Azerbaijan-Israel Military Partnership: Implications for Regional Security

Over the last twenty years, the political and defense ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have improved dramatically, to the point where the Jewish State is now considered one of Azerbaijan's closest military partners

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Haim Tzach, GPO)

The close diplomatic relations with Israel has always been a suitable factor for official Baku to demonstrate its uniqueness in the Muslim world. The diplomatic relations established in April 1992, not long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between two countries, there have been a number of high-level visits, although in most cases, the visiting senior officials were Israelis. Over the last twenty years, the ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have improved drastically.

After the collapse of the Soviets, Israel has rapidly expanded its foreign policy options by establishing a dialogue with CIS countries, in particular with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea, bordered on the south by Iran. Like Iran, it is predominantly Shia country, but its regime is secular and pro-Western. In fact, Azerbaijan-Israel partnership is mostly based on culture, since Azerbaijan is a historical home for ethnic-Jewish people, while dozens of Azeri Jewish people live in Israel.

In addition to political and cultural relations, Israel is one of the closest military partners of Azerbaijan, as the country is a target for Israeli defense industry exports. Israeli defense companies were also involved in training Special Forces and bodyguard missions for senior officials in Azerbaijan, constructing security systems for the airport in Baku and upgrading military equipment from the Soviet era. There have also been reports that Azerbaijan serves as a hub for Israeli intelligence-gathering operations against Iran.

In 2012, a $1.6 billion transaction involving the sale of weapons by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to Azerbaijan was reported. The transaction included unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellite systems. Over the past three years, Azerbaijan has become an even more significant destination for Israeli arms exports. The bilateral military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan has entered the new phase during the latest visit of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku. While the latest visit of Netanyahu boosted the bilateral relations in a good way, some experts argued that the new military contract was signed in Baku. Unexpectedly, during the joint press conference, President Ilham Aliyev announced that his country had signed $5 billion worth of long-term contracts over the years to buy weapons and security equipment from Israel.

Eventually, from Azerbaijan’s perspective, one of the primary goals of its foreign policy is redeeming territory lost during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s. The cooperation in the security field between Israel and Azerbaijan helps the latter to maintain balanced foreign policy towards regional countries such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Official Baku now is keener in purchasing Israeli-made weaponry, in particular, kamikaze drones following the successful “Four-Day War” in Karabakh in April 2016. According to Azerbaijani military experts, the Israeli-made equipment is better quality and more modern compared to other purchased equipment. Nevertheless, Russia still maintains the main weapon supplier position of Azerbaijan Armed Forces. According to estimates, 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms expenditures from 2005-2014 went to procurements from Russia.

As a result of Israel’s undeniable contribution to Azerbaijan's military, especially during the April war there appeared certain articles, statements, and commentaries in local mass media praising Israeli-Azerbaijan military partnership.

Besides military ties, Israeli authorities eye more cooperation with Baku in energy, agricultural and other fields. Considerably, the energy issue was on the agenda of Prime Minister Netanyahu during his Baku visit. It is no secret that Azerbaijan is the biggest supplier of oil to Israel for years. During his visit to Baku, Israeli PM Netanyahu discussed the possibility of joining the Baku-led Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which intends to deliver natural gas to the southern part of Europe via Turkey. "Now we’re talking about not just the sale of oil from Azerbaijan to Israel, which is a very important part of our oil imports. We’re talking about using common facilities for the export of gas and the linking of Israel’s gas exports potentially to a great pipeline that is being built as we speak right now from Azerbaijan into Turkey," said PM Netanyahu.

Azerbaijani government, which always maintains balanced foreign policy towards neighboring countries, will likely increase the volume of military partnership with Israel. However, the details of future arm import from Israel remains unclear, given the discord of Iran to growing Israeli involvement in the region. Although Azerbaijan avoids provocative measures against Iran, Israeli defense industry offers the best option (newly made defense radar system) to Baku to confront with Armenia’s Iskander Missile system.

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Fuad Shahbazov (@fuadshahbazov) is an Expert-Advisor at Baku-based Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan Republic. His area of expertise embraces regional security, religious radicalism, and military issues.