Palestinian rights don’t factor into Israel-Azerbaijan relations

A remarkable and damning January 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks paints an ugly picture of crude pragmatism in Israeli-Azerbaijani relations (“Azerbaijan’s discreet symbiosis with Israel,” Wikileaks cable). The cable is based on the interactions of the US and Israeli embassies in Baku with officials in the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since the early 1990s, Israel has helped arm successive authoritarian regimes in Baku. Meanwhile, over the past several years, Azerbaijani Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev has condemned Hamas and criticized Turkish support for Palestinian self-determination. The Baku government has also extended its widespread repression of freedom of expression and assembly to include Azeri protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Azerbaijan is a small nation with a population of approximately 9 million located on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, bordering Russia and Iran. The population is predominantly Azeri and Muslim, and more than 65 percent of the Muslim population is Shia. It declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but the nation’s political and geographic integrity was undermined by simmering Azeri-Armenian hostility that was repressed under Soviet rule. With the exception of Iran, each of the nations bordering Azerbaijan — Turkey/Kurdistan, Georgia, Russia/Chechnya and Armenia — have fought wars over the past twenty years.

One war that has yet to see resolution — though presently absent active fighting — is the 1992-94 Nagorno-Karbakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict arose in 1988 as the Nagorno-Karbakh region’s Armenian majority requested that the region be administered by the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, rather than that of the Azerbaijani Soviet. Inter-ethnic fighting began shortly thereafter, continued during the collapse of the Soviet Union and was marked by massacres by both Armenian and Azeri militias. In 1992, the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan warred with Azerbaijan losing decisively. It found 14 percent of its territory under Armenian control when the fighting ended. Nagorno-Karbakh also figured prominently in conflicts between Azeris and Armenians prior to the rise of the Soviet Union. Most of the world recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karbakh, but it is a de facto independent state pending the conclusion of Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations.

Turkey and Israel were two of Azerbaijan’s primary supporters in the conflict. Azerbaijan and Turkey both claim Armenian enmity, Turkey primarily due to Armenia’s demands that the world recognize as genocide the 1915-18 deaths of more than one million Armenians due to attacks, deportations and massacres by the Ottoman Empire. From 2008-09, as Turkish-Armenian reconciliation talks proceeded, Azerbaijan’s political leadership felt threatened by the potential loss of their key ally in the conflict against Armenia. Developments since, most prominently a December 2010 military agreement on strategic partnership, have somewhat lessened Azerbaijan’s concerns but the politicking of President Aliyev noted below should be understood within this context (Azerbaijan-Turkey Military Pact Signals Impatience with Minsk Talks” EurasiaNet, January 18, 2011).

The US embassy cable notes that Israeli-Azerbaijani relations are “discreet but close.” Some discretion is likely needed as the Azerbaijani populace is largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Additionally, the majority of the Azeri people live in Iran and keeping good relations with Tehran helps to safeguard fellow Azeris. A February 2010 US diplomatic cable paints Aliyev as more hostile to Palestinian rights, explicitly so in the case of Hamas (“Azerbaijani President to US Burns: “You can’t boil two heads in one pot,” Wikileaks cable).

In a 24 February 2010 meeting with US Undersecretary of State William Burns, Aliyev “made clear his distaste for [Turkey’s] Erdogan government.” Aliyev sees “naivete” in Turkish foreign policy, especially Turkey’s “hostility to Israel.” Aliyev also related his opposition to Turkish support for “Hamas and Gaza.”

The roots of Azerbaijan’s Israel-Palestine positions are based mostly upon oil politics and the arms trade. This was put concisely by Israeli President Shimon Peres during a June 2009 visit to Baku: “You bring the oil, we’ll bring the ability and technology” (“Azerbaijan: Aeronautics and Shikun & Binui in large contracts,” Globes, 28 June 2009). By 2009, Azerbaijan was providing between 25-40 percent of all Israeli oil imports. Finding itself weak militarily next to a stronger Iran — of whom Azerbaijan is exceedingly wary — and Armenia, it turned to Israel for weapons. 

Israel helped re-equip the Azerbaijani forces immediately after the Nagorno-Karbakh war. And the neoconservative Middle East Quarterly notes that more recently, “Israeli firms built and guard the fence around Baku’s international airport, monitor and help protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, and even provide security for Azerbaijan’s president on his foreign visits” (“Israel and Azerbaijan’s Furtive Embrace,” Summer 2006).

Since 2005, Israel has sold surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, communications equipment, drones, mortars, ammunition military satellites and more. Israeli firms have upgraded Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era T-72 tanks and installed a public surveillance system in the capital of Baku. Just last week a factory constructed by Israeli firm Aeronautics Defense Systems began producing surveillance drones. Other Israeli firms — including those involved in illegal settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem — regularly compete for government contracts. A $337 million 2009 infrastructure contract to Shikun & Binui is a recent example (“A huge deal for Shikun & Binui,” Globes, 27 December 2009).

The 2009 cable notes that Aliyev describes the relationship as an iceberg, “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” If accurate, the short list of arms sales above is likely the most public aspect of the relationship. Baku has found it difficult to obtain Western and Russian arms — the latter historically the nation’s largest provider — due to “various reasons tied to Armenia and Nagorno-Karbakh.” The cable adds, “Israel’s world-class defense industry with its relaxed attitude about its customer base is a perfect match” for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s border with Iran helps that “perfect match.”

The cable adds and is worth quoting at length:

“Through its close relations with Israel, Azerbaijan gets a level of access to the quality weapon systems it needs to develop its army that it cannot obtain from the US and Europe due to various legal limitations, nor from its ex-Soviet suppliers, Belarus and Ukraine. Where other Western nations are reluctant to sell ground combat systems to the Azerbaijanis for fear of encouraging Azerbaijan to resort to war to regain [Nagorno-Karbakh] and the occupied territories, Israel is free to make substantial arms sales and benefits greatly from deals with its well-heeled client.”

Another part of the relationship is also defined by the mutually perceived threat of Iran. The 2009 cable notes, “Much like Israel, Azerbaijan perceives Iran as a major, even existential security threat, and the two countries’ cooperation flows from this recognition.” The 2010 cable quoted above notes that Aliyev, like Israel, supports Iran’s “economic isolation” and believes “it could be effective if enforced by a broad coalition.”

In return for Israeli gas purchases and arms sales — along with other high tech and agricultural support — the Baku government works to stifle expression of solidarity with Palestinians and allows Israel to conduct surveillance missions in Iran from its territory. An Israeli official told the US embassy “that the [Azerbaijani government] had noticeably improved local security at the Israeli embassy when [Israel’s 2008-09 winter assault] began in Gaza.” When Azerbaijani “authorities got word of a planned demonstration … they dispatched buses to the place where the protesters were planning to set off for the [Israeli] embassy and arrested them on the spot. Police detained 25 of the 150 demonstrators rounded up, and 20 of them were sentenced to 10 or 15 days’ detention. … [The] Israeli Embassy told us that they never even saw the demonstrators and made no requests before or after that anyone be held in custody.”

This contrasts with demonstrations against Iranian policy where the Baku government “allows demonstrators to picket the Iranian Embassy, so long as the subject of the protest is the treatment of Azeris in Iran.”

Azerbaijan’s membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — which supports Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karbakh war — and domestic considerations make more transparent relations with Israel untenable. A revealing segment from the 2009 cable notes that “Baku balances its cordial relations with [Israel] with its perceived responsibilities in to [sic] the OIC. Therefore Azerbaijan does not maintain an embassy in Israel,” and “it dutifully [though weakly] criticizes Israeli military operations in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.”

When US embassy officials contacted their Azerbaijani counterparts to oppose a UN resolution condemning Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead,” an Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs “contact explained that Azerbaijan would follow the OIC line and that there was ‘an understanding’ with Israel about Azerbaijan’s voting behavior.”

One other revelation is that the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship “also affects US policy insofar as Azerbaijan tries, often successfully, to convince the US pro-Israel lobby to advocate on its behalf.” With this the Aliyev government joins a long list of authoritarian regimes — from the late Mobutu regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Central American dictatorships in the 1980s — that have attempted to use Israel’s close ties with the United States to ingratiate themselves to Washington.

The 2009 cable ends by stating that “Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are based strongly on pragmatism and a keen appreciation of priorities. Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country and as a market for military hardware. … It is apparent to [US officials] that for now both sides are well satisfied with the bilateral state of affairs.”

The picture that emerges from the “one-tenth” of visible Israeli-Azerbaijani relations is that Azerbaijan — for sure in a trying political situation with regard to its neighbors and the Armenian occupation — is willing to stifle domestic dissent and ignore international solidarity with Palestinians in order to curry favor with Washington and secure an arms pipeline and oil market. For its part, Israel ignores Azerbaijani human rights abuses and uses the relationship as an arms market, a stable source of oil, and to carry out surveillance on Iran. How does Palestinian liberation figure into Israeli-Azerbaijani relations? It doesn’t. It is the kind of “business as usual” attitude that Palestinian civil society leaders warn of, acting as if the Palestinian question can be suppressed or ignored.

Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit and runs, a project documenting and analyzing Israeli arms exports. He can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.