First Shi'ite country: Azerbaijan’s historic speech at AIPAC conference

Recorded history shows that Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,600 years; an estimated 30,000 currently live there.

THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan. (photo credit: AZERTAC)
THE FLAME Towers in Baku are a symbol of the new and independent Azerbaijan.
(photo credit: AZERTAC)
WASHINGTON - The country of Azerbaijan carved out a historic role for itself by being the first majority Shi’ite country to have a cabinet level minister on Sunday deliver a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference to advance the troika of relations among the Caucasus nation, Israel and the US.
Samir Sharifov, the Azerbaijani finance minister, told a packed AIPAC crowd that "Cooperation with Israel is not limited to oil supply, we are interested in widening cooperation in defense and transfer of technology. “
He noted that Israel’s one of the few "states that supported in Azerbaijan in need, with armaments.”
In a second act of cutting edge history, Sharifov read remarks from Mehriban Aliyeva, the first vice president of Azerbaijan. “It is gratifying that our former compatriots of Jewish origin, living nowadays in the United States and Israel have maintained close ties with Azerbaijan and contribute to the strengthening of our relations with these countries, we are much grateful to them.”
She delved into the history of Jews in Azerbaijan, noting “Azerbaijan had also embraced thousands of Jews who tried to escape Nazi oppression during World War II and became a second home for them.”
Recorded history shows that Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,600 years. There are an estimated 30,000 Jews currently living in Azerbaijan.
“At the time of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920—the first parliamentary democracy in the Muslim world, the Jewish community actively contributed to the development of the country," said Aliyeva.
Azerbaijan, which secured its independence in 1991,  just reached the 10 million population mark, said Sharifov.
The glasnost—or opening of relations among Arab nations and Israel—remains part and parcel of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy.
“Azerbaijan  is very important for the recent trend in relations between Arab states and Israel,” said Sharifov.
Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the US, told The Jerusalem Post that “It is very significant that a cabinet minister is speaking to the Jewish community- this shows the level of partnership we have with the Jewish people.”
He noted that there is "no reason to hide it [relations with AIPAC and Israel]. Our relationships are always transparent and positive and based on mutual interests. They are never against anybody else." In a broad-ranging interview with the ambassador, Suleymanov said "Both Turkey and Israel need each other in the region."
Azerbaijan borders Turkey, Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Turkey and Israel maintain frosty relations. Iran’s regime is considered Israel’s greatest security threat.
He noted that "The example of Azerbaijan's relations with Israel breaks the ice" between Arab countries and Israel.
For  Suleymanov there are “Two litmus tests" for relations for any society in general:
"Radicalsim begins from Antisemitism because it what is bad to the Jews will spread to others. Azerbaijan is proud that we have never had any antisemitism in our history.
"The role of women" and how women are treated. This is why Azerbaijan emphasizes the role of women and granted women the right to vote in 1918, before the US."
In response to a Jerusalem Post  question about possible backlash from Turkey and Iran in connection with AIPAC, the ambassador said that "We openly do what we do. There should not be a backlash. Azerbaijan's foreign policy is not aimed against anyone. We have strong, fraternal relationship with Turkey, we are neighbors with Iran.
"Azerbaijan played a role in the ice breaking of relationships between Arab countries and Israel," said the high-energy ambassador.
In response to an AIPAC tweet, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, George Deek, tweeted that “The friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan continues to grow stronger, deeper and more open. Thank you Minister of Finance Sharifov for demonstrating the mutual commitment to our strategic relationship.”
AIPAC tweeted that “We are proud to welcome the Finance Minister of Azerbaijan Samir Sharifov to speak at AIPAC 2020 this afternoon.  Azerbaijan is a Shia Muslim country with close ties to the United States and Israel.”
Dr. Brenda Shaffer, an international expert on Azerbaijan and the greater Caspian Region, told the Post that “Azerbaijan’s open ties with Israel and presence at AIPAC opens the door and helps facilitates open ties between Israel and other Muslim countries.
Dr Avinoam Idan, Senior Fellow, The Chaikin Institute of Geostrategy &Research Center for Maritime Strategy, Haifa University, told the Post that the minister’s presence  at AIPAC “is something that is very significant," adding that it is “another expression of their view about Azerbaijani people and the Jewish world. And Israel.”
Idan, who is expert on Azerbaijan, said the country is in a “problematic location  between Iran and Russia. “
He said the "It shows to everybody that they [Azerbaijanis] are not hiding this special relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan.”
Idan said “They [Azerbaijan} take the risk, they are willing to pay any price, to be under pressure from their neighbors. I am sure they had to think about it a lot.  I am sure it was a decision of the president [Ilham Aliyev].”