BY SHAHIN ABBASOV
A month and a half after Israeli President Shimon Peres’ trip to Azerbaijan, both Baku and Tel Aviv are keeping mum about reported plans for the joint manufacture of reconnaissance planes and satellites.
During Peres’ June 29 state visit, the first by an Israeli head of state, official mention of the deals was only made under the catch-all rubric of “strengthening ties” in the military sector. Representatives of leading Israeli defense industry companies — Aeronautics, Elta Systems, ELISRA and IMI — were among the delegation of 75 Israeli businesspeople that accompanied Peres to Baku.
Azerbaijani and Israeli media in July, however, reported that an agreement about production of such equipment had been signed during Peres’ visit. Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu, however, told EurasiaNet that he has no information about any military equipment deals with Israel.
Israel’s envoy to Baku has shown similar reticence. In an August 4 interview with the Russian-language Israeli news site IzRus, Tel Aviv’s new ambassador to Azerbaijan, Michael Lavon-Lotem, named agriculture and healthcare as the priorities for Israeli-Azerbaijani economic cooperation. No mention was made of the defense industry.
But in a July 2 article, IzRus, citing unnamed Israeli sources, reported that Baku has signed an unspecified “document” with the Israeli defense firm Aeronautics for the construction of a plant in Azerbaijan to manufacture reconnaissance and military pilotless vehicles. The daily Haaretz, a newspaper influential among government circles, quoted former Israeli Ambassador to Baku Arthur Lenk as saying that the deal took four years of negotiations.
Other forms of military cooperation are reportedly also in the works. Israeli Elta Systems, a defense electronics firm, will help Azerbaijan produce a TecSAR satellite system, which can take high-definition photos of ground surfaces in all weather conditions, according to IzRus’s sources.
Another joint project allegedly under discussion is production of a rendition of Israel’s 12-person Namer armored personnel carriers.
Such projects could be useful as Azerbaijan tries to shift its military to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards, commented Jasur Sumerenly, editor-in-chief of the Military-Azerbaijan news agency. Israel is known for its high-quality NATO-standard armaments.
“Because of the [Nagorno-] Karabakh conflict, NATO member-states refrain from selling large amounts of arms to Azerbaijan,” Sumerenly said. “Israel is among the few states which is willing to supply any amount of arms to Azerbaijan . . .”
Azerbaijan’s military, in fact, has used Israeli armaments for several years, Sumerenly continued. Almost all communication systems in the Azerbaijani army, for instance, are of Israeli or Turkish origin, he noted, citing unnamed military sources.
Two Israeli publications have provided further details. In August 2008, the magazine Military Review of Israel reported that Azerbaijan bought TAR-21 machine guns, Orbiter and Aerostar pilotless vehicles as well as 122, 160 and 300 millimeter rocket systems from Israeli suppliers.
One month later, in September 2008, Haaretz reported that the Israeli defense ministry had signed several contracts “worth hundreds of millions dollars” with the Azerbaijani government for machine guns with ammunition, howitzers, artillery/rocket pieces and defense communication systems armament. The newspaper also reported that howitzers and grenade launchers from a joint Israeli-Kazakhstani project would be supplied to Azerbaijan.
In both cases, the reports lacked clear sources. Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesperson Sabiroglu told EurasiaNet that he does not have information about any contracts with Israel.
Nonetheless, Sumerenly cautions that Israel makes up only a small slice — some “5 to 10 percent” — of the estimated $500 million – $600 million Azerbaijan spends each year on armaments. The bulk of Azerbaijan’s equipment comes from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. And with the need to purchase spare parts to keep that material in working order, that trend is unlikely to change, he said.
That low level of Israeli arms purchases explains in part why Iran, which strongly protested President Peres’ visit to Baku, has made no comment about Baku’s plans for future arms purchases from Israel, he continued. Ongoing domestic political turbulence within Iran plays a role, too.
After Peres’ visit, some political analysts believe that Baku can easily ignore any tough criticism from Iran about its Israeli military ties.
“The Peres visit showed that Baku is confident enough to pursue its own foreign policy without serious consideration of Tehran,” commented Rasim Musabekov said. [Rasim Musabekov is a member of the board of the Open Society Assistance Foundation — Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the Open Society Institute’s Central Eurasia Project, but functions separately from OSAF-Azerbaijan.]
Attempts at military equipment deals with Israel can be traced back to February 2007, when Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efrahim Snekh visited newly named Defense Industry Minister Yaver Jamalov to discuss prospects for cooperation. No details about the talks were released.
The relationship, however, has not been without its hiccups — at least for easy travel logistics between Baku and Tel Aviv.
In late July, the Israeli airline Arkia announced plans to start regular flights to Baku from Tel Aviv on condition that armed Israeli security officers would be on board the flights and would handle security for passengers boarding in Baku. Azerbaijan’s aviation regulatory agency AZAL has rejected the terms, calling them “inadmissible.”
An AZAL spokesperson said that talks between the two sides are ongoing, and that hopes exist that “the issue will be solved.”