BAKU (IWPR)–The first visit by a president of Israel to independent Azerbaijan has caused a diplomatic rupture between Baku and Tehran, as well as highlighting warming ties between the Central Asian republic and the Jewish state.
President Shimon Peres made his official visit to Azerbaijan on June 28-29. The countries signed two agreements, on cooperation in the fields of science, education and culture and on information and communication technologies.
Israel has maintained an embassy in Baku since the early Nineties, shortly after Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union.
Baku has not yet reciprocated by opening an embassy in Israel. Nor have Israeli officials been invited to visit the overwhelmingly Muslim country until recently.
Boyukaga Agayev, head of South Caucasus Research Centre, said the Israeli visit had been symbolically significant as well as posing dilemmas for a state like Azerbaijan, which was Muslim but secular – and keen to have feet in several camps.
“Azerbaijan is a secular state but most of the population is Muslim and overfriendly relations with Israel might be misinterpreted by allies in the Organization of the Islamic Conference as a breach of Muslim unity,” Agayev said.
“This organization supports Baku in opposition to Yerevan,” he added, referring to Azerbaijan’s rancorous conflict with its neighbor Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh.
A separate problem was Iran – a regional partner of Azerbaijan in the OIC but a bitter foe of Israel. “Tehran actively objects to us opening an embassy in Israel as well as to the visit of officials from that country to Baku,” Agayev continued.
One day before Perez’s visit, Iran reminded Azerbaijan of its feelings on the issue, urging Baku to close the Israeli embassy and describing the visit of the Israeli head of state as an insult to the Islamic world.
Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, replied that Baku would do no such thing while Iran remained friendly to archenemy Armenia.
“Iran’s declaration about the need to close the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan is surprising,” he said, noting that Iran continued to “receive officials from Armenia at the highest level”.
After Iran’s protest failed to have any effect, Tehran recalled its ambassador to Baku, Muhammad Bagir Bahrami, “for consultations” while Perez was in the country.
Baku’s cool response to Tehran’s blustering reflects the fact that ties between Azerbaijan and Israel have become increasingly important for both countries.
The value of trade between the countries has risen to 3.6 billion US dollars annually, based on figures for 2008, substantially as a result of Azerbaijani oil exported to Israel through the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Political scientist Rasim Musabayov says Tehran has little leverage over Baku, as a result of the growing mutual interests between Azerbaijan and Israel over trade and energy.
“Israel is interested in a relationship with a secular Muslim country, which is at the same time an energy supplier,” Musabayov noted.
“Israel is also the third buyer of Azerbaijan’s oil in terms of volume.
“Meanwhile Israel wishes to export agricultural products and technology to Azerbaijan and, as it emerged during Perez’s visit, military equipment as well.”
The Jewish community in – and from – Azerbaijan is another link between the two states.
More than 30,000 Jews still live in Azerbaijan. During the Soviet era, that number exceeded 100,000. Those who have migrated to Israel are seen as lobbyists for the interests of Azerbaijan in Israel – a fact to which Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, referred during Perez’s visit.
“The Jewish lobby gives great support to Azerbaijan in international organizations and US,” Boyukaga Agayev said.
“The economic and political relationship [between the two states] makes the partnership of Azerbaijan and Israel inevitable – in spite of the possibly negative reaction of the OIC and Iran above all.”
Not everyone in Azerbaijan appreciates the burgeoning alliance between their country and Israel, however.
Some politicians and public figures strongly objected to Perez’s visit, especially those with religious sensibilities.
“Perez’s visit is appreciated very negatively from the point of view of Muslim unity, and as a Muslim I don’t want to host a person responsible for the recent Holocaust in the Gaza Strip,” said Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the Centre for Protection of Freedom Conscience and Religion.
The theologian was referring to Israel’s controversial military action against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“It is especially bad to do this at a time when Baku is claiming it is centre of Islamic culture,” Ibrahimoglu noted.
“That doesn’t mean I support Iran… I also oppose the fraternization between Tehran and Yerevan and [Armenian president] Serzh Sarkisian’s visits to Muslim countries. I am just against people and countries that act aggressively to, and terrorize, Muslims.”
The theologian insisted he was not motivated by any feelings of anti-semitism.
“Jews are my brothers and sisters; they are very wise and talented,” he said. “I don’t associate the whole of Israel with terror and Zionism just as I don’t associate all Muslims with Taleban and al-Qaeda.”
Opposition on the part of active Muslims to Perez’s visit to Baku did not develop into mass protests.
Even Nardaran, a religiously conservative Muslim suburb of Baku, where the population is very supportive of Iran – and where they frequently demonstrate this by burning US and Israeli flags – saw no disturbances.
Political scientist Rasim Musabayov said the lack of a response on the streets to the Israeli visit was not surprising.
“The support base within Azerbaijan for Iran’s position is very weak,” he said. “In any case, Azerbaijan is a secular country.”
As for the simultaneous arrival in Baku of Russian president Dmitriy Medvedev while Perez was also there, this was another warning signal to Iran to back away.
Concerning plans to open an Azerbaijan embassy in Israel, Rasim Musabayov is sure of one thing, “It will be opened even sooner if Iran continues with its negative campaign.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by IWPR’s Caucasus Reporting Service and the views presented in it are not necessarily those of Asbarez.