Israel’s friend between Turkey and Iran

Jewish schoolchildren in Quba, Azerbaijan

Which small country wedged between Turkey and Iran punches above its weight – and has a thriving alliance with Israel? Answer: Azerbaijan, which prides itself on never having persecuted its Jews. Interesting geopolitical analysis by Tim Judah in Jewish Ideas Daily:

Three years ago, the US Embassy in Baku wrote a cable on Azeri-Israel relations, which was then published by Wikileaks. There is no reason to believe that anything substantial has changed. The cable notes that President Aliev described relations as similar to an iceberg, in that “nine-tenths of it is below the surface”.

The cable discussed a 2008 agreement about arms and equipment that Israel would sell to Azerbaijan. Relations, it said, are “discreet but close” and “each country finds it easy to identify with the other’s geopolitical difficulties and both rank Iran as an existential threat.” Azerbaijan fears Iranian Islamist influence but Iran fears Azerbaijan, too. Up to 30 million Iranians are ethnic Azeris. While many are well integrated into Iranian society, over the years there have been protests demanding greater cultural and language rights. If the existing low level of conflict between Iran, Israel, the US and perhaps others turns into a shooting war, it is hard to know whether Azeri secessionism might develop in Iran. In August, the Iranian armed forces chief warned President Aliev of a “dark fate” if he continued the relationship with Israel. There have also been accusations from Iran that Azerbaijan is attempting to foster ethnic conflict. A key area of co-operation with Israel is in intelligence. This, said the cable, is “extensive”.

There are estimated to be some 30,000 former Azeri Jews in Israel and they act as a bridge between the two countries. Their leaders always say that there was no antisemitism in Azerbaijan, and that this is one reason for the close relations between the two countries. Yet Tom de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says that it would be a mistake to believe that Azerbaijan’s enthusiasm for close relations with Israel is more than an elite phenomenon. Most Azeris, he says, “generally buy into a Muslim consensus with regard to Israel and the Palestinians.”

Enter Turkey. Until 1937, the Azeris, as a political nation, did not exist; they were simply Turks. In the new Soviet order, that changed. Since independence, relations with Turkey have been very close – most watch Turkish television and its influence is important. Yet, it sometimes seems as if, in relations between the two countries, Azerbaijan, whose population is nine times smaller than Turkey’s, calls the shots. In 2008, a period of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement ended abruptly after Azerbaijan objected on the grounds that this should not happen before the Karabakh issue was resolved.

Last October, Turkey agreed to a major deal not only to buy gas coming from Azerbaijan but also to transport it westwards. Just before that, however, the Turkish ambassador in Baku reminded the Azeris of how Turkey had listened to Azeri objections to its rapprochement with Armenia and now expected a payback in terms of relations with Israel. This was brushed off. Business between Israel and Azerbaijan is booming and an Azeri oil and gas company is prospecting in Israeli waters.

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