The seven hours that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to spend in Azerbaijan on Tuesday are raising the ire of that majority Shi’a Muslim country’s immediate neighbor to the south: Iran.
An Armenian website, Panorama, reported on Monday that Iran considers Netanyahu’s visit objectionable, with a top Iranian cleric, Sayed Mehdi Ghoreishi, telling reporters, “It is unacceptable when a Muslim country tries to develop ties with a perpetrator. The Azerbaijani authorities must take this into account, as it is unacceptable for the Muslim society.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to Baku for a meeting with President Ilham Heydar Aliyev, followed by a meeting with the local Jewish community, before flying in the evening to Kazakhstan for a day of meetings there on Wednesday. He is scheduled to leave Kazakhstan for Israel on Thursday morning.
Netanyahu last met Aliyev on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos last January.
Israel has a strong economic and security relationship with Azerbaijan, buying more than a quarter of its oil from the country.
It is also reportedly one of Azerbaijan’s largest weapons merchants.
By virtue of its location on the doorstep of Iran, Azerbaijan has a great deal of strategic significance for Israel, something definitely not lost on Tehran.
Sayed Hassan Ameli, another top Iranian cleric, was quoted on the Panorama website saying that Azerbaijan is important to Israel because it is Iran’s neighbor, not for economic or military reasons.
The Iranian news agency MEHR reported that a march in the Iranian city of Tabriz was held on Friday denouncing Netanyahu’s trip to Azerbaijan, and demanding that Baku cancel it.
Iran’s Tasnim News Agency quoted Iran’s former ambassador, Mohsen Pakayeen, as saying the visit “contravenes Azerbaijan’s commitments to the Islamic community.”
According to the agency, “Pakayeen said the Republic of Azerbaijan, as a member of the Islamic community, should remain committed to Muslim nations’ agreements on the prohibition of any ties with Israel or any measure that would break the isolation of the Zionist regime.”
Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Hossein Amir Abdollhaian, senior adviser to Iran’s speaker of the parliament, as saying that Netanyahu was trying to “hatch new plots” by his visit. “The upcoming visit of Netanyahu to Baku should be regarded as a new conspiracy for the region,” he said.
This will be Netanyahu’s second visit as prime minister to Baku. He visited there for a few hours in 1997 and met with Aliyev’s father, then-president Heydar Aliyev.
There have been a number of high level Israeli visits to Baku since then, including three trips by Avigdor Liberman when he served as foreign minister, one by president Shimon Peres in 2009, and one by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon in 2014.
Following his 2012 trip to Baku Liberman said, “Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France,” also commenting at the time that Israel did more trade with Azerbaijan than with France.
Ya’alon’s visit was the first by a defense minister and underlined security ties between the countries.
Azerbaijan’s leading newspaper, Yeni Musavat, reported on Monday that Israel was one of Azerbaijan’s main strategic partners and arms suppliers.
The paper said that in recent years, cooperation in this area was “growing both in terms of quality and in terms of quantity.”
The report claimed that Azerbaijan and Israel have agreed on the joint production of drones that “proved to be successful” in clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in April. In addition, the paper said it had information that Israel will sell Iron Dome air defense batteries to Azerbaijan.
Israel is the country’s second largest military supplier after Russia, the paper said.
A hacked cable on the Wikileaks website from the US embassy in Baku in 2009, quoted Aliyev as saying that the Israeli-Azerbaijani bilateral relationship is like an iceberg, ninetenths of it below the surface.
“Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are based strongly on pragmatism and a keen appreciation of priorities,” read the cable, written by Rob Garverick, a political and economic counselor in America’s Baku embassy at the time. “Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country, and as a market for military hardware.” Both countries, he said, view Iran as an “existential threat.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said that a tax and agricultural agreement will be signed during the visit. The Azeri News Agency APA quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the Palestinian issue will also be discussed, adding, “In keeping with international law and UN documents, Azerbaijan has always stated its support for Palestine’s position.”
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