Azerbaijan’s Regional Allies
2012-10-28 by Richard Weitz
Israel and Azerbaijan have found each other to be attractive partners.
Israel’s deepening ties with Azerbaijan have helped compensate for its deteriorating relations with Turkey over the Freedom Flotilla crisis. Meanwhile, Israel has provided Azerbaijan with important assistance in many areas.
Azerbaijan has a history free of virulent anti-Semitism and a sizeable Jewish population of up to 40,000, a number that has tripled over the last fifteen years. Israeli experts have cooperated with their Azerbaijani colleagues in many sectors, from agriculture to military technologies. Furthermore, approximately one-sixth of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan.
With its military spending increasing 20-fold in the past eight years, Azerbaijan has developed an especially strong defense partnership with Israel.
In February 2012, Baku and Tel Aviv signed a highly publicized $1.6 billion arms deal that provides Azerbaijan’s military with the advanced defense technology including drones, anti-aircraft systems, and missiles.
Israel has been active in training Azerbaijani security and intelligence services. There are rumors of Israeli listening posts on the coast of the Caspian near Iran’s border. In addition, Israel has lobbied for Azerbaijani interests, and helped induce Washington to grant a waiver to the Freedom Support Act that impeded U.S. government assistance to Baku.
Earlier this year, there was a flurry of media speculation about Baku’s potential support for an Israeli attack on Iran. One story reported that Azerbaijan had granted Israel use of several airbases for a possible strike on Iran. Azerbaijani officials denied the claims by pointing to Baku’s long held refusal to host foreign military bases. Baku’s assertions would not technically prohibit Azerbaijani territory from supporting a strike. For example, Israeli warplanes could still land on Azerbaijan’s runways in the aftermath of an airstrike.
Nonetheless, considering the already tense relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, Baku’s support for an Israeli strike is improbable. Iran can retaliate by destroying Azerbaijani infrastructure in the Caspian Sea and elsewhere. Iran enjoys conventional military superiority over Azerbaijan and could well be joined by Armenian forces.
Indeed, it is far more likely that the Israeli weapons are intended for use against Armenia, not Iran. This is not much of a source of comfort, since a reawakening of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would destabilize the region and also result in massive destruction of vital infrastructure (gas pipelines, terminals) in any case. Turkey would be considerably less likely to support Azerbaijan against Iran if Israel initiated the confrontation.
Relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan have remained strong for decades. The two countries share cultural, religious, and ethnic ties (Azeris are a Turkic people). Many people of both nations colloquially refer to Azerbaijan and Turkey as “one nationality and two governments,” reflecting the deep connection that has been encouraged by various Turkish governments and nongovernmental organizations. Turkey and Azerbaijani diplomats cooperate regarding Armenia, Georgia (reciprocal recognition of territorial integrity), the pipeline transit of oil and gas (which includes Georgia), and other matters.
For the past two decades, Turkey has imposed a trade ban on Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The May 1994 ceasefire with Armenia left 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan under Armenian occupation and some 700,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis with unresolved status. Armenia also physically separates Azerbaijan from its exclave of Nakhchivan.
Yet, the most serious source of tension between Azerbaijan and Turkey in recent years has been Turkish efforts to reconcile with Armenia.
Following a year of “football diplomacy,” Armenia and Turkey signed protocols in October 2009 designed to re-open their border and eliminate other tensions between the two countries. Although the reconciliation could help Azerbaijan by enhancing Turkey’s long-term influence in Armenia as well as encouraging greater regional trade and investment, many Azerbaijanis considered the initiative at best counterproductive since it could reduce Armenia’s near-term incentive to compromise on the occupied territories.
Azerbaijani threats to curtail gas shipments to Turkey along with lobbying by Azerbaijanis backers in Turkey and Armenia’s refusal to make even a symbolic territorial withdrawal have prevented the Turkish parliament from ratifying the protocol until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Turkey allows Azerbaijani citizens to enter its country without a visa, but Azerbaijan refuses to reciprocate since Baku would then feel obliged to offer the same privilege to Iran; otherwise Tehran will deny Azerbaijan use of Iranian territory to communicate with its separated region of Nakhichevan.
Thanks to their energy partnership, Turkey and Azerbaijan have good economic ties, with growing levels of trade and mutual investment. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Europe (circumventing Russia and Armenia) has conveyed more than one billion barrels of oil into Europe since it was finished in 2007. The two countries are now finalizing plans to create a parallel gas pipeline and a Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which will further reduce both countries’ economic dependence on Russia.
Azerbaijan and Turkey signed many military training agreements. In June 1996, the two countries signed the treaty on cooperation in the military training, technical and scientific area in Ankara. A July 1999 agreement resulted in Azerbaijani peacekeepers deploying to Kosovo within the Turkish battalion. This was the first foreign mission of the Azerbaijani armed forces.
Turkey has long supplied arms and other military assistance to Azerbaijan.
More recently, Turkish and Azerbaijani companies have begun co-producing military equipment. Turkey has a modest military training program in Azerbaijan, which has proven very valuable given that U.S. and other foreign sanctions have limited the level of defense cooperation Azerbaijan enjoys with the United States and other Western militaries.
In December 2010, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a strategic partnership agreement. One of its clauses states that the two countries would support each other in the case of a military attack or aggression against the other. However, this mutual security support does not extend to permitting Turkey to establish military bases on Azerbaijan’s territory. Furthermore, Turkey is not required to respond immediately to military aggression against Azerbaijan, but only after “additional consultations.”
Even so, this bilateral accord is especially important given Azerbaijan’s non-membership in NATO, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or any other regional military alliance. Russia has made great exertions since the 2008 Georgian War to strengthen the CSTO, which includes Armenia as well as other former Soviet states. By showing how rapidly the so-called frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union can melt, that war made Azerbaijani threats to use force to recover its lost territories more credible. However, it also made the prospect of Russian military intervention on Armenia’s behalf more probable.
That said, any Turkish government would find it hard to resist supporting Azerbaijan in a renewed war with Armenia, despite the possibility of Russian military intervention on Armenia’s behalf. When Iranian air and navy units violated Azerbaijan’s borders in July 2001 to intimidate British Petroleum to cease operating in disputed Caspian waters, the Turkish air force made a show of force in Baku, at a demonstration attended by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, leading to the end of Iranian incursions.