Azerbaijan Opening Israel Embassy as It Seeks To Escape Iran’s Shadow
While Baku and Jerusalem have enjoyed solid ties for three decades, defense considerations lie at the heart of this new step to further consolidate its relationship with a country that shares a significant foe
Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Israel after three decades of lower-level ties not only makes history as it will be the first majority Shi’ite Muslim nation to do so but will prove a major asset for both countries when dealing with a shared enemy – Iran.
A delighted Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid praised the decision by the former Soviet republic, which borders both Russia and Iran, hailing Azerbaijan as “an important partner of Israel and home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world.”
“The decision to open an embassy reflects the depth of the relationship between the countries. This step is the fruit of the Israeli government’s efforts to build solid diplomatic bridges with the Muslim world,” he said.
But what the prime minister left unspoken was the mutual defense boon brought by closer ties between Jerusalem and Baku.
“It’s been published in the foreign media that Israel sees Azerbaijan as a place to gather intelligence concerning developments in Iran,” Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, tells The Media Line.
According to Lindenstrauss, that line of defense also benefits Azerbaijan, which sees tighter ties with Israel “as a way to protect it from Iran.”
Even though the two neighbors are both Shi’ite states, she says, “Azerbaijan has a secular identity so in this respect it has a problem with Iran’s regime.”
“It wants its relations with Israel and the US to balance its strategic position; it doesn’t want to be too dependent either on Turkey or Russia” when it comes to “tensions with Iran.”
Furthermore, she says, Jerusalem has been of a long-standing aid to Baku when it comes to what she describes as Azerbaijan’s “lingering conflict with Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjunct regions” – areas which are sandwiched between the two states and have long been a casus belli.
Israel has “sophisticated weapons that Azerbaijan needed in its conflict against Armenia,” Lindenstrauss says.
Israeli political and defense analyst Amir Oren agrees with her assessment on both counts.
“The Israeli defense industry sells a lot of its products to Azerbaijan [while] Azerbaijan is a very important observation post and perhaps helps in other ways if Israel needs entry into Iran from their common border,” Oren tells The Media Line.
“So, both countries have a lot to gain by maintaining good ties.”
According to Oren, the true advantages that both nations enjoy from their connection have little to do with opening an embassy, and this aspect of their relationship has long been directed by Azerbaijan’s President llham Aliyev and Israel’s security institutions.
“The substantial side is much more important than the symbolic one, which is reflected by an ambassador, who is usually not in the loop regarding relations which are being conducted by [Israeli spy agency] Mossad and the Defense Ministry,” Oren says.
“The important business is being conducted in Baku with Aliyev,” he says. “The ambassador [in Israel] will not have a lot to do.”
Lindestrauss says that the 2020 Abraham Accords were a catalyst for Azerbaijan’s decision to finally open an embassy after three decades. This treaty between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain was followed soon after by similar normalized ties between Israel and Morocco and Sudan.
“Azerbaijan wanted Muslim states and Arab states to support it in international forums and was afraid that if it would open an embassy in Israel, it would anger these countries and they would not support its position regarding Nagorno-Karabakh,” she explains.
In addition, she says, Azerbaijan “didn’t want to raise Tehran’s ire by opening an embassy in Israel.”
But now, alongside the recent rapprochement between Jerusalem and Ankara, “you have more than a dozen Muslim-majority countries that have full diplomatic relations with Israel. This is very different from the situation Israel was in in the past.”
For Oren, however, it was the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 and 1995 and not the Abraham Accords more than 25 years later that led to this point. Even so, he concurs, security is at the heart of these new relationships.
“The [Oslo] Accords gave Israel a foothold in this region,” Oren says, “but the Abraham Accords only brought to the surface the defense-centered reality which prevailed there anyway.”
Both analysts also highlight the diplomatic advantages that stronger ties with Israel bring.
“They [Azerbaijan] want to be independent and they want an alliance with a country which has no designs on them,” Oren says, referring to the often-hostile neighborhood in which the country is located.
Lindenstrauss points out that the United States is Israel’s greatest ally and was a major driver in encouraging the UAE and Bahrain to sign the Abraham Accords and in persuading Morocco and Sudan to follow suit.
“Good relations with Israel are seen favorably in Washington and they would want to have good relations with the US,” she says.