The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a historic visit on December 13, 2016, to Azerbaijan, a Shia, secular country that neighbors the north of Iran. Netanyahu visited for the country for a few hours while he served his first term as Prime Minister in 1997. This visit arouses great suspicion in Iran about the warm relations between Israel and the government in Baku. A possible point of discussion during the visit could be about opening an Azerbaijani embassy in Tel Aviv. Such a diplomatic gesture may increase the tensions between Tehran and Baku.
Last month Azerbaijan sent several firefighting planes to Israel to help extinguish the recent fires in the Haifa and Jerusalem area.1
Most of the Iranian suspicions are focused on the reports that from time to time emerge in the media. According to those reports, the Mossad is using Azerbaijan as a forward base for collecting intelligence about Iran and in particular about its nuclear program. These concerns have long been festering in Iran and emerged during difficulties in the nuclear talks between Iran and the West. The recent elections in the United States and the uncertainty of relations with the new Trump administration have increased Iranian fears.
The Iranian fear of relations between Israel and Azerbaijan stems from their long, stable, and secretive character (reports of Israeli military aid to Azerbaijan lists drones, delivery systems, Iron Dome, and countering Armenian rocket and missile threats).2
“Tip of the Iceberg”
A cable from the American Embassy in Baku was leaked a few years ago, which accurately described the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan as they are now. That telegram quoted President Ilham Aliyev describing the relationship between the two countries as an iceberg; nine-tenths of it is below the surface.
Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel are discreet but close. Each country finds it easy to identify with the other’s geopolitical difficulties and both rank Iran as an existential security threat. Israel’s world-class defense industry with its relaxed attitude about its customer base is a perfect match for Azerbaijan’s substantial defense needs that are largely left unmet by the United States, Europe, and Russia for various reasons tied to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.” 3
On the eve of the current visit, Iran was relatively quiet and minimized its reaction to the Netanyahu visit to Baku. At the same time, the representative of Iran’s Supreme leader in Orumiyeh, the capital of a province in western Azerbaijan close to the Iranian border, referred to the expected Netanyahu visit during Friday prayers. He stated that the Baku rulers need to understand that establishing relations with Israel, whose hands are stained with Muslim blood, by a “criminal” Muslim state is comparable to non-compliance with Allah’s word and complicity in “Israel’s crimes.”4
Demonstrations opposing the visit took place in other Azeri-populated provinces in Iran. In Tabriz, capital of an Iranian province in eastern Azerbaijan, demonstrators called on Baku to cancel the visit and even carried posters protesting what they called Baku’s “anti-Islamic” policies.5 They called on President Ilham Aliyev not to hurt Islamic unity in receiving Netanyahu and to not ignore the “rights of the oppressed Palestinians” for Azerbaijan’s economic and political gains. Demonstrations also took place in the nearby Iranian Ardabil province with the participation of the local representative of the Supreme Leader.
Iran is expected to follow closely the visit of the prime minister in Azerbaijan and in Kazakhstan (expected to take a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council towards the end of the year), both located in Iran’s strategic sphere. Iran may also use its influence in Baku to organize demonstrations against Netanyahu during the visit. At the same time, Iran will continue its economic and security cooperation with Azerbaijan and Russia in its bilateral and multilateral framework, while criticizing its northern neighbor’s tightening relations with Israel and the United States.
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