On March 14, 2012, Azerbaijan arrested 22 suspects in a plot to attack the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Baku, the country’s capital. Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the plot; he added that three men—Rasim Aliyev, Ali Huseynov and Balaqardash Dadashov—received smuggled arms and equipment from Iranian agents. The action was apparently planned as retaliation to the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. However, the minister didn’t provide any proofs. A month ago, the same ministry said it had arrested several activists belonging to the Iranian intelligence service and Hezbollah; he claimed that they were suspected of planning terrorist attacks against foreigners in Baku. No proofs were provided. Two months ago, three men were detained after planning to attack two Israelis employed by a Jewish school in Baku. No proofs were provided. In 2008, there was a foiled plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Baku, which is located in a high-rise building along with the Thai and Japanese embassies. Azerbaijan continuously appears in news related to Israel and Iran, including a highly unlikely Israeli Attack on Iran. Trade data shows without doubt that Israel and Azerbaijan have become close allies in recent years; can this unlikely Shia-Jewish alliance be explained?
Maiden Tower Baku, Azerbaijan
The Israeli Armed Forces of Azerbaijan
Israeli Heron Drone
The largest country in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan is at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. This Turkic republic is formally secular, though its population is mainly Shia Muslim. Considering this, one would expect this tiny country to be a close ally of its almost neighbor, mighty Turkey; or even of the nearest Shia country, its neighbor to the south, Iran. Yet, after it got independence from the Soviet Union in late 1991, Azerbaijan was quickly recognized by Israel. Relations entered a new phase in August 1997, during the visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku. Since then, Israel has been developing tight ties with Azerbaijan, having helped to modernize the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan. Israel provided battlefield aviation, artillery, antitank, and anti-infantry weaponry to Azerbaijan. In 2012, Israel and Azerbaijan signed a deal for the sale of $1.6 billion in Heron drones, and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan by the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries. This sum is almost 2% of Azerbaijan GDP.
Yet, these militarily-oriented trade relations are normal for Israel. In India Strikes Israel Military Industries, I described the recent upheavals in the military trade between India and Israel. This commercial link is far more significant than the one between Israel and Azerbaijan. Yet, India and Israel are clearly not close allies. The first sign something different and substantial is happening between Israel and Azerbaijan is the Israeli involvement in communication technologies. Bezeq, a major Israeli telecommunications provider, bought in 1994 a large share of the Azerbaijani telephone operating framework. Since then it has installed phone lines across Azerbaijan, and is operating regional services. Bakcell is a joint venture company between the Ministry of Communications of Azerbaijan and GTIB-Israel, operating since early 1994 as the first cellular phone operator in Azerbaijan. Israel is known as a provider of phone company switching-stations; unluckily, these provide a backdoor to local communications networks. Many years ago, super-computers were provided by the US to Israel under the claim they would be used by the Weizmann Institute of Science for basic research. Instead they are operated by the IDF’s Military Intelligence (AMAN), through its 8200 SIGINT unit. The computers scan talks in attached switching stations, tracking down specific persons. This is very similar to the work done by the CAZAB network, of which Israel is an informal member. It is inconceivable that Azerbaijan’s Minister of Communications is not aware of that. Instead, he is probably enjoying access to these special—and dishonest—services. Such a relationship between the countries can only be described as “tight.”
Beginning the talks between the countries after the fall of the USSR was easy; they have much in common. Azerbaijan has a non-contiguous territory; the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is enclosed between Armenia and Iran. The latter features a small enclave within Armenia. Then, Armenia has a similar enclave within Azerbaijan’s main territory. Adding to this is Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that includes some 16% of Azerbaijan’s territory. Populated mainly by Armenians, it is—following the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War–a de facto independent republic. There are similarities in the complex Azerbaijan-Armenia situation to the one existing between Israel and Palestine. Cooperation in administrative and security issues was an innate step between Israel and Azerbaijan and it opened the door to an unholy alliance between these unlikely friends.
Finally, another important clue in the elucidation of this odd alliance is that many Israeli companies are active in the Azerbaijani energy sector. For example, Modcon Systems Ltd., an Israel-based supplier of high technology to the oil and gas industries, has a branch in Azerbaijan. This is hardly surprising when considering Azerbaijan provides almost 20% of Israel’s oil. In the few years since they recognized each other, Israel became the fifth largest trading partner of Azerbaijan. These two have become Absolute Friends.
Interlude: Absolute Friends
At the beginning of this article I questioned the credibility of the periodic complaints of Azerbaijan about terrorist plots targeting it. Once the close alliance between this country and Israel is understood, the reason for these ongoing complaints becomes obvious. Azerbaijan’s behavior resembles the one adopted by the Israeli government, especially in what looks like entrapment operations. The claim that Iranian agents gave the suspected terrorists weapons in Azerbaijani territory while being watched by the Azerbaijanis stinks of entrapment. The “Iranian agents” were probably disguised Azerbaijani agents attempting to entrap the arrested men.
These activities are characteristic of Western security services. One of these plots was even proven in court. A Shin Beth agent—Avishai Raviv, a.k.a. Agent Champagne—entrapped the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. One of the best descriptions ever of how these operations are performed appears in Absolute Friends, a book by former British spy John le Carré (see link at the page bottom; this book is a must). Two “absolute friends”—a Brit and a German—are entrapped by the American intelligence services, after falsely being portrayed as terrorists with connections to Al-Qaeda. They are brutally assassinated in Germany by an American commando unit. A British agent-controller tries to publicize the truth, but is slandered by the British government and is discredited. An important message in the Rabin assassination and the Le Carré book is that governments have the power to manipulate public thinking to achieve their private agenda, and they do so. We cannot simply believe what we are told by them. Since Israel and Azerbaijan are allies, we must question whether the obsessive Azerbaijani charges are nothing but a twisted implementation of the entrapment attacks described by John le Carré. Any crime is honest in the eyes of Israel and its allies if it slanders Iran. “The end justifies the means” is Israel’s favorite tactic. Unluckily for the now embarrassed Israeli politicians, Hebrew schools depict this as an immoral Nazi tactic.
Bibi Heybat Mosque, Baku | unrelated to Bibi Netanyahu
Oil Pipelines Lubricate the Alliance
Azerbaijan is at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe; Israel occupies a not less strategic spot. Two important oil pipelines cross its territory. Between 1935 and 1948, the Mosul–Haifa oil pipeline transported crude oil from the oil fields of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, through Jordan to Haifa. The point marked H2 in the map is considered strategic by the IDF since it is the largest plain along the pipeline’s path. As mentioned in The Cross of Bethlehem, this is the chosen area for opening a second IDF frontline against a ground attack by means of a vertical bypass. This pipeline may become of immense importance in the new geopolitical scenario developing in the Middle East.
Mosul–Haifa oil pipeline
Between 1967 and the overthrow of the Iranian Shah, the Trans-Israel pipeline, running between Eilat and Ashkelon, was used to transport crude oil from Iran to Europe. Since 2003, Russia uses it to supply Asian markets. Tankers from Novorossiysk deliver their oil in Ashkelon and then the oil is reloaded onto tankers in Eilat for shipment to Asia. This route is shorter than the traditional one around Africa, and cheaper than via the Suez Canal. How is this related to Azerbaijan? In 2005, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline connecting Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea was inaugurated. The pipeline can be used for transshipment of Azerbaijani oil via the Trans-Israel pipeline. The oil is then transported to Eastern Asia, similarly to what is now being done by the Russians. Israel desperately needs Azerbaijani oil and Azerbaijan depends on Israel for expanding its oil markets. Despite historical and cultural links, Iran cannot help Azerbaijan in this, mainly due to the ongoing Western sanctions on Iranian oil operations. Israel may be pressing for further sanctions in order to ease—let’s say “lubricate”—its developing ties with Azerbaijan. In this constellation of events, the alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan was almost inevitable.
This last point leads us straight into the strategic level of the odd alliance. In Greece’s Fadeaway: Iran and Israel Battle over Cyprus, I described the new alliances formed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea following the massive discovery of natural gas there and the break-up of the Turkey-Israel alliance as a result of the Freedom Flotilla Affair. By the beginning of 2012, this has become two loose alliances between Turkey-Lebanon-Northern Cyprus-Iran, and Israel-Cyprus. Adding Azerbaijan to its weak front, allows Israel to open a second frontline against Iran, which is already blaming Israel for using Azerbaijan as an entry point for its agents into Iranian territory. Following what is called the “Arab Spring” in a mocking fashion, the Middle East is being politically rearranged. Former regional powers are sinking into civil unrest, and odd alliances are emerging, including an odd one between Jewish Israel and Shia Azerbaijan, hinting at an even stranger future about to arrive. Can the indecent meek survive such a pact?