What started as a marriage of convenience has netted Israel its closest Muslim ally.
The majority Shiite nation of Azerbaijan is the biggest supplier of oil to Israel, which reciprocates by selling sophisticated arms including missile systems and drones. While the flow of oil in exchange for advanced weapons is the backbone of the alliance, a confluence of interests is propelling the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea closer to Israel, often in defiance of discontent at home and dismay among neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Tested by Israel’s 50-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which sparked protests among Azeris, President Ilham Aliyev is throwing his lot in with Israel to maintain a military edge in a quarter-century-long conflict with Armenia. Azerbaijan, which together with Armenia also buys Russian weapons, benefits from access to advanced technology from Israel as part of $3.7 billion in annual spending on rearmament.
“Aliyev is not easily budged by foreign pressure on national strategies,” said Brenda Shaffer, who’s served as an adviser to Israel’s Ministry of Energy and Water Resources and is now a professor and visiting researcher at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “Azerbaijan is very serious about the sanctity of contracts. It has never reopened its international contracts in the energy sector.”
Aliyev has forged close ties with Israel in the face of criticism from neighboring Iran, whose Shiite denomination of Islam is shared by two-thirds of Azeris. The Azeri leader compares his country’s discreet relationship with the Jewish state to an “iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface,” the U.S. Embassy in Baku said in a 2009 secret cable published by WikiLeaks.
The nation provides about 40 percent of Israel’s oil, according to Shaffer, who’s consulted the government in Jerusalem on its gas export policy. The former Soviet Union’s third-biggest oil producer also controls a pipeline that Israel’s Energy Ministry says accounts for most crude imported by the Jewish state.
Azerbaijan’s energy policy “is based on the premise of cooperation and good will,” Hikmat Hajiyev, acting spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Baku, said by e-mail, adding that the country supports Palestinians’ aspirations for an independent state. The flow of oil is determined by the “supply and demand chain” and shaped by the global oil market.
“The current geography of Azerbaijan’s energy cooperation is wide enough and it covers Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa,” he said.
Israel has used the 1,768 km (1,100 mile) pipeline connecting Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores with the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through Georgia to reduce dependence on supplies from hostile neighbors.
That doesn’t sit well with many in Azerbaijan, a country of 9.5 million. Youth activists incensed at Israel’s offensive in Gaza have called for an embargo of oil sales and a protest was held outside the Israeli embassy in the capital, Baku, on July 25. Police quickly dispersed the rally, which was filled with the chants of “Death to Israel!”
“Azerbaijan needs to make sure that its oil isn’t being used for military purposes,” said Khadija Ismayil, a prominent investigative journalist known for her critical reporting on Aliyev and businesses controlled by his family.
Staring down the critics is Aliyev, whose family has run the country for four decades. He’s showing no sign of changing tack in the aftermath of fighting in Gaza.
Feeding Azerbaijan’s appetite for weapons is its conflict with Armenia, which last month exploded into the deadliest clashes between the ex-Soviet republics in 20 years. Aliyev has repeatedly threatened to use force to regain control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh should peace efforts fail. Armenians took over the region and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijan in a war after the Soviet breakup in 1991.
High-placed Israeli officials are frequent visitors in Baku, including Soviet-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who last visited the Azeri president in May. Aliyev this month played host to Moshe Ya’alon, the first Israeli defense minister to visit Azerbaijan since the two countries established diplomatic relations 22 years ago.
Sixteen Israeli manufacturers displayed their weapons at an arms exposition in Baku Sept. 11-13. Azerbaijan in 2012 signed contracts valued at $1.6 billion to buy advanced weapons from the Jewish state. It’s also started joint production of drones in Baku, and is now in talks to purchase or lease spy satellites produced by Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., according to Defense News.
Last year, Elmar Mammadyarov became Azerbaijan’s first foreign minister to visit Israel.
With Aliyev charting an independent foreign policy, disquiet is heard among his powerful neighbors. Aliyev has cultivated ties with Israel in defiance of pressure from Iran and has turned a blind eye to a deepening rift between the Jewish state and Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, whose prime minister said in July that Israel’s Gaza offensive dwarfs the atrocities Hitler committed during World War II.
In 2011, Turkey’s envoy to Baku urged Azerbaijan to reconsider its relations with Israel and address Turkish concerns. The Turkish embassy didn’t reply to e-mailed questions and telephone calls seeking comment.
For Iran’s part, the concerns are more immediate. The two countries share a 756-kilometer (470-mile) common border, and almost a quarter of Iran’s 75 million people are ethnic Azeris.
“No country should be allowed to spoil Tehran’s relations with Baku,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Azeri Economic Development Minister Shahin Mustafayev on Sept. 17.
Iran said Sept. 18 that an Israeli Hermes drone it shot down in August as it headed toward the Natanz enrichment facility was launched from Azerbaijan’s autonomous region of Naxcivan, according to Iran’s state-owned Press TV.
Vaqif Dargahli, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Baku, refuted the allegations, saying Azerbaijan doesn’t have Hermes drones in its arsenal.
The government in Baku has been at pains to deny reports that it may allow Israel to use Azeri bases and territory to stage military action against Iran. It’s also pledged not to take sides in Israel’s conflict with Palestinians.
“Azerbaijan is a fraternal country with Turkey, but it is also an independent country,” Asim Mollazade, a member of Azeri parliament’s foreign relations committee, said by phone, dismissing as “harmful” the notion of an oil embargo. “Azerbaijan is not thinking of imposing any economic sanctions against Palestine or Israel. That would not be the right thing to do.”