As talks of a possible Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities rise, tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran have continued to escalate.
On Sunday, Israel confirmed rumors it had arranged a military deal with Azerbaijan, a longtime Eurasian ally that neighbors Iran to the north. Worth $1.5 billion, the artillery sale will supply Baku with defense systems and drones, reinforcing ties between the two countries and, for Israel, forging another positive transaction in increasingly perilous times. In addition to a meeting held with Cyprus last month, Israel has made repeated efforts to consolidate its resources and form enduring relationships with the few available allies in its region.
“I saw the potential 19 years ago, and worked to bring relations closer as a Knesset member and a minister, because I saw the similarities and joint interests,” Ephraim Sneh, the former Israeli deputy defense minister, told the Jerusalem Post about the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship. “I’m pleased at how things have developed.”
News of the latest deal, however, has been a source of controversy since Sunday, as Iranian authorities and critics of a much-discussed potential attack on Tehran’s nuclear plants have expressed fears Baku may serve as a stepping stone for Israel’s clandestine military efforts.
“There is no military alliance,” Sneh clarified. “But there are naturally shared interests. Azerbaijan is an enlightened, secular, advanced state.”
Though the relationship between both nations extends to the early 1990s, many have refused to put aside the possibility that a collaborative military operation may be in the making.
“[There is a] creeping influence of Zionists and foreigners in the South Caucasus region,” Iran’s Ambassador to Armenia, Armenia Seyid Ali Saqqaiyan, said in a recent speech. This sentiment, echoed loudly in Iranian circles, has provoked anger at the latest military agreement and prompted the regime to organize a meeting with Azeri officials.
In talks held in Tehran, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Abaqchi and Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Iran, Javanshir Akhundov, discussed the latest sale. The ambassador addressed Tehran’s concerns by assuring Iran that Baku would not use the soon-to-be-acquired weapons to launch an attack on Iran or any other country, nor would they sanction foreign usage of their territory for martial purposes. Besides being unnerved about the weapons, Iran is also concerned the growing rapport between Israel and Azerbaijan will lead to the former employing Azeri land to amplify surveillance on the regime. Baku says the purchased arms will be set aside for its continuing difficulties in Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested territory occupied by Armenia but recognized internationally as Azerbaijan territory.
“Azerbaijan is trying to build up its military because of this conflict,” Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told WPR. “In doing this, they are looking for partners and training to professionalize their army, which was really nothing 10 years ago. And so Israel is obviously someone they can rely on to do that.”
Azerbaijan reiterated its objectives in a statement issued by its Foreign Ministry Wednesday.
“Azerbaijan attaches great importance to good neighborly relations and it should be based on principles of mutual respect,” said spokesman Elman Abdullayev. More than twenty percent of the company is occupied by Armenia, and the time has come for Azerbaijan to reclaim sovereignty, the spokesman added.
Still, reassurances have done little to assuage international concerns. Israel has visibly refocused its diplomatic strategy on tightening relations with allies, and successive arrangements with Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Angola, and Italy have borne testament to this revitalized approach. Time will tell the extent and depth of these alliances, as they continue to shift Middle Eastern dynamics in unimaginable ways.