Why Azerbaijan is moving closer to Israel
Azerbaijan and Israel’s diplomatic ties are strengthening. On 11 January, President Ilham Aliyev appointed Mukhtar Mammadov, a veteran Azerbaijani official, to serve as Baku’s first ambassador to Israel.
This decision came after Azerbaijan’s parliament passed a law in November to make it possible to open an Azerbaijani embassy in Tel Aviv, resulting in the former Soviet republic becoming the first Shi’a-majority country to do so.
Shortly after the Azeri strongman signed a presidential decree to appoint Mammadov as Azerbaijan’s first envoy, Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen expressed gratitude to his counterpart in Baku, Gihon Bayramov, for Azerbaijan’s decision to open a diplomatic mission.
"Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel go back to the time of Azerbaijan's independence in 1991 amid the Soviet Union's implosion"
He also called for further bolstering bilateral relations and invited Bayramov to visit Israel for the embassy’s opening.
When Cohen and Bayramov spoke after Aliyev appointed an ambassador to Tel Aviv, Israel’s chief diplomat called Azerbaijan “a close friend and an important regional anchor”.
The two also addressed the mutually perceived Iranian threat and other regional issues while agreeing to meet soon.
A strong relationship in the post-Cold War period
Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel go back to the time of Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 amid the Soviet Union’s implosion. Israel opened its embassy in Baku in August 1993. Ever since, Azerbaijan has been one of Israel’s most important partners in the Islamic world.
“Azerbaijan arose as the key pillar of Israeli cooperation in the South Caucasus and the geopolitical isthmus which allowed for the realisation of the vision of a new ‘Turkic world’ commonwealth that would prevent the Iranian penetration of Central Asia,” explained Dr Alexander Murinson, the author of ‘Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus’.
“Mr Mammadov has a long history in the civil service of Azerbaijan,” explained independent political analyst Turan Gafarli in an interview with The New Arab. “He has foreign experience as he studied abroad and also served in [Azerbaijan’s] embassy in Belgium. Furthermore, his last position was Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education. So, it is clear that Azerbaijan regards the embassy in Israel highly.”
In recent times, Tel Aviv has been one of Baku’s major military backers and an advocate for the Caucasian country in Washington, while Azerbaijan is a main energy supplier to Israel.
Azerbaijan is also suspected of acquiring Pegasus spyware from Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group, which it has reportedly used to spy on activists and journalists.
“It is no surprise that Azerbaijan finally decided to open the embassy in Tel Aviv after three decades,” said Gafarli, who believes that this move will “take Israeli-Azerbaijani relations to the next stage”.
Dr Emil Avdaliani, a professor at the European University in Tbilisi and the Director of Middle East Studies at Geocase (a Georgian think tank), told TNA that this embassy’s opening constitutes a “logical continuation of historically close ties between the two states”.
"The view from Tehran is that Israel is establishing a military foothold in Azerbaijani territory near Iran, posing a grave danger to the Islamic Republic"
The view from Iran
This recent deepening of diplomatic relations between Baku and Tel Aviv unfolded against the backdrop of worsening friction between Azerbaijan and Iran, which accuses Baku of threatening the Islamic Republic’s security through its partnership with Israel.
The view from Tehran is that Israel is establishing a military foothold in Azerbaijani territory near Iran, posing a grave danger to the Islamic Republic.
In 2021/22, tensions heightened as Iran carried out military drills near the border. In October 2021, Aliyev sent a clear message to Tehran when posing for photographs with an Israeli Harop drone.
As acknowledged by officials in Baku, Kamikaze drones from Israel were game-changing variables in the Second Karabakh War, which lasted for 45 days in late 2020.
These drones, along with many from Turkey, did much to enable Azerbaijan to take territory in and near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Armenian separatists gained control over during the First Karabakh War (1988-94).
Amid a war of words between Iran and Azerbaijan, there have been voices in the Islamic Republic who accuse Baku of granting Iran’s Azerbaijani separatists a state-backed platform as part of an agenda aimed at stoking separatism in Iran’s northwest.
With Iran’s government blaming foreign powers for allegedly fuelling unrest in the Islamic Republic amid the ongoing wave of nationwide protests, officials in Tehran speak of Azeri separatists in Iran as being a fifth pillar of Israel.
New regional dynamics
Having emerged victorious in the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan is acting more confidently while also seeking to further strengthen its relationship with Tel Aviv.
As Gafarli told TNA, “Israel and Azerbaijan’s relationship reached its new peak during the last Karabakh War and it seems this fruitful cooperation will continue in the near future”.
One of the factors explaining why for three decades there had been an Israeli embassy in Baku but not an Azerbaijani one in Tel Aviv was a concern in Azerbaijan about the country receiving higher levels of criticism from Arab-Islamic countries and societies.
Yet, in the aftermath of Baku’s victory in the Second Karabakh War such concerns among Azerbaijani officials have been assuaged, according to analysts including Dr Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (a Tel Aviv-based think tank).
"Ultimately, Iran's main concerns pertain to the military dimensions of the Baku-Tel Aviv partnership"
It is also important to consider how the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a powerful and influential Arab power that maintains deep ties to Azerbaijan, formalised diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020.
Therefore, Baku perhaps has assessed that opening an embassy in Tel Aviv should be seen as less controversial from the perspective of Arab officialdom within the context of the Abraham Accords.
Additionally, improvements in Turkish-Israeli relations are probably a variable in the equation, although Azerbaijan’s ties to Israel never weakened amid periods of high levels of tension between Turkey and Israel throughout the recent past.
The leadership in Tehran can’t be pleased with Azerbaijan and Israel strengthening diplomatic ties, and Iran’s government will probably use strong language to condemn the bolstering of Baku-Tel Aviv relations.
Nonetheless, the extent to which the appointment of an Azerbaijani envoy to Israel and the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv cause unease in Tehran will probably be limited.
Ultimately, Iran’s main concerns pertain to the military dimensions of the Baku-Tel Aviv partnership. Knowing this, Azerbaijan’s likely calculations were that it did not have too much to fear in terms of any possible Iranian retaliation in response to the news of the new embassy and envoy.
Although Tehran is expected to “toughen the rhetoric against Baku” as Azerbaijan and Israel’s diplomatic relations deepen, in the long run, Iran and Azerbaijan “will strive to maintain pragmatic relations” because there are “simply too many areas where Iran and Azerbaijan can hurt each other,” according to Dr Avdaliani.
“So, after each complication, a relative stabilisation of ties will follow.”
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero