The primary victor and loser in last fall’s short but brutal battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia was fairly obvious to observers. Seeking control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts, Azerbaijan emerged from the conflict reclaiming the majority of territory that it had lost to Armenian separatists in the early ‘90s, leaving only a small percentage of the broader region’s territory under Armenian control, roughly corresponding to its historical Armenian-majority areas.
And while a sense of euphoric victory permeated the Azerbaijani national consciousness, there is a potential second and more remote beneficiary of this conflict: Israel. Its benefit from this conflict is primarily rooted in the geopolitical power axis that has emerged vis-a-vis Iran, a stronger and more transparent relationship with Azerbaijan, and, ironically, prospects for strengthened diplomacy with Armenia itself.
Decades of Ties Between Israel and Azerbaijan
Israel’s longstanding relationship with Azerbaijan has been an outlier when compared with other Muslim-majority countries. While diplomacy between the two countries has been bilateral and mutually beneficial, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev suggested in 2009 that “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” In 2012, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, quipped during a visit to Baku: “Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France.”
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Israel was one of the first states to recognize the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan on Dec. 25 1991, acting in line with then-Foreign Minister David Levy’s statement on the Knesset floor a day earlier to recognize all former Soviet republics. Israel’s interest in this rapprochement was multifold: increase its legitimacy in the Muslim world with the newfound post-Soviet majority-Muslim republics; reduce Arab influence; gain additional United Nations votes; and garner the new states’ cooperation in facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel.
Just seven months later, Azerbaijan likewise recognized Israel. During Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region from 1988 until 1994, Israel supplied Azerbaijan with arms such as Stinger missiles. It has since aided Azerbaijan in the fields of medicine, water purification, agriculture, and, most importantly, strategic cooperation in defense and intelligence. Israeli arms are said to comprise more than 60 percent of Azerbaijan’s weapons stockpile. Hikmet Hajiyev, a top foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, told the Israeli news site Walla that Israeli technology “helps Azerbaijan to provide security and safety to its nationals,” and praised the Harop drone in particular as “very effective.”
In turn, Azerbaijan has from the onset of its independence become a key source of oil imports for Israel, an important resource accentuated by the historical Arab boycott of Israel. To this day, Azeri oil accounts for some 40 percent of Israel’s consumption. Moreover, with its geographic proximity to Iran, Azerbaijan has served as an enticing ally for Israeli intelligence-gathering and military operations, should the need arise.
Nonetheless, Azerbaijan has been careful to keep its relationship with Israel somewhat under the radar (although the two allies have been more vocal about their cooperation in recent years). An official member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Azerbaijan has consistently voted in favor of anti-Israel resolutions in international forums, seeing synchronization with that organization necessary for winning its vote on resolutions pertaining to Nagorno-Karabakh. This realpolitik, along with its complex yet officially amicable relationship with Iran, has also prevented Azerbaijan from formally opening an embassy in Israel.
The Second Karabakh War
Yet, there are signs of change that could result in much more explicit Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. This shift is in sync with developments in the region that relate to last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which, after 27 years of frozen conflict, Azerbaijan reclaimed nearly all the territories it lost in a mere 44 days.
Following the start of the conflict in late September, the Azerbaijani army pressed forward into Armenian-held territory, consisting of the original Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts that Armenian forces captured in the first war and cleared of its Azerbaijani inhabitants. Political observers expected this bout to be a repeat of similar short-lived border skirmishes, as occurred in 2016. But to the surprise of many, the conflict escalated into a full-blown incursion. Essential to Azerbaijani advances into Nagorno-Karabakh were Turkish and Israeli drones, which allowed Azerbaijan to overcome well-fortified outposts in mountainous terrain which naturally favored the defensive position.
Likely sensing further defeats and losses, Armenia signed an overnight ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan and Russia. The agreement marked the end of fighting and placed Russian peacekeepers within the remaining Armenian-held territory for five years, subject to renewal. It cemented Azeri control of the seven adjacent districts, in addition to the key city of Shusha within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the most prized Azeri territory in the original enclave. Azerbaijan’s effective control of the seven districts also means that it gained control of its entire former border with Iran.
Additionally, a small Russian-patrolled strip of land within the Lachin District will continue to connect Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh to the rest of Armenia. In exchange, there will be “construction of new transport communications” connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave region of Nakhchivan.
Implications of Ceasefire Terms on the Israel-Azerbaijan Relationship
These clauses have significant implications for Israel. Perhaps most immediately, Azerbaijan could “go public” about its relationship with Israel by opening an embassy. Many Azerbaijanis expressed strong appreciation for Israel’s military aid, which helped them win the war, clearly seen in the flurry of Israeli flags being waved alongside Azerbaijani and Turkish flags in post-war street celebrations. An Azerbaijani embassy being opened in Israel would likely be seen by Azerbaijanis as the least their country could do to show gratitude. Azerbaijan’s need for Muslim support in the U.N. over Nagorno-Karabakh is less important now than it has been during the last three decades, given the new realities on the ground. Recent developments in the Muslim world, such as four Arab League states and Kosovo normalizing relations with Israel, likely add to this dynamic as well.
Azerbaijan’s elongated border with Iran is also an important development for Israel. In an indirect and long-term manner, it means Israel could have access to more territory surrounding its primary geopolitical foe. While in the near term it is unlikely that Azerbaijan would greenlight Israel to use its territory as a launching site for attacks, Israeli reconnaissance on the Azerbaijani side of the border has already been alleged by political analysts for years. Might the Azerbaijan-Iran border be used more significantly in the future?
Additionally, since Azerbaijan would no longer have to rely on Iranian land access to Nakhchivan, its need to placate Iran would be lessened. This could lead to Azerbaijan more brazenly showing solidarity for the oft-suppressed ethnic Azerbaijanis south of its border, a sizable demographic of up to a fourth of the population that Iran has long viewed as a source of concern over their secessionist potential.
One such manifestation of Iran’s generalized concern occurred as recently as March 3, when ethnic Azerbaijanis from within Iran itself paged Gunaz TV, a Chicago-based outlet servicing Iran’s Azerbaijani community, with a barrage of pro-Israel comments and criticism of the Iranian government. In a clip posted by Ahmad Obali, the show’s lead host, a caller said, “Whatever is good is said to be Israeli,” and referred to Iran’s mullahs as “miserable people.” In another segment of the show posted on social media, several different callers variously described Israel as a “friend” and “close brother,” showered praise upon Israel for its assistance in the Karabakh War, and even exclaimed, “Long live Israel!” One caller said, “Israel becoming a friend of Azerbaijan helps push the Iranian regime towards extinction.” Yet another said, “Whoever is against the Iranian regime is our friend!”
In the long term, then, Azerbaijan may have a strategic interest overlapping with Israel’s when it comes to countering Iran.
The Ceasefire Agreement and Turkey on the Anti-Iran Axis
To add to all this, Turkey may come to have direct land access to its “brother nation” of Azerbaijan through the Nakhchivan road, which would provide Turkey yet another border with Iran in addition to its current one, should the leadership in Ankara decide to pursue normalization with Yerevan. And with Azerbaijani-Armenian transit routes set to reopen under the agreement, there has been speculation that the path for Turkish-Armenian normalization might indeed open.
An additional Turkish land corridor to Iran would certainly be unwelcome news for the latter. Turkey and Iran have been on opposing geopolitical axes in the Syrian conflict and the general Sunni-Shia divide. Tehran is also fearful of Ankara fueling pan-Turkism among Iranian Azerbaijanis, who are no doubt invigorated by Azerbaijan’s recent success in Nagorno-Karabakh. This fear has been particularly exacerbated by President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan’s recent recitation of a poem at a Baku military parade celebrating Azerbaijan’s victory in the Karabakh War. The poem spoke of a united Azerbaijani motherland unencumbered by artificial borders. Ankara’s potential access to Iran’s border from Azerbaijani territory may escalate those fears, and at some point, perhaps even its realization.
From Israel’s vantage point, while relations with its once closest regional ally Turkey have deteriorated since the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, there is nonetheless a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” dynamic at play in regards to countering Iran. Even throughout years of Turkish-Israeli drama – Turkey financing Hamas, President Erdoğan proclaiming that “Jerusalem is our city,” exchange of social media insults between the nations’ leaders, and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in 2018 after having only renormalized full relations two years prior – Israel maintained a working relationship with Turkey.
In 2014, despite lacking bilateral diplomatic missions, trade between the two nations exceeded $5 billion, and a key area of mutual cooperation was in containing Iran. More recently, Erdoğan was reported in December to have tapped a future ambassador to Israel, which would end a nearly three-year standoff. Later that same month, despite rhetorically labelling Israel’s policy towards Palestinians as “unacceptable,” Erdoğan noted that the two countries continue to share intelligence and that Turkey would like better ties with Israel.
As such, Israel will take what it can get when it comes to countering Iran, which is, according to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “our main enemy.” If the Azerbaijani armistice agreement in a roundabout way leads to Turkey potentially further asserting itself against Iran, that just means Israel having one more power player working against its primary foe.
A Renewal Between Israel and Armenia?
Finally, the post-war conditions of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict may pave the way for normalization between Israel and the Republic of Armenia itself. On Oct. 1, 2020, Armenia withdrew its ambassador to Israel after inaugurating its embassy in Tel Aviv only a month prior. That development owes itself to Armenia’s historically strained relationship with Israel over its refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide and relationship with Azerbaijan.
The rationale Armenia provided for withdrawing its ambassador was the continued Israeli weapons sales to Azerbaijan amid the escalating conflict at the time. Notably, Israel had been conducting such sales for years. In spite of these transactions and Armenia’s cordial relationship with neighboring Iran, however, Armenia expressed interest in establishing a diplomatic mission back in 2019. This desire was further expanded upon when the country opened an embassy in Tel Aviv the following year. In light of this and the fact that there is no longer an active war between Armenia and Azerbaijan at play, it is not unreasonable to anticipate an eventual restoration of Armenia’s diplomatic mission to Israel sometime down the line.
The Array of Outside Players
It is important to pay attention to the array of outside players involved in this conflict and their maneuvering in its aftermath. Less clear than the potential benefits for Israel is how the roles of Iran and Russia will play out, for instance.
Iran has congratulated Azerbaijan on the “liberation of Shusha,” and has offered assistance in rebuilding war-torn areas of Karabakh recaptured by Azerbaijan. These gestures seem to indicate Iran being keen to display good faith towards its northern neighbor, perhaps in part fearing an emboldened pan-Turkic sentiment post-war and wanting more of a say at the regional table.
Russia for its part has acted as a peacekeeper, maintaining a consensual barrier between the Azerbaijani and Armenian fronts and facilitating the return of thousands of Armenian civilians to the region under its auspices. Nonetheless, as a country that has backed ethnic Russian separatists in Crimea and supported two breakaway states in the South Caucasus (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), there is no shortage of suspicions from the two impacted countries of long-term Russian intentions. Azerbaijanis fear indefinite Russian presence on their lands in addition to a perceived Russian bias towards Armenia, and even Armenians are weary of Moscow’s tentacles and influence within Armenian society after decades of Soviet presence.
But a standout in the collection of outside players is Israel. While it did not have any active interest in the Karabakh conflict during the nearly three decades of its existence, the 2020 war has brought about a range of potential (and likely unexpected) benefits. The next question is how those perquisites will affect broader regional dynamics going forward.