Israel's Hidden Backdoor to Tehran

Partnership of interests between Israel and Azerbaijan, on the Iranian border, is quietly flourishing.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Azerbaijani children at a memorial ceremony recently.
Azerbaijani children at a memorial ceremony recently. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

BAKU − Tuesday morning, thousands are marching in orderly groups in Azerbaijan’s capital to the Khojali monument. The length of the avenue are black-and-white photographs of women and children’s bodies. On a black marble column, a statue of a mother holding her baby, and each citizen lays two red carnations on the plinth. The Azeri nation has lived in the heart of the Caucasus, by the Caspian Sea, for two and a half millennia, but the state is very young, barely 21. Blood is a strong liquid cementing national foundations.

Last month, in a similar ceremony at the Martyr’s Avenue above the town, they commemorated 137 men and women who tried to block the Soviet tanks that came in 1990 to strangle at birth the stirrings of independence. Except for very short periods, this land has always been part of a Greek, Persian, Ottoman or Russian empire. The Khojali Massacre on February 26, 1992 has been all but forgotten outside Azerbaijan, but the murder of 613 civilians by Armenian militias aided by Russian soldiers in the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is a living and relevant memory for Azerbaijanis, and along with it a feeling of insult at the world’s indifference. For them the conflict that left nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory in Armenian hands never ended. Sniping is still a daily occurrence and fighting could break out again if the Armenians try to demonstrate sovereignty by operating an airport.

Israel and Azerbaijan have been building their alliance for nearly two decades, but the wide public has learned of it only over the last year, following reports of various kinds of cooperation. But for the Azerbaijanis, the alliance is another tool to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. They see Israel as an ally due to the historical ties between the Azeris and the Jews who lived among them, because of Israel’s technological know-how, and their belief in the mythical power of the Jewish lobby in Washington. They see the 100,000 Azerbaijani Jews who immigrated to Israel and the United States as their own Diaspora. They are prepared to sacrifice their ties with Iran, home to as many as 20 million Azeris, for the alliance with Israel.

‘Problem is Iran, not Israel’

“Iran doesn’t like our cooperation with Israel,” says a senior presidential aide, with evident satisfaction. “Many Israelis are Azeris and it makes it easier for us to work with them. Iran is the problem, not Israel.” Asim Mollazade, a former diplomat and member of Parliament spells it out. “Azerbaijan has a lot of Jewish friends and they help us in the U.S. It’s ironic that Muslim Azerbaijan is pro-Israel while Christian Armenia is pro-Iran.”

Israel and Azerbaijan maintain ties on a wide array of interests. Baku is a backdoor to Tehran; thousands of Iranian citizens walk the streets of Baku daily and next month, on Nowruz, the Persian New Year, tens of thousands will flow over the border to celebrate with alcohol banned in the Islamic republic. And not less importantly, there is oil.

Israel lost its main oil supplier, Iran, following the 1979 Islamic revolution and was forced to buy oil from as far afield as Norway and Mexico. Baku is the epitome of an oil town. In the backyards of many of the houses in the older neighborhoods there are still oil rigs pumping and the smell is heavy in the air. The first industrial oil drilling was near Baku in 1846 and the Azerbaijani oilfields were a main objective for Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in World War II. Overuse and the development of the Arabian oilfields caused a downturn, but from the end of the 1990s, following the discovery of new offshore deposits beneath the Caspian, Azerbaijani oil was back on the markets, bringing in hundreds of millions to the state coffers and the pockets of the family of president Ilham Aliyev. Israel quietly but greatly expanded its purchases from Azerbaijan, which became its main supplier, providing over 40 percent of Israel’s oil last year. The oil supply has another strategic aspect, as it is conveyed via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan ‏(BTC‏) pipeline through Georgia, to the Turkish shore of the Mediterranean, and from there a short tanker voyage. The oil’s passage through Turkey’s territory and port is lucrative for Ankara and has been the main sphere of low-profile commercial and strategic cooperation between the two countries despite the diplomatic crises. Murat Heydarov, a senior official in the national oil company SOCAR, confirmed this week that quiet talks had resumed recently regarding an undersea pipeline between Ceyhan and Ashdod Port.

“It makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The project was blocked following the incident, but now it’s been talked about.”

The “incident” is, of course, the deaths of nine Turkish activists during the takeover of the Mavi Marmara ship in May 2010. Israeli diplomats have noted that despite the closeness between Azerbaijan and Turkey, the breakdown of Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem have not affected the alliance and Azerbaijani officials have been trying to bring the sides back together again.

95 percent Muslim

But they are not trying to bridge the gap with Tehran. At least 95 percent of Azerbaijanis today are Muslim, the great majority Shi’a, but the country has a proud secular tradition going back to the 19th century. Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations, describes this as “positive secularism” and blames Iranian elements for trying to radicalize young people in mosques and schools. Baku, a town of 2 million Muslims has relatively few mosques and two synagogues, both rebuilt over the last decade with government funds. Outside the Ashkenazi synagogue is a permanent police booth, but the rabbi, Shneor Segal, says that in his three years in Baku, he has yet to notice even a hint of anti-Semitism, which is echoed by community leader Gennady Zalmanovich, who has lived here all his life.

So why the police? “It is clear we are a target for outside terrorists from Iran,” says Segal. Exactly a year ago, 22 terror suspects were arrested in Baku, suspected of being directed by Iran to bomb the Israeli and American embassies as well as offices of Western companies. But the biggest source of tension with Iran was the Eurovision song contest in May 2012, protested against by Iranian leaders who objected to Muslims participating in “the evil festival.”

Eurovision is a sore point in Baku. This was to be the great moment for the Aliyev regime, the night on which Central Asian Azerbaijan would become a member of the European family, the peak of a process in which tens of billions were invested in building skyscrapers, luxury hotels and shopping arcades with the most expensive brands. For the new construction, hundreds of old buildings were torn down, and in many cases the impressive marble structure is only a facade behind which the old Soviet building is still crumbling. Nevertheless, walking down Neftchilar Avenue, along the Caspian coast, it is hard not to be impressed by the Gucci and Armani stores and the top-end Mercedes and shiny jeeps racing by. Even the police have BMW patrol cars. But instead of acclaim, the regime received a flood of negative media reports on the dismal human rights situation, the lack of democracy and corruption of kleptocratic proportions.

Azerbaijan’s two decades of independence are divided between the presidency of Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB chief and Politburo member who died in 2003 and whose visage smiles down from every wall in Baku, and that of his son Ilham. Azerbaijan is the only country in the world which borders both Russia and Iran, but it has turned away from both neighbors to join the European-Atlantic group of nations. The damning reports and diplomatic denunciations following the beating of protesters and arrest of journalists have been for Azerbaijan’s leaders a deep insult, coming from the very countries he wants to be allied with. The West is very willing to buy Azerbaijani oil and natural gas while keeping Aliyev at arm’s length.

Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative reporter for Radio Azadlig who has uncovered many corruption cases at all levels of Azerbaijani society, including the embezzlement of millions from state funds by Aliyev’s family members. Unlike other journalists and political activists, she has not been imprisoned or beaten up. Her station belongs to the U.S. Congress-backed Radio Free Europe, which affords her a certain degree of immunity. Instead, a camera was planted in her apartment which filmed her in intimate situations with her boyfriend. A blackmail attempt was made to get her to stop publishing corruption stories, and when she refused, the film was posted online.

Ismayilova is a radical atheist but she doesn’t believe the country’s leaders’ sworn secularism, and warns its Western allies, including Israel, that “they should be more smart, because in the end it will be here like Iran. I am seeing dozens of Muslim shops selling headscarves opening and a petition to cancel the ban on hijab in schools attracted 130,000 signatures.” According to government figures, only 12-14 percent of Azerbaijanis are devout Muslims, but among those under 35, the proportion is double. “Iran is trying to interfere here,” says Ismayilova, offering the reminder that the 22 terrorists arrested a year ago were all Azerbaijani citizens who had been radicalized.

“But Iran isn’t the reason that larger numbers of people are swept up by religion and radicalism − [it is] because they have lost hope of anything ever changing,” she says. “It could become a huge wave which will sweep away all of Israel’s and the other Western countries plans.”

Anshel Pfeffer was the guest of Azerbaijan’s Trend News Agency.

Oil derricks are silhouetted against the rising sun on an oilfield in Baku, January 24, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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