Caught Amid a Clash of the Titans:
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Caught Amid a Clash of the Titans:

Is Karabakh the Next Stage in the Iran-Israel Proxy War?

The amount of Israeli-made weaponry used in the recent Four-Day War in April 2016 and the subsequent visits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Azerbaijan and Iranian President to Armenia give an impression that Yerevan and Baku are taking sides in the Israeli-Iranian rivalry. This is an ominous news for the region, against the backdrop of the Trump Administration’s Iranian policy, which seems to be reversing the brief détente achieved during Obama’s presidency.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan / Photo: Pan Photo

 

Israel-Iranian rivalry dates back to the Iranian revolution and has since evolved into a sort of proxy war in the Middle East, close to the borders of Israel, in which both sides have made use of paramilitary groups or regimes with questionable legitimacy.
Complex relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan caught up in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh just across the Iranian border could not avoid the attention of Israel, also in view of the fact that Azerbaijan has made its own overtures to Tel-Aviv. For Israel, Azerbaijan is a source of energy but it also serves as a gateway into the Turkic and Islamic world and can also be instrumental in disrupting Iran’s strategy in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Armenia’s interest in Israel does not generally extend beyond moral, political and humanitarian interest.
On the other hand, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have their historical, cultural and other ties with Iran. Azerbaijan’s ties with Iran is more complicated since most part of Azerbaijan’s believers are Shi’a Muslim, an ideology championed by the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. Both countries have their leverages of influence into each other’s home affairs along religious (in case of Iran) and ethnic (in case of Azerbaijan) solidarities.

An enemy’s friend or partner? Azerbaijan and Israel versus Iran
After the 1979 revolution, Iran started to seek a greater influence and has since vigorously competed for the position of leader of the Islamic world. Meanwhile Israel, whose very existence is verbally threatened at the highest level in Iran, seeks all possible means to neutralize and respond to those challenges and Iran’s neighborhood in the South Caucasus has proved to provide an opportunity for such an endeavor.
Israel’s ties with Muslim and predominantly Shi’a Azerbaijan, apart from pragmatic reasons, also carry a considerable amount of ideological charge essentially disrupting Tehran’s zealously promoted solidarity against what it calls the “Zionist regime”. Given the large presence of the Azerbaijani Turkic-speaking minority in Iran, Israel’s cooperation with Baku is a highly sensitive issue and is viewed as a thorn in its side by Tehran.
There is a cable on Wikileaks in which the Azerbaijani president reportedly said in 2009 that “bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel is like an iceberg. Nine-tenths are below the surface”. It was probably this statement that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan alluded to when he called Armenia’s relations with Iran “open and clear” during a reception of President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan in December 2016.

Azerbaijan has since been long viewed as an Israeli-friendly country in Iran, as Baku reportedly hosted Israeli intelligence units engaged in surveillance operations within Iran. It is also said that Azerbaijan hosts Israeli intelligence engaged in interception and other operations against Iran. It was said that a 2009 Iranian planned attack on Jewish sites in Azerbaijan was successfully averted thanks to the Israeli intelligence efforts. At the heyday of the West vs Iran rivalry under President Ahmadinezhad, relations between the two neighbors were rather sour, while Baku was capable of capitalizing on this, even at the cost of some diplomatic scandals, such as the case of the downing of an Israeli drone over Iran, which immediately pointed to Baku as the drone’s launching base.
The situation changed however, to some extent with Hasan Rouhani’s assuming of presidency, followed by the historic nuclear deal of 2015, which brought about a détente between Iran and the West but not with Israel.
Iranian officials even hint that Baku has stopped hosting Israeli drones engaged in surveillance operations over Iran. In his recent interview with the Russian RT TV channel in December 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Hosein Dehqan claimed that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev admitted to hosting Israel’s surveillance drones and promised to put an end to the practice.
This does not necessarily mean a complete end to such practices, it would rather mean that Baku will be more cautious in providing its facilities to Israeli surveillance. Azerbaijan-Iran tensions occasionally intensify and incidental low-key verbal shots are made from both sides.

“Business as usual”: Israeli weaponry in action during the Four Day war
Israel remains a major weapons dealer for Azerbaijan. The SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) Arms Transfers Database, which seems to be conservative in its estimates, clearly indicates that after Russia, Israel is the second most important weapons supplier for Azerbaijan in 2014 and 2015. It is unlikely that the trend will be reversed. According to the Jerusalem Post, Azerbaijan is Israel’s second largest market for weapons in Asia after India.
During the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev boasted of having bought five billion dollars’ worth of weapons from Israel. Earlier in October 2014, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Azerbaijan, meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart and also with President Aliyev.
The Four Day War in early April 2016 along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh was an escalation of unprecedented scale in which both sides used new deadly weapons and delivered strikes which were expected to have a profound psychological impact.
Azerbaijan, who bought large quantities of Israeli state-of-the-art weaponry, including Harop suicide drones capable of carrying 20 kg of explosives and equipped with live feed cameras, tested them with deadly effect, in one case blowing up a bus full of volunteers heading towards the front line. Two Armenian village mayors were among the dead, which Azerbaijan could mark as a small victory for the home audience. This was an opportunity for the drone manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to boast of its deadly efficiency, which they could not miss, also successfully circumventing possible ethical concerns.
Days following the incident, The Washington Post provided the world a view into the war in Nagorno-Karabakh when it published a photo of an Israeli manufactured suicidal drone exploding into a bus.
The Jerusalem Post recalls that a few days following the incident, during a visit to IAI facilities Israeli military journalists asked a spokeswoman 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 then be labeled “battle proven”, the paper wrote.
The Jerusalem post also said that IAI was reportedly the likely winner of a bid to provide Azerbaijan with a spy satellite worth $150 million, excluding the ground station and launching cost.

Silent diplomacy: The Armenian reaction to the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership
Referring to an Israeli “high ranking official”, Haaretz news reported that Armenia protested in early April to Tel Aviv over the sale of arms to Azerbaijan, whilst Armenian deputy foreign minister Shavarsh Kocharyan on 15 April denied the report claiming that the Armenian envoy in Egypt handed over a text of official protest. The Armenian diplomat did not deny that he met his Israeli counterparts, without elaborating or denying the reports by the paper, while the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not comment on it, Haaretz wrote.
Azerbaijani reports on plans to buy elements of the Israeli anti-missile system Iron Dome were initially played down by the Armenian defense minister. However, recently Armenian lobby organizations in the USA are seriously engaged in persuading the Trump Administration to try and pressure Israel to back down from its decision to sell weapons to Baku. Meanwhile, Armenian experts did not express too serious a concern over the possibility of the purchase, as according to them, the system was designed for small-scale warfare, with sporadic missile launches, typical of the conditions in Israel. It might fail to yield any serious results in the case of massive barrages or ballistic missiles, like Iskander, which Armenia proudly demonstrated during the Independence Day military parade held in Yerevan on 21 September 2016.


An Armenian-Iranian “umbrella” against drones
It seems that both Iran and Armenia have problems with the Israeli-made drones, which are occasionally capable of performing their combat tasks without being shot down. In the immediate aftermath of the four-day war, some pundits in Armenia suggested that Armenian and Iranian specialists could jointly investigate the fragments of the shot down drones and exchange information.
On the eve of his visit to Iran, Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan said that Armenia might seek state-of-the-art technologies for its defense beyond the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Most Armenian experts agreed that this was an apparent hint at Iran. Some important details of his comprehensive visit are not known to the public. However, most Armenian experts tend to believe that the topic of anti-missile umbrella was certainly on the agenda.


Unfriendly visits: New frictions following Netanyahu’s and Rouhani’s visits?

Tensions between Baku and Tehran somewhat increased following the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Azerbaijan, which was an unprecedented step also characterized as such by Israeli officials and most part of the media. It was no coincidence that Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s long expected visit was held days following Netanyahu’s visit, which was picked up by most observers.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said that Baku should have not hosted the meeting, in the meantime adding that “Azerbaijan is an independent state and it is its internal matter”.
Baku also replied with the same token when Qasemi’s Azerbaijani counterpart, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmat Haciyev commenting on Rouhani’s visit in Yerevan said that “Iran is an independent state, and this visit is a decision of the Iranian government” pointing out that Armenia is an enemy of Azerbaijan.
Iran also seems to hold certain reservations but at the same time tolerates Azerbaijan’s purchase of Israeli military equipment and technologies as long as they are not directly against Iran’s interest. Illustrating this point is Iranian Defense Minister Hosein Dehqan’s remark in the above mentioned interview with the RT stating that their “Azerbaijani friends” were told that “granting Israel access to the region will do them no good” and that “Iran will not tolerate that”. On the other hand, the Iranian official said that Tehran would not object to Azerbaijan’s moves, made with an aim of “achieving their goals and safeguard their national interests”.

What can be expected next?
There is little room for the expectation that Iran and Azerbaijan will be good friends in the near future. The new Administration in the USA which is set to dismantle a significant part of the progressive policy towards Iran built under Obama as well as the likelihood that conservatives could turn the tables at the upcoming election in Iran are solid indicators of the unlikelihood of such a scenario.
It is beyond a doubt that Israel’s rivalry with Iran will continue and under such circumstances Baku will probably use this to its advantage as part of its strategy against Armenia. In the meantime, this is a rather unsafe brinkmanship for Azerbaijan, particularly for Ilham Aliyev who could risk his own power given the complex social conditions and possible dissatisfaction which Iran might facilitate.
Under those conditions, Armenia will opt to continue to seek even closer cooperation with Iran in defense and security, especially in some specific matters like defense against Israeli-made drones. The role of this cooperation should not be overestimated given the restrictions on Armenia’s foreign policy choice, including dependence on Russia as well as the large presence of ethnic Azerbaijanis among the high-ranking officers in the Iranian army and security bodies, which could make such cooperation complicated.
Armenia has to reach out to Israel too, not only in terms of buying drones or technology, but also to attempt to influence Israeli politicians that their country should pursue a more responsible stance on the Karabakh conflict. It is true that this task is hard to achieve under the current Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who advocates for the expansion of ties with Azerbaijan and according to the Azerbaijani media, criticized Armenia over the escalation in April 2016. However, consistent activities in this direction could yield their results if not tomorrow, then a few years later.