FM Cohen meets Azerbaijani president to talk joint security challenges

Top diplomat looks to accelerate growing bilateral ties with Baku, which shares a border with Iran and supplies over 30% of Israel’s oil

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, April 19, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, April 19, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on Wednesday, the latest step in an ongoing and very public expansion of bilateral ties.

According to Cohen’s statement after the meeting, the two spoke about “our shared strategic regional challenges, especially regional security and the fight against terrorism.”

It is an open secret that one of the pillars of the relationship is Azerbaijan’s location on Iran’s northern border. Israel also buys over 30 percent of its oil from the Shiite-majority republic.

Cohen thanked Aliyev for opening Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tel Aviv last month.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the two officials discussed strengthening economic and tourism ties as well. Cohen brought representatives from 20 Israeli cyber, homeland security, agriculture, and water companies along with him, and a number of executives from Israeli companies already in Azerbaijan are joining the business forum Cohen is holding with Azerbaijan’s economy minister.

Cohen will meet with his counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov later Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, April 19, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

He is also slated to meet with the local Jewish community, before flying Wednesday evening to Turkmenistan to open Israel’s embassy in Ashgabat. Only 15 miles from Iran’s border, it will be Israel’s closest embassy to the Islamic Republic.

Cohen is slated to 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.

Talks to reinstate a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers restarted in April 2021 but have been stalled since last year and Tehran has forged ahead with its nuclear ambitions, prompting renewed threats of an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.

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.

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.

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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