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FM Cohen jets off for Azerbaijan, as alliance on Iran’s border flourishes

Israel’s top diplomat to meet Baku’s president, ministers in 3-day visit, alongside business delegation; before takeoff, he says aim is ‘unified front in face of joint challenges’

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 was slated to take off on Tuesday for a three-day visit to Azerbaijan, a key ally on Iran’s northern border.

Cohen will meet on Wednesday morning in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He will meet with his counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov later in the day.

Israel’s top diplomat is bringing a business delegation representing 20 Israeli cyber, homeland security, water, and agriculture companies along with him, and will host a business forum with Azerbaijan’s economy minister.

He is also slated to meet with the local Jewish community, and will land back in Israel on Friday morning.

Before flying, Cohen said in a statement that Azerbaijan’s geographic position on Iran’s border “makes our relations highly important and with great potential.”

Cohen added that he aimed in his visit to “continue to build, together with our good friends in Baku, a unified and resolute front in the face of our joint challenges,” as well as deepening cooperation on economy, trade, defense, energy and innovation.

Azerbaijan’s alliance with Israel has flourished in the wake of Israeli support for the country during its 2020 conflict with Armenia.

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)

Cohen announced he would visit Baku in March, when Bayramov visited to open an embassy in Israel.

Foreign reports have indicated that Azerbaijan 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 airstrikes 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 percent of Israel’s oil.

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 its neighbor.

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 in 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 his counterpart Zakir Hasanov, and President 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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