Azerbaijan: Israel's problematic energy provider

As Islamic extremists vie for authority, annual trade turnover between the countries stands at $1.3 b.

oil pipes 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
oil pipes 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A group of heavily armed Islamic militants plotting an attack on the US Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, was apprehended by the local secret services last week. The al-Qaida cell, supplied with weapons by an Azeri military officer, was planning a "horrifying terror attack against several state structures and embassies and missions of the countries which are members of the international antiterrorist coalition and other installations," the Azeri National Security Ministry said. Specific and credible threat information led to the apprehension of the terrorists and "prevented a wider terrorist plot," the US State Department said. The American and British embassies as well as British Petroleum offices (the oil giant operates two large oil and gas export projects in Azerbaijani waters that supply Western Europe) were temporarily closed. This week the FBI and the British Secret Intelligence Service offered to assist the Azeri National Security Ministry in locating and fighting other terrorist groups. Azerbaijan is one of Israel's secondary energy suppliers. Annual trade turnover between our two countries, mostly driven by oil, stands at about $1.3 billion. Several weeks ago, Minister of Strategic Planning Avigdor Lieberman arrived in Baku to meet with Azeri president Ilham Aliyev and a number of senior local officials. The meeting came six days before Aliyev met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Local media reported that the Israeli Minister and the Azeri leader discussed the issue of the Iranian nuclear program and cooperation in fighting terror, as well as the possibility of Azerbaijan establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Lieberman said he came to Azerbaijan to explore "mutual political and economic interests." In particular, Lieberman highlighted potential purchases of Azerbaijani oil and gas. To date, Azerbaijan does not have an embassy in Israel. Officials in Baku are foreseeing a boost in "energy relations" with Israel, along with purchases of natural gas. The Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum was one of the major points in the discussion of natural gas transport, highlighting a gas pipeline to Ceyhan on Turkey¹s Mediterranean coast and to Ashkelon through undersea pipelines or by tankers. But how reliable is this energy source today, when oil prices are skyrocketing, approaching $100 a barrel? Azerbaijan is valuable to the Muslim world as for its wealth of alternative energy resources: it is a Muslim country where roughly 75% of the population is Shi'ite, the rest Sunni. For a long time considered relatively immune to the militant Islamism sweeping the region due to measures taken during the Soviet times, the collapse of the Soviet Union has left Azerbaijan as a battleground for warring religious groups, sects and radical organizations. The central government managed to keep sectarian violence at a minimum for years, but after September 11 Salafi and Wahhabi preachers started flooding the country. Sunni and Shi'ite extremists compete for authority over a rapidly growing number of locals becoming religious. The upsurge in religious fervor is often attributed to the extreme poverty of the country, prevalent despite huge revenues from oil and gas. The majority of the competing religious leaders come from the Middle East or from battered Chechnya, boasting strong military training and experience. In recent years Azerbaijani authorities arrested and extradited several groups of foreign militants to Middle East countries. Six locals were jailed in 2005 for plotting terrorist attacks against national and foreign targets on behalf of al-Qaida. This year, several groups were apprehended for spreading prohibited militant propaganda and attacks on law enforcement officers. The last case took place at the end of September. Iran is also highly involved, closely monitoring its Salafi opponents' activities and sponsoring its own fellow Shi'ite militant movements. At the beginning of October a trial of pro-Iranian group ¬ "Northern Army of Mehdi" started in Baku. Group members were charged with high treason, illegal arms possession, illegal contact with foreign intelligence services and other crimes. Prosecutors claimed that Iranian agents financed the group that was supposed to act to "undermine Western and Israeli influence" in Azerbaijan. Rumors of US intentions to use this country as a bridgehead for a military attack on neighboring Iran, make Azerbaijan an even less viable source of energy resources for Israel. The countries of Central Asia constitute a viable option for Israel's energy diversification. Self-sufficient and energy rich Kazakhstan with its able security services and embassy in Israel just might be another option worth exploring.