Iran is persisting in a strategy of courting deeper ties with Azerbaijan, as
growing military, intelligence and commercial ties between its northern neighbor
and Israel continue to be a source of deep concern to Tehran.
latest overture to Baku, its ambassador to Azerbaijan offered on Thursday to
establish a joint Iranian-Azeri Chamber of Commerce, with the aim of deepening
relations between the two countries, Azeri news agency Trend
The Iranian Embassy in Baku said that Mohsen Pak Ayeen had told
the head of Azerbaijan’s Chamber of Commerce that Iran also wants to develop
private sector initiatives in both countries.
In recent weeks, Iran has
made several gestures to Baku, including an offer to act as a mediator to help
Azerbaijan settle its 20-year conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and a proposal to
create a new customs checkpoint on the Iranian- Azeri border to facilitate
Notably, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin
Mehmanparast went on record last month at his weekly Tehran press conference to
say that ties between Azerbaijan and Iran were “good and extensive,” “based on
common ground,” and urged both countries to develop them further.
while Tehran has made sure to disseminate the message, including via reports in
its Persian, Arabic and English state media, that its relations with Baku are
warm, political, religious and cultural relations between the two countries
remain deeply strained.
After Azerbaijan gained independence from the
former USSR in 1991, Tehran watched with dismay as the predominantly Shi’ite
Muslim country declared itself a secular state based on the rule of law and as
it actively sought ties with the West.
Religious tensions between the two
states soared in May when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, which Iran
insisted included a “gay parade” and slammed as undermining Islamic
However, while Tehran has criticized Baku’s religious policies,
it has also gone to some length to publicly stress the two countries share an
Islamic heritage, even blaming disagreements on deliberate plots by Israel and
This month, Iran’s Azerbaijan ambassador Pak Ayeen accused
“enemies” of trying to “sow discord” between Tehran and Baku, saying that
relations between the two countries were “historical” and rooted in shared
Tehran’s ongoing attempts to overtly court its
neighbor also represent part of a strategy to counter Western and particularly
Israeli influence in the region. Iran is worried that Baku appears to be closer
to Jerusalem than to Tehran.
It is not a coincidence that Iran’s latest
offer of a joint chamber of commerce comes just weeks after Israel announced
plans for a similar venture, which it said would help Azerbaijan expand its
hitech industry and its medical expertise.
Israel has said that it and
secular Azerbaijan share a similar worldview. Both see Iran and the spread of
political Islam as an existential security threat.
A leaked US diplomatic
cable from 2009 described Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel as “discreet but
close” and famously quoted Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, as saying his
bilateral relations with the Jewish state were “like an iceberg, nine-tenths of
it is below the surface.”
Azerbaijan is certainly Israel’s strongest
Muslim trade partner, supplying a sixth of Israel’s oil.
Avigdor Liberman visited Baku in April to discuss bilateral
Although Azerbaijan has downplayed its relations with Israel
to avoid increasing tensions with Iran, Tehran has grown increasingly concerned
not least because of reports of growing Israeli military cooperation with
In February, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Azeri
ambassador to Tehran, Javanshir Akhundov, to a meeting with its deputy foreign
minister for Asia and Pacific affairs Abbas Araghchi, asking him to explain
reports of a $1.5 billion arms deal with Israel Aerospace Industries. Akhundov
was warned that Israel must not be allowed to use Azerbaijan for “terrorist
acts,” Iran's state media reported.
The arms deal reportedly included
Israel’s Green Pine missile defense radar and Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles: in
May, Azerbaijan conducted military exercises in the Caspian Sea, indicating it
is concerned about littoral security, perhaps in the wake of an incident in 2000
in which Iran claimed Baku was violating its territorial
Azerbaijan has also said it is building 60 Israeli-designed
Aerostar and Orbiter 2M UAVs, as part of a joint venture between the Azeri
Defense Ministry and Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems. Azerbaijan’s defense
industry minister Yavar Jamalov said Baku was also considering buying missile-
Iran’s concerns about Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan also come
after reports in September that the former Soviet republic has considered how
Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike against Iran’s
nuclear facilities. Officials in both countries have dismissed the reports as
Iran, however, believes Azerbaijan is covertly colluding with
Israel. In February, Tehran openly accused Baku of collaborating with Israel
over the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi- Roshan in
While Iran seeks to mitigate its concerns about Azerbaijan by
forging deeper bilateral ties, Tehran continues to pose a serious threat to its
Since Azerbaijan’s independence from the USSR, Iran
has attempted to subvert its secular regime via its Qods Force and proxies
Hezbollah and Azeri pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties.
Tehran also increasingly
uses Azerbaijan as a staging ground for its shadow war against Israeli, Jewish
and Western targets.
Iran’s porous 618-km. border with Azerbaijan has
made it relatively easy for Tehran to infiltrate terror operatives and weapons
into the country.
In 2012 alone, three Iranian terror plots against
Israeli and Western targets have been uncovered on Azeri soil, carried out by
either Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah or by local sympathizers.
January, Azerbaijan announced that three Azeri terrorists supervised by the
Iranian intelligence services had planned to attack domestic Jewish
According to a new report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and
Terrorism Information Center (MAITIC) the main target was likely Baku’s Or Avner
school and two Chabad representatives.
The three terrorists received
weapons – including handguns and a 7.62 caliber Dragonov sniper rifle refitted
with a silencer – ammunition and explosives from Iran.
Unrelated to the
January plot, last month a Baku court convicted 22 Azeri operatives of an IRGC
sponsored terror group of conspiracy to commit terror acts against Jewish and
American targets in Azerbaijan.
The Azeri terror agents were handled by
an IRGC operative named Hamid and a Hezbollah operative named Hajj Abbas, MAITIC
Azerbaijan has also accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps
extraterritorial Qods Force unit of plotting terror attacks in Baku during the
Eurovision Song Contest in May.