The recent announcement by Azerbaijan to open an embassy in Israel is a logical development of Azeri-Israeli relations. The two countries have had very good relations since they established diplomatic ties in April 1992. Since then, those bilateral relations have acquired a strategic quality ever since Israel began to supply military matériel and weapons systems to Baku early last decade.
The timing of Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Tel Aviv, however, is in fact attributable to the increased and various forms of hostilities against Azerbaijan by its far larger southern neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Tehran’s most recent decision to open a new consulate in Armenia’s southern Syunik province, whose capital, Kapan, lies in the Zangezur region, literally only a few kilometers from the border with Azerbaijan.
Zangezur is the region where the Armenian government has consistently refused to build a corridor between Azerbaijan and its western exclave, Nakhchivan. Armenia formally committed to developing such a corridor in the November 2020 ‘Trilateral Statement’ (which Armenia calls a “ceasefire agreement”; or a “capitulation document”, as it is known in Azerbaijan) that was signed in Moscow by the two warring sides, along with Russia.
Iran, for its part, sees its interests threatened by the potential opening of the Zangezur corridor, which would diminish Tehran’s own stature and influence in the broader region.
Historical links connect Israel & Azerbaijan
Bilateral Azerbaijan-Israel relations are based on a long history between ancient two peoples that is neither mythological nor based on legend. There is archaeological evidence that Jews have lived in what is now Azerbaijan for at least 1500 years. As it is generally accepted — and there are credible primary sources that indicate — that Georgia’s “Mountain Jews” have lived in an area that now makes up the modern state of that country since the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. One cannot exclude that Azerbaijan’s “Mountain Jews” have been there for just as long, or at a minimum, since the pogroms of the Roman emperor Vespasian in the 1st century A.D. In any case, Quba, one of the last — if not in fact the last — remaining European shtetls is to be found nowhere else but in Azerbaijan’s mountains.
The recent military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel is well known. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in its review of the Russian Federation’s extensive and subsidized military assistance to Armenia, estimates that Israel accounted for one-quarter of Azerbaijan’s import of major arms during the decade 2011–2020, and even up to two-thirds during the second half of that decade.
Those arms included loitering munitions and even, in response to Russia’s having furnished its own surface-to-surface Iskander missile to Armenia, deliveries of Israel’s LORA-guided ballistic missiles. Armenia notoriously used Russian-made and supplied guided ballistic missiles against Azeri civilians on multiple occasions during the Second Karabakh War in 2020.
Tehran’s regional power plays have been a factor
It is impossible, however, to understand Azerbaijan’s decision to establish an embassy in Israel without reference to Iran’s recent military threats against Baku itself. Indeed, Tehran’s increased bellicosity against Azerbaijan this year runs in parallel with its discrimination against and increased political repression of its own huge population of ethnic Azeris in the northwest of Iran.
Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Israel is part of the Azeri government’s ongoing reconfiguration of its broad regional international relations since its autumn 2020 victory over Armenia in the Second Karabakh War, which ended with the withdrawal of most of the Armenian Armed Forces, though some still illegally remain in areas where Russian troops, Armenia’s erstwhile ally, are deployed under the guise of “peacekeepers”.
Most of the areas where Armenian and Russian forces are present had been occupied territories that were internationally recognized — and even recognized by Armenia — in the Alma-Ata (Almaty) Declaration of December 21, 1991. That document recognized the regions that later were occupied as integral parts of Azerbaijan.
The conclusion of the Second Karabakh War also initiated the stronger entry of Turkey into the equation. Ankara’s strategic re-entry into the South Caucasus began even before Russia’s dramatically self-defeating invasion of Ukraine in February. An indicator of the deeper Azeri-Turkish relations is the signed June 2021 Shusha Declaration, which, at its core, is a bilateral defensive alliance.
Iran is on the losing side of history
Along with Russia, Iran is the main non-belligerent loser with regard to the outcome of the Second Karabakh War. The mullahs in Tehran have not sought to adapt to the new situation in a peaceful and cooperative manner. Rather, the Islamic Republic has continued its usual behavior as a “revisionist” power. What this means in terms of geopolitical vocabulary is that Iran is on a fool’s errand to re-establish the status quo.
Iran has openly allied with Russia and China in a failed attempt to overturn the post–Cold War order, where the United States remains the sole global superpower due to its capacity for worldwide military-force projection, its economic capacity and the irreducible role of the dollar as a reserve currency. The Islamic Republic wants to fundamentally wants to change the balance of power among those who are the main protagonists in the South Caucasus.
The status quo ante that Iran seeks appears to be, as explained by Tehran, an annulment of the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay. This was an agreement that was signed by the Persian Empire which ceded to its bitter rival, the Russian Empire, various territories across the Caucasus, including that of present-day Azerbaijan.
In order to reverse the nearly two-centuries-old treaty, for the past 20 years, Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has sought to undermine and, even overthrow, the secular government in Azerbaijan, which represents a tolerant multi-confessional Shi’a-majority state. Azerbaijan is, in fact, the only Muslim-majority country in the world where Shi’a and Sunni pray together.
It is not inconsequential that the IRGC continually increases its cooperation with Armenia’s main figures in their military-industrial sector, which also includes providing Yerevan with surveillance technologies. Iranian drone manufacturers were out in force to visit Armenia for a ceremony earlier this year, including opening an Iranian Export and Investment Center. Further inflaming the situation in an already politically sensitive area, the deputy governor of Syunik, in southern Armenia, publicly welcomed both the Iranians and the prospect of Chinese foreign direct investment in Syunik.
Iran’s military threats against Azerbaijan have been on the rise since the beginning of last year when Tehran held extraordinary war games that included a mock crossing of the Aras River, which defines a large part of the border between the two countries, and implied a threat of an invasion of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. In early November, the Azeri Ministry of Defense reported further unannounced military drills by Iran near the border.
Russia’s role in the region’s instability
Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Israel, which has had its own embassy in Baku since 1993, is also a result of Russia’s recent moves to deepen its military and strategic cooperation with Iran. Both countries have delusions of grandeur that are rooted in deep irredentist, neo-imperialist designs on the Caucasus, but the Kremlin’s most recent attention towards the region stems from the fact that Moscow has to redeploy some of its military forces that are in the Caucasus to replace the tens of thousands of troops the Russian military has lost in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has some of its forces in Syria, where Israel was free to act against Iranian-backed forces if it did not challenge Russia more broadly. However, due to the quagmire of invasion and subsequent massive losses in Ukraine, Russia is no longer able to restrain Israel as it did before. This has increased Israel’s ability to move against Iranian interests in Lebanon, which Iran lacks the means to counter directly.
With the regional geopolitical situation as it is, and amidst pressure and threats on multiple fronts, Azerbaijan has responded, inter alia, with a key decision to bolster relations with a key ally, by formally opening an embassy in Israel.