and reliable strategic partner for Shiite Azerbaijan and passed the test of friendship once again in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. During this 44-day war, Azerbaijan benefitted from sophisticated Israeli military technology to defeat Armenia and liberate occupied territories. By launching its embassy in Israel, Azerbaijan seeks to take the relationship to the next level, even at the expense of angering Iran.
A regional realignment
While Iran has formed a triangle alliance with Russia and China to erode US influence in the region, Azerbaijan, Israel, and Turkey are in the opposite camp. There may be no better example of this regional alignment than Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia in 2020. Tellingly, in that conflict, Israel and Turkey supported Azerbaijan against Armenia, which was backed by Russia and Iran.
The unofficial Israel-Azerbaijan-Turkey partnership has had important regional implications and Baku’s crushing victory in 2020 was a defeat for the Russia-Iran-Armenia axis and a victory for America’s Israeli and Turkish allies.
Azerbaijan is a small country smaller than the state of Maine, with a population of 10 million but its sensitive location has made it a geostrategic actor in the region. Located in Central Asia and the Caucasus, at the crossroads of Eurasia, Azerbaijan is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran. This secular Muslim country is Israel and the West’s valuable ally in pushing back against Iran, Russia, and Islamist terrorism.
Two factors make the Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership more relevant today: One, America’s retreat from the region and the ensuing strategic vacuum that makes regional alliances indispensable. While the United States is increasingly preoccupied with the “near-peer” competition with China and Russia, it pays less attention to the pre-existing geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East. And two, under former premier Naftali Bennett’s leadership, Israel developed a new defense strategy vis-à-vis Iran known as the “Octopus Doctrine,” according to which, rather than hitting the tentacles, i.e., Tehran’s militia proxies across the region, Jerusalem decided to target the head of the octopus, namely, to strike targets in Iran.
Given its geographic proximity to Iran, Azerbaijan is Israel’s best bet in targeting the head of the octopus through cyber, drone, artificial intelligence, air strikes, and other means, on the condition that such likely moves leave room for plausible deniability. With Benjamin Netanyahu expected to continue his predecessor’s more assertive Iran policy, the Iran-Israel shadow war will likely intensify, as will Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan – much to Iran’s annoyance.