By Rachel Avraham
In recent days, it was reported that one of Erdogan’s top advisors was in Israel to discuss President Herzog’s meeting with Turkey’s President next month and the potential for improved Turkish-Israeli relations. While Turkey’s desire to reconcile with Israel in recent months following the downfall of the lira is well-known, but what has been less reported on is Azerbaijan’s role in seeking the improvement of Turkish-Israeli relations behind the scenes in recent years.
Last year, Azerbaijani President Aide Hikmet Aliyev stated, “Turkey is a brotherly country of Azerbaijan and Israel is our strategic partner. We want our friends to be friends with each other. If the sides agree to such an initiative, then Azerbaijan will always welcome them.” In the past, Azerbaijan offered to hold a trilateral summit, which would advance the relationship between the three countries.
In an exclusive interview, prominent Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar stated that he believes that the close relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan has had a positive effect on developments in the region: “The relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are due to a shared feeling of danger. They share the same dangers and fear the same things, so they cooperate. Iran has threatened both Azerbaijan and Israel.”
According to Dr. Kedar, “As you know, Azerbaijan was divided between the tsarist Russia and Iran. The ancient capital of Azerbaijan is Tabriz, which is now in Iran. The Azerbaijani nation was occupied for many years till the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Azerbaijan became an independent republic, while the other part of the Azerbaijani nation is still under Iranian occupation. Many Azerbaijanis in Iran want to join their brethren in Northern Azerbaijan. They want to be liberated from the Iranian occupation. However, a part of the Azerbaijanis who live in Iran do want to stay in Iran. In order to support them, Iranian authorities encouraged the Azerbaijanis to stay within Iran by giving them very prestigious positions in the government.”
“The Iranians suspect all the time that Azerbaijan seeks to provoke the Azerbaijanis in Iran in order to persuade them to rebel against the occupation so as to gain independence and join their brethren in northern Azerbaijan,” he added, indicating that it is forbidden to teach the Azerbaijani language in Iranian schools and that protests in solidarity with Azerbaijan were barred during the Second Karabakh War, while protests in favor of Armenia were permitted to proceed unhindered.
Furthermore, for decades, Iran has supported Armenia in the Karabakh conflict, even going as far as to transform Azerbaijani mosques into Iranian mosques and to purchase materials that the Armenians looted during the First Karabakh War. Indeed, Iran may have been one of the main economic beneficiaries of the Armenian occupation of Karabakh. They also militarily and economically propped up Armenia for years, as the country was under a blockade.
However, because Azerbaijan became a much stronger country following the Second Karabakh War and cracked down on Iranian truck drivers who crossed into Karabakh illegally, which led to an escalation along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, the Islamic Republic of Iran considered it prudent to attempt a rapprochement with Baku, understanding that they don’t have the strategic might to stand up to Azerbaijan at this time.
For years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has invested in building a Shia Crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea that encircles Israel, yet this came at the expense of their influence closer to home in the Caucuses. As a result, Iran was forced to sit back and watch, as Azerbaijan built a stronger relationship with Israel and encouraged the Abraham Accords, alongside Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. They also were rendered helpless, as Turkic influence expanded in the region at the expense of Persian influence.
For this reason, Iran was forced to change strategies. So, they permitted Azerbaijani chess players to compete in Iran. The Iranians signed an energy deal with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. They also decided that a border bridge will be built between Azerbaijan and Iran; allowed Azerbaijan and Iran to resume direct flights; and Iranian companies have even expressed a desire to participate in the reconstruction of Karabakh. At a time when the world sanctions Iran over its nuclear program, their ally Armenia is significantly weakened, and they are in a power struggle against Israel, the Gulf states, and the United States, the Iranians cannot afford to confront Azerbaijan too at this time, so they backed off in their aggressive stance against Baku, at least temporarily, although that can be reignited at any moment.
The fact that Tehran has backed off at least for now, regarding their aggressive stance against Baku just shows how much Tehran was intimidated by the existence of strong Azerbaijani-Israeli relations and how Jerusalem was able to change the dynamics in the region by providing Azerbaijan with the military equipment that they needed to win the Second Karabakh War. Tehran became weaker in the Caucuses and came to understand that it needed to halt its aggression against Baku or be further weakened.
Thus, as a result of strong Israeli-Azerbaijani relations, Iran was forced to contain its aggression in the Caucuses, and perhaps Israel will be able to reconcile with Erdogan’s Turkey as well, thus further strengthening the State of Israel in the region. (To learn more about this issue, you can attend Dr. Kedar’s and former Minister Ayoob Kara’s talk at the Begin Center on February 28th at 7pm.)