Azerbaijan and Israel tout strategic ties ahead of Tel Aviv embassy opening

Baku Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov underscores importance of Israeli support during 2020 war with Armenia, as counterpart Cohen highlights Iranian threat

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) at a press conference with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem on March 29, 2023. (Miri Shimonovich/ Foreign Ministry)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) at a press conference with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem on March 29, 2023. (Miri Shimonovich/ Foreign Ministry)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem on Wednesday, as Baku prepared to open its first-ever embassy in Israel.

Azerbaijan’s alliance with Israel is a complicated one due to it sitting on Iran’s border, the same geography that makes it an enticing strategic partner for Jerusalem. The relationship has flourished in the wake of Israeli support for Azerbaijan during its conflict with Armenia.

“Azerbaijan is a strategic partner of Israel,” said Cohen, noting the close cooperation on “issues of regional security.”

Cohen will visit Baku next month, he announced.

Foreign reports have indicated that Baku likely allows Israel to use bases on its soil to launch reconnaissance flights over Iran and to send intelligence operatives into the country to disrupt its nuclear program. In case Israel does decide to carry out air strikes on Iranian reactors and plants, access to Azerbaijani bases would make that task far more feasible.

Azerbaijan’s most important contribution to Israeli national security, however, is oil. Bayramov said that Baku provides 30% of Israel’s oil.

Illustrative: In this image made from a video released by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on Oct. 9, 2020, Azerbaijan’s soldiers walk in formation on a road during a military conflict in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry via AP)

Not surprisingly, Cohen spoke about cooperation on the Iranian threat — which Azerbaijan would rather downplay publicly — while Bayramov brought up Baku’s war against Armenia, a somewhat uncomfortable topic for Israel.

“Israel and Azerbaijan share the same perception of the Iranian threats,” said Cohen. “The Iranian ayatollah regime threatens both our regions, finances terrorism and destabilizes the entire Middle East.”

After stressing Azerbaijan’s support for “peace and dialogue in the Middle East, ” Bayramov said that his country is “grateful to Israel for the support for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity during almost thirty years of illegitimate occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories by Armenia.”

Illustrative: Oil derricks in the background beyond the Bibi Heybat Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan, on March 3, 2006. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel, File)

“We appreciate the support extended to Azerbaijan both before and during the patriotic war in 2020,” he continued.

Israel stepped up its weapons shipments to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan emerged victorious in the six-week war with Armenia, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 soldiers and resulted in Baku regaining control over disputed territories.

Tensions with Iran spiked in the aftermath of the war, with Iran carrying out major military exercises on Azerbaijan’s border and escalating its rhetoric against Baku.

Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek lays flowers near destroyed buildings in the city of Ganja after it was hit by Armenian missiles, October 2020. (Courtesy of Israeli Embassy in Baku)

Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, George Deek, visited the site of a deadly missile attack during the conflict with Armenia. He told The Times of Israel that the gesture was “a turning moment” in the relationship. A picture of him laying red roses at the site was turned into an iconic image used in videos accompanying songs about the war, Deek said.

“Israel showed we were there with Azerbaijan at a time of need,” he said. “For them, it was proof of a real friendship. It was a hallmark moment in my diplomatic career.”

But Israel’s more tangible support came from the weapons it provided.

Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s leading arms suppliers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided 69 percent of Baku’s major arms imports from 2016-2020, accounting for 17% of Jerusalem’s arms exports over that period.

The Shiite-majority country has, in turn, supplied Israel with significant amounts of oil in addition to reported cooperation against Iran.

Iran, home to millions of ethnic Azeris, has long accused its smaller northern neighbor of fueling separatist sentiment on its territory.

Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azeri independence in 1991. It has had an embassy in Baku since 1992.

Illustrative: Then-defense minister Benny Gantz, on a state visit to Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022. (Nicole Laskavi/MOD)

In October, then-defense minister Benny Gantz made an official visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with his Azeri counterpart, Zakir Hasanov, and the country’s President Ilham Aliyev.

In December, Azerbaijan announced the appointment of its first-ever ambassador to Israel, less than two months after approving the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv.

At the time, Deputy Foreign Minister Azerbaijan Fariz Rzayev said that following his country’s decision to open an embassy in Israel, “the sky is the limit” for the two countries’ bilateral ties.

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