Intelligence: Israel and Azerbaijan - the odd couple

Israel’s relations with Shi’ite Muslim Azerbaijan are going from strength to strength, as illustrated by the appearance of Israeli weapons in recent clashes over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

MEMBERS OF Israel’s Armenian community protest against the selling of Israeli weapons to Azerbaijan outside the foreign ministry in Jerusalem yesterday. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
MEMBERS OF Israel’s Armenian community protest against the selling of Israeli weapons to Azerbaijan outside the foreign ministry in Jerusalem yesterday.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The late Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, was known to be a great traveler. Years ago he went on a trip to central Asia and visited Azerbaijan. Knowing that he was an avid chess player who considered himself to be “not a bad player,” his hosts took him to a local chess club and invited him to play simultaneously against a group of teenagers. Dagan was defeated by all of them. His Azeri hosts were embarrassed. They didn’t want to humiliate a distinguished guest from a friendly country.
Indeed, relations between the two countries are excellent and getting better against the backdrop of the renewed cycle of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Israeli- made weapons were seen used by the Azeri army in the battlefield. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev sees it as “strategic alliance,” and so it is perceived in Israel, too.
Seemingly, Israel and Azerbaijan are an odd couple, not meant to be with each other.
Azerbaijan is a predominantly Shi’ite nation. Though it has elections, it is not really a Western democracy, and since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, it has been run by the same family, the Aliyevs, who are accused of corruption and suppressing free and independent media. Investigative journalists are harassed and jailed.
On the other hand, Israel is not too selective in choosing friends when it comes to weapons sales and national interests. A quick look at the map can explain Israeli priorities.
Azerbaijan borders four counties, including Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy. It is a major oil producer and is ready to invest a large portion – 5 percent – of its GDP in the military.
According to foreign reports, the Mossad runs a big station in Azerbaijan, taking advantage of the geography.
Iranian officials have accused their neighbor of allowing Israeli intelligence to carry out from Azeri territory espionage missions which include recruiting and planting agents, communication interception and aerial reconnaissance. More than a year ago Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli-made drone. Israeli officials have refused to comment on the reports.
Yet it was Aliyev himself who was quoted in a WikiLeaks cable sent from the US Embassy in Baku that “bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are like an iceberg. Nine-tenths are below the surface.” Another WikiLeaks document from 2007 showed more frankness and openness expressed by Arthur Lenk, an Israeli ambassador in Baku. He told the US ambassador that the two countries have a security agreement, and that one of Aliyev’s assistants during a visit to Israel met with Israel’s deputy defense minister and “Mossad officials.”
In 2009, Azeri security services exposed a joint plot designed by Iranian intelligence and Hezbollah to target the Israeli Embassy and Jewish sites in Baku. It was part of their attempt to avenge the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” a year earlier, which was attributed to the Mossad.
Tips from the Mossad to its Azeri counterpart foiled the conspiracy and helped to arrest a few suspects, while others managed to escape to Iran.
The joint fight against terrorism is just one factor strengthening the relations between the two countries.
Another manifestation of how the alliance is prospering can be seen in the annual trade, which is $5 billion larger than between Israel and France. Most of the content remains confidential, and consists of Azeri oil sold to Israel and Israeli weapons and intelligence technologies purchased by Azerbaijan. The best promoters of the military sales and ties are Israeli ministers and officials who visit the Caucasian nation.
Most recently it was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who went to Baku in October 2014 and met with his counterpart but also with Aliyev.
The security and intelligence ties began modestly. In the ’90s Israel sold light weapons, mortars and ammunition worth only a few million dollars, while Israel Aircraft Industries (now renamed Israel Aerospace Industries) maintained the aircraft fleet of Azerbaijan Airlines. But in recent years, according to foreign reports, the volume of weapons sales has expanded to billions, which would make Azerbaijan the second- biggest market in Asia, after India, for Israeli weapons.
According to the French newsletter Intelligence Online, Israeli sales include drones, ground stations, control and command posts and advanced intelligence equipment.
It was also reported that IAI was the first bidder to offer Azerbaijan a spy satellite, worth $150 million excluding the ground station and the launching cost. Later, American, French and Russian companies joined the bidding, but experts assume that the Israeli company still has the best chance to win the contract, because of the intimate relations between the two countries. The French publication also reported that Haifa-based Israel Shipyards has an advantage over its French and other competitors to win the contract to build 12 light vessels for the Azeri Coast Guard.
This week The Washington Post enabled the world to have a peeping window into the secret relations when it published a photo of an Israeli- made “suicidal drone” exploding itself on a bus leading Armenian combatants to the front lines. Seven people were killed, and the Armenian government protested to Israel. The drone, called Harop, is just one model in a line of drones that can carry cameras and be recalled to ground by their operators but also are equipped with up to 20 kilograms of explosives which the operator can guide to collide with the target and detonate it.
This week, a few days after the incident, Israeli military journalists visited IAI facilities and were briefed on the various products, from drones to satellites, which the company has to offer. An IAI spokeswoman was asked if the company was behind the Washington Post revelation. She refused to answer but openly smiled when one reporter commented that such a photo is good for business and promotes sales of products that can be labeled “battle proven.”