Disenchanted with Barack Obama’s handling of the Ukraine crisis and Syrian civil war, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev became the first head of state to act on his change of heart and the quickest to distance himself from Washington in favor of Moscow and Tehran.
Its location on the Caspian Sea lends Azerbaijan high strategic value for the US. Yet for two years, Washington has been pulling away from the oil and gas-rich countries near or bordering China.
The administration has shown no inclination to take issue with Beijing over its policy of expansion in the disputed South China Sea and its rich natural resources as well as the Pacific.
There has been no US thought of pressuring China through President Vladimir Putin, who sees the Caspian as Russia’s backyard and makes no bones about showing his muscle there.
Russia, for its part, has been conducting frequent snap military drills ever since the Ukraine crisis erupted. One, by the Russian Navy, was launched on April 23 in the Caspian Sea. That drill lasted seven days with the participation of some 10 vessels and 400 sailors.
The Russian Defense Ministry has emphasized its stake on that water as one of the littoral nations along with Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, all of which are crisscrossed by oil and natural gas pipelines.
Israel stands to lose vital listening posts against Iran
For Israel, Azerbaijan is of equal, if not greater, strategic importance than it is for America.
As Baku’s biggest suppler of military hardware, Israeli-Azerbaijani arms deals have topped $4 bn in recent years. An Israeli plant for the manufacture of military drones also operates in Azerbaijan.
The intelligence-gathering bases Israel was allowed to build along Azerbaijan’s borders with Iran and in the Caspian Sea are critical for monitoring Iran as far as the north of Tehran, where several nuclear facilities and ballistic missile plants are located.
Jerusalem and Baku cooperate closely on intelligence. This partnership helps safeguard the regime of President Aliyev against Iranian subversion. Tehran has sought to be rid of him – both because of his strategic ties with Israel and Baku’s influence over the 23 million Azeri-Iranians, who make up a quarter of Iran’s population.
Most live either in Iranian Azerbaijan or Tehran, where many hold high office and wield influence in government and the economy.
Israel buys 20 to 25 percent of its annual oil consumption from Azerbaijan. So a rupture in Jerusalem-Baku relations would be a major strategic setback for Israel both financially and intelligence-wise.
Iran drafts memo for expanded ties with Azerbaijan
President Aliyev visited Tehran on April 9. This was his second, and most important, encounter with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
They first met in January at the Davos Economic Forum and used the occasion to open the door to a discussion of bilateral ties.
In April, Aliyev renewed his acquaintance with Rouhani and also met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials for a wide-ranging review of Iran-Azerbaijan relations, including cooperation in mutual capital investment, energy, transport, emergencies, information communication technology, infrastructure, culture, youth and sports.
But the real crux of their discussions, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report, was encapsulated in a draft memorandum of understanding which Iran’s leaders asked Alyev to approve. He promised to study it carefully and come back soon with his own comments.
These are the Iranian memo’s high points:
1. A reciprocal Iranian-Azeri commitment to refrain from subversion on the other’s territory by means of radical Islamic elements
2. Trade expansion between the two countries, with Iranian financial input in Azerbaijan to strengthen its economy.
3. Iranian mediation of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave embedded in Azerbaijan with an ethnic Armenian majority supported by Yerevan. Tehran has actively promoted good relations with Armenia to counteract Azerbaijan’s ties to the US and Israel.
But a change of accent may be now afoot.
On Monday, May 5, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was closeted with Rouhani in Tehran to work on the first steps towards reconciliation with Azerbaijan under the Iranian aegis. They decided to jump-start the process with prisoner exchanges between Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Tehran demands Baku’s cutoff from Washington and Jerusalem
The rest of the memo bluntly addressed Baku’s foreign ties with the US and Israel.
4. Azerbaijan undertakes to discontinue its security and economic cooperation with Washington, including their partnership in developing Caspian Sea oil fields.
5. Baku will withdraw its permission for Israel intelligence to operate from bases near the Iranian border.
6. Baku will discontinue its military cooperation with Israel.
7. The business activities of Israeli companies in Baku will be reduced.
8. Azerbaijan must ensure that its military and economic dealings with Turkey are not inimical to Iran’s interests.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Baku say Aliyev, after certain additions and changes, tends toward signing the document, under the negative impact in Baku of America’s handling of the Ukraine crisis.
While Azerbaijan is not at this time fearful of Russian invasion, Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine has give the Baku government pause to ponder where its best interests lie: with the friendship and economic benefits offered by Israel together with reliance on the US for security, or with cooperation with Iran coupled with a pledge to halt subversion against the Azerbaijani regime.
In the near past, relations were troubled: Iran backed extremist elements in Azerbaijan, giving rise to diplomatic protests and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats. Last year, Baku was forced to free a number of Iranian terrorists to obtain the release of several Azeri citizens, who were snatched as hostages during a visit to Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s Azerbaijani province.
Israel’s foreign ministry is making preparations to minimize the damage in the event of a sea change in President Aliyev’s political orientation.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spent two days in Baku from April 29, in an effort to put the brakes on his possible turnabout towards Tehran. He appears to have drawn a blank. The local press, usually warm and expansive toward high-ranking Israeli arrivals, ran only a brief mention of the Lieberman visit, while the Foreign Ministry website omitted its habitual reference to “dear guests from our friend Israel.”