Israel’s Iran Policy Alters NK Power Dynamics
by Jacob Zenn
Since reports emerged in February 2012 that the government of Azerbaijan has allowed Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, to gather information on Iran from Azerbaijani territory, the regional dynamics of the South Caucasus have taken on a new direction. This has indirect but important consequences for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which, despite being a bilateral conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is also the byproduct of geopolitics.
Geopolitical Overview of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’s Key Players
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has provided weapons to both primary stakeholders in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—Azerbaijan and Armenia. Corrupt Russian military commanders have sold weapons from the Soviet arsenal to both countries for personal profit, while the government in Moscow has sold weapons to both sides as a policy to maintain both countries’ dependency on Russia. This created a perverse incentive for Russia to fuel the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to weaken both Azerbaijan and Armenia and keep them within the Russian sphere of influence.
Turkey has close linguistic and ethnic ties with Azerbaijan, while Armenia continues to hold Turkey responsible for the Ottomans’ role in the Armenian Genocide in 1915, with Armenians demanding financial, territorial, and moral compensation from Turkey for the Genocide. Despite Turkey’s natural fraternity with Azerbaijan, both Turkey and Armenia would benefit from reconciliation and the subsequent opening of their mutual border. A final peace deal over Nagorno-Karabakh could serve Turkey’s interests by including craftly-worded language recognizing the Genocide and a provision that would to lead to an opening of the border.
Despite Iranian theocratic government’s Islamic ideology, it has often supported Christian Armenia over its Shi’a co-religionists in Azerbaijan. Iran has provided humanitarian aid to Azerbaijani refugees and fostered trade and economic relations with Azerbaijan. However, this has not come at the expense of abandoning its close economic and diplomatic ties with Armenia, which is likely a hedge against secular Azerbaijan and a deterrent to Azerbaijani desires to encourage secession among the 30 million Azeris in Iran. More than anything else, however, Iran wants to keep the U.S. role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process to a minimum and ensure that Israel is completely absent from the region.
The United States interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process relates to the security imperatives of the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which opened in May 2005, ensures that Azerbaijan and Georgia will integrate more with the West and supply oil to the West without Russian interference. At the same time, however, the Armenian lobby in the U.S. has prevented the U.S. from providing government support to Azerbaijan because of the provisions of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992. This has paved the way for Israel to filter state-of-the-art weapons to Azerbaijan that Azerbaijan cannot otherwise obtain from the U.S. The U.S. officially supports the “territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan, promotes diplomacy and opposes military force to solve the conflict.
Israel’s Emerging Role in the South Caucasus
Israel’s military overture to Azerbaijan in early 2012 has introduced a new dynamic to the geopolitical equation surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to Israeli Defense Officials cited in Haaretz, as part of a $1.6 billion arms agreement Israel will provide drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan. Iran alleges that Azerbaijan will return the favor to Israel by allowing Israel access to at least one military and four airfields on Azerbaijani territory and intelligence on Iran nuclear scientists whom Israeli “terrorists” have targeted in assassination in Iranian cities.
Both Israel and Azerbaijan deny that Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s alleged involvement in plots to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan, India and Georgia have any relation to Israeli-Azerbaijani bilateral military agreements. At the same time, statements by Israeli officials, including one by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in April 2012, show that Israel is respects the “territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan, therefore siding with the Azerbaijani position on a crucial point in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
As Israel and Azerbaijan warm up to each other, Iranian-Azerbaijani relations remain tense – as they have been for years – but would the government of Azerbaijan go so far as to abet an Israeli attack on Iran from Azerbaijani territory? Despite Azerbaijan’s allegations that Iran is attempting to subvert the secular Shi’a Aliyev regime in Baku and Iranian allegations that Azerbaijan is trying to incorporate the 30 million Azeri-Iranians in Iranian’s northwest into a future “Greater Azerbaijan,” it is unlikely that Azerbaijan’s weapons purchases from Israel would ever be used against Iran. It is also unlikely that Azerbaijan would allow Israel to embed its military and intelligence apparatus in Azerbaijan to such an extent that Israel would feel confident in attacking Iran from Azerbaijani territory.
If Israel were to use the airfields in Azerbaijan as a return point after an attack on Iran, thus obviating the need for mid-air refueling en route to Iran for which Israel’s air force is not experienced, Iran would retaliate against Azerbaijan as quickly as it would launch a counter-attack against Israel. The Aliyev regime, which has ruled Azerbaijan since Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991— first under father, Heydar, and now under son, Ilham— knows that Iran would overwhelm Azerbaijan in a confrontation between the countries’ forces. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s allies in the West would not prioritize protecting Azerbaijan in the event of a regional conflagration. Eliminating Iran’s nuclear facilities and defending Israeli territory would probably come first.
The unrest in the Arab World, in particular Syria which has a ruling regime that resembles Azerbaijan’s in persona and ideology, is enough to unsettle in the Aliyevs. Any further instability in the region, such as a war between Israel and Iran with Azerbaijan in the middle, would be not be in the Aliyevs’ interests. President Aliyev also stated during a Cabinet meeting in April 2012 that Azerbaijan will never participate in the military plans of other states against its neighbors or allow the use of its territory against its neighbors.
If not Iran, then who?
If the $1.6 billion in weapons that Azerbaijan has received from Israel is unlikely to be used against Iran, then against what other enemy could the weapons be used? In the case of Azerbaijan, Armenia is the only possibility. There is also precedent to Azerbaijan’s use of high-technology weapons in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In September 2011, according to Armenian sources, the Armenian army in Nagorno-Karabakh shot down an Azerbaijani unmanned drone aircraft and produced photos and videos of the wreckage as evidence.
In response to Armenia’s fears about a shift in the balance of power in Nagorno-Karabakh and Israel’s role in creating this new dynamic, Israel may be responding with a charm offensive directed at Armenia in other areas of paramount importance to the country – recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In April 2012, only one month after the Armenians made public their allegations about the alleged Azerbaijani drone, Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Orit Noked, visited Yerevan and laid a wreath at the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Credit for this is often given to Israel’s deteriorating relations with Turkey, which denies its responsibility for the Genocide, but the timing suggests that Israel may also be attempting to curry favor with Armenia by recognizing the Genocide more publicly, thus mitigating the damage caused to the relationship by the Israel-Azerbaijani military deals.
The major impact of Israel’s military relationship with Azerbaijan and conciliatory gestures to Armenia is that Israel has now placed itself among the key players in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, along with Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United States. The commonality between these five countries is that their interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict derives from their broader regional interests, which in the case of Israel is its concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The unfortunate consequence for the Azerbaijan and Armenia and the potential for a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that the conflict is becoming even deeper as a hostage to regional geopolitics, with at least five countries—including Israel—taking advantage of Azerbaijani-Armenian animosity to pursue their own interests.
While each of the five major geopolitical players have claimed a desire for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they are all complicating the situation. Azerbaijan and Armenia have struggled greatly to resolve their issues bilaterally, but this does not mean that more is better—having five more countries with a hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in addition to the two primary stakeholders is not necessarily a recipe of success, no matter how powerful and concerned they may appear to be.
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