Azerbaijan in the Crosshairs of the Iran-US-Israel Conflict

The recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, allegedly at Iran’s behest, suggest that America’s oil-exporting allies need to brace themselves for attacks on their own energy infrastructure. By this logic, Azerbaijan, an oil and gas producer that has been assiduously cultivating strong relations with both the US and Israel, would be a prime target. However, Baku has managed to sidestep this possibility with a delicate diplomatic balancing act in its relations with the US, Israel and Iran. Nonetheless, as tensions between those three countries escalate, Azerbaijan may be compelled take sides and might become a new site for conflict between Iran and the US-Israel alliance.

Azerbaijan’s post-independence security imperatives have led it to embrace strict secularism at home and a pro-Western orientation in its foreign policy. With its arch-foe Armenia allied to Iran and Russia, Azerbaijan chose to pursue close defense relationships with Turkey, NATO and Israel.

In 2016, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, announced the purchase of $5 billion worth of Israeli defense equipment, including drones, missiles and boats. Today, Azerbaijan is the third-largest customer for Israel’s military exports, while Israel is the second-largest customer for Azerbaijan’s oil. An Israeli company has reportedly even constructed an underground command-and-control center for Azerbaijani intelligence in Baku.

In return, Israeli intelligence was allegedly given access to Azerbaijani air bases to keep tabs on Iran, although the Azerbaijani authorities have denied this vehemently. If Israel were to attack Iran, Israeli jets could land at the Azerbaijani bases instead of having to refuel mid-air and return to Israel. Both countries remain circumspect about the exact nature and depth of their ties. However, a leaked US State Department memo quoted President Aliyev as comparing his country’s relations with Israel to an iceberg: “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”

Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran, in particular, were fraught throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with Iranian political leaders either making revanchist claims to Azerbaijani territory or calling for Azerbaijanis, the majority of whom are Shia, to overthrow their secular government and adopt Iran’s political model instead.

On the other hand, politicians in Azerbaijan urged ethnic Azeris living in northwest Iran to secede from Iran and join their ethnic cousins in the north. Iran and Azerbaijan came dangerously close to a military conflict in the Caspian Sea in 2009 over their disputed maritime borders. As recently as 2011, an Iranian major-general publicly castigated Azerbaijan for turning itself into an Israeli outpost and made veiled threats about fomenting instability within the country.

Since then, however, and with the coming to power of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran in 2013, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have markedly improved. Iranian companies are massive investors in Azerbaijan, while Iranians and Azerbaijanis are among the top visitors to each other’s countries. Both have also successfully fixed their maritime border in the Caspian Sea (although this has yet to be ratified by Tehran), which is reassuring to any international oil and gas company keen to invest in Azerbaijan’s offshore energy industry.

Nonetheless, this could unravel rather quickly if Tehran begins to view Azerbaijan not as a neutral neighbor, but rather as an Israeli surrogate in the Caucasus. For the Iranians, the picture looks disquieting. Azerbaijan’s military chief visited Israel in October 2018 to strengthen defense ties between both countries. Moreover, recent reports of Israel spying ion Iranian nuclear facilities using spy drones launched from bases in Azerbaijan will surely have set alarm bells ringing in Tehran.

If Iran were to become convinced that Azerbaijan has dropped its balancing act, it has a whole range of strategic tools at its disposal to not only stir up trouble within Azerbaijan but also to upset global energy markets and effect broader geopolitical ramifications. The Azerbaijani government routinely grapples with militant opposition, chiefly from Shia groups that are ideologically aligned with Iran. For its part, Iran could intervene on behalf of its disaffected co-religionists in Azerbaijan, as it previously did in the 1990s. Indeed, Iran’s strategy of proxy warfare – financing and training local militias in the Middle East – could very well be replicated across the Caucasus.

As the starting point of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Azerbaijan is key to America’s plans to wean Europe off its dependence on Russian energy exports. Iranian-sponsored attacks on Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, whether in the Caspian or on oil and gas pipelines traversing unstable southern regions of Georgia, could severely compromise these plans and end up benefiting Russia. In any case, Russia and Iran both remain implacably opposed to energy infrastructure investments around the Caspian Sea that circumvent their territories.

It is worth noting that Iran is the only country that has still not ratified the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea (CLSCS), signed last year by states with Caspian Sea shorelines to demarcate their respective maritime borders. This may be Tehran’s strategy of forever keeping Azerbaijan’s economy and maritime security dependent on Iran’s sufferance, so long as Baku retains close ties with Tel Aviv.

Over the last two years, the US has quietly given Baku more than $100 million in military aid to boost its maritime defenses. It seems that American policymakers have started preparing for the distinct possibility that tensions between Iran and the US-Israel alliance may blow over to the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.