Azerbaijan Makes Massive Israeli Weapons Purchase -- But Not Because of Iran
Azerbaijan has agreed to buy $1.6 billion in weapons from Israel, a massive deal that is likely Azerbaijan's largest single arms purchase ever. The deal will include drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, Israeli officials have told news agencies. The deal would be almost equal to Azerbaijan's stated 2012 defense budget of $1.7 billion (though will certainly be spread out over many years).
The timing of the deal is misleading: regardless of the ongoing ratcheting up of tension between Israel and Iran, and increasing attention to Israel's intelligence activities in Azerbaijan, these weapons are destined to be used not against Iran, but against Armenia, which controls the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Though it's tempting to think otherwise. The AP reports:
Israeli defense officials Sunday confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries come at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.
Its most pressing concern is Iran's nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Iran from building bombs...
As Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.
Are Azerbaijan and Israel sharing intelligence about Iran? Certainly. Is Azerbaijan going to use Israeli weapons against Iran? No chance. Azerbaijan has nothing to gain by attacking Iran, or even by cooperating with an Israeli attack except in the most discreet possible way. As much as Azerbaijan has been building up its military, it's nowhere close to being able to deal with the Iranian military, and would be essentially helpless in the face of an Iranian retaliation. Azerbaijan's government doesn't trust Iran, but it's fear isn't of Iran's nuclear program, but of Iran's meddling in Azerbaijan's internal affairs. So it has little interest in stirring up the hornet's nest that would result from an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel is a valuable arms partner for Azerbaijan not because of anything related to Iran. Rather, Azerbaijan has a lot of money, and Israel has top-quality defense manufacturers. And Baku is restricted in what it can buy from the U.S. because of opposition by pro-Armenia members of Congress, plus the U.S.'s general desire not to inflame the situation in Karabakh. And it's limited in what it can buy from Russia because of Russia's alliance with Armenia (occasional missile defense sales notwithstanding). Israel has no such concerns.
An excellent Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable lays out the strong, but mostly quiet, alliance between Tel Aviv and Baku, including in the defense sphere:
Through its close relations with Israel, Azerbaijan gets a level of access to the quality weapon systems it needs to develop its army that it can not obtain from the U.S. and Europe due to various legal limitations, nor from its ex-Soviet suppliers, Belarus and Ukraine. Where other Western nations are reluctant to sell ground combat systems to the Azerbaijanis for fear of encouraging Azerbaijan to resort to war to regain NK and the occupied territories, Israel is free to make substantial arms sales and benefits greatly from deals with its well-heeled client. In September 2008 ) again in a little-publicized affair ) the GOAJ signed an extensive agreement with the Israeli Defense Ministry providing for three Israeli companies to provide mortars, ammunition, rocket artillery and radio equipment. The company "Soltam" got the contract to provide mortars and ammunition, "Tadiran Communications" will provide radio gear, and Israeli Military Industries will provide the rockets. IMI sells a range of rocket artillery and accessories ranging from upgrade kits for Soviet vintage BM-21 &Grad8 122mm systems, guidance packages for 122mm-300mm rockets and launch vehicles for up to 300mm rockets. It was not clear what exactly the Azerbaijanis bought, as the deal was simply described as being worth "hundreds of millions of dollars." Azerbaijan already operates IMI's 122mm "Lynx" multiple-launch rocket system, which it mounts on a KAMAZ 63502 heavy truck.
Israel and Azerbaijan also have been cooperating extensively on drones -- like the one that was shot down or crashed in Nagorno Karabakh in September.
But this would be a big jump from previous levels of weapons sales. And it's Armenia, not Iran, that should be afraid.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.