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Israel, eying Iran, seeks closer ties with Azerbaijan

Oct. 1, 2013 at 2:37 PM   |   Comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Israel is seeking to tighten its links with Azerbaijan, the oil-rich former Soviet Republic that borders Iran, to secure a strategic alliance that has already provided invaluable aid in the Jewish state's smoldering conflict with the Islamic Republic.

The expected re-election later this month of Azerbaijan's tough, pro-Western President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his like-minded, KGB-trained father Heydar in 2003, will be the icing on the cake.

The Americans, always looking for ways to infiltrate Iran, will likely be pleased as well since this arrangement gives them a way into Iran, a facility that will likely be useful as U.S. President Barack Obama strives to develop a rapprochement with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Over the last two or three years, Israeli and Azeri intelligence services claim they have thwarted several attacks by Iranian agents and their close allies, Hezbollah of Lebanon, to attack Jewish targets in Azerbaijan, including Baku, the country's capital on the Caspian.

These included alleged plots to blow up the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Baku in 2012. Tehran responded by accusing Azerbaijan of helping Israel assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.

Tension was heightened with a report -- denied by Tel Aviv and Baku – that Israel planned to launch air raids from Azerbaijan in the event of pre-emptive strikes against Tehran's nuclear program.

But there's no doubt that both governments are hostile to Iran and that the tension between them and the clerical Tehran regime is intensifying just as relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are becoming closer.

This suits the Americans, who piggyback on Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, to penetrate Iran through its large ethnic Azeri community. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hails from Iranian Azerbaijan.

The CIA can maintain surveillance, probably once removed, on the Iranians, and their nuclear and ballistic missile programs and engage in a campaign of assassination and sabotage intended to wreck, or at least impede, these programs.

Tensions have spiked in recent months. Although this is not exceptional, it could affect Obama's diplomacy.

With the Americans hoping for a new era of dialogue with Tehran, Washington will not want its efforts jeopardized by friction stirred by Israeli hardliners who suspect Rouhani's soft words hide a harsher reality in Tehran.

For Israel, its unfolding relationship with Azerbaijan, a Shiite Muslim country like Iran, has meant growing security cooperation against a common foe, a steady supply of Caspian oil and some lucrative military contracts.

That culminated in a reputed $1.6 billion arms deal in 2012 with state-run Israel Aerospace Industries that Israeli officials say included unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems.

That deal alone totaled 43 percent of Baku's arms expenditure that year.

In 2011, Israeli defense contractor Aeronautics opened a factory to produce military UAVs in Azerbaijan.

In return, Azerbaijan provides 40 percent of Israel's oil needs.

As Israel's Ynet outlet, the website for the mass-circulation Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot, observed, this took "sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran...

"Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state."

Tehran's unease at the growing Israeli presence on the Islamic Republic's northern border was heightened in May this year when Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visited Israel, the first of his rank to do so, much to Tehran's chagrin.

Israel opened an embassy in Baku in 1992, one year after Azerbaijan became independent of the collapsing Soviet Union.

Baku, mindful of antagonizing Iran, has yet to reciprocate, even though it wants to obtain diplomatic support from Israel and its powerful lobby in Washington.

The pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed that Azerbaijan feared that "Muslim-majority states in the U.N. would vote unfavorably on its conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region."

Israel has since its founding in 1948 sought to build alliances with states on the Arab periphery like pre-revolution Iran, Kenya and Turkey to break their isolation of the Jewish state.

Azerbaijan was a prime candidate when the Soviet Union disintegrated. But since Israel's strategic alliance with another Muslim state, Turkey, crashed in flames in May 2011, Israel has redoubled its effort to engage with Azerbaijan because both consider Iran a major security threat, despite Rouhani's charm offensive.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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