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Sergey Markedonov
Israeli interests in the South Caucasus

            In today's international politics it is probably impossible to find a more topical problem than the bilateral Iranian-Israeli relations. The possibility of a military clash involving the two countries is actively discussed among influential policymakers and experts. Even the date of the possible onset of armed confrontation has become the subject of such discussions. To what extent can the escalation of tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv influence on the situation in the South Caucasus? And what importance does this region have for the Israeli foreign policy? This problem is much less studied than the Iranian interests in the former Soviet Union area.


          The Caucasus region for many years was not among the priorities of the Israeli foreign policy. So it was before 1991 (when the problems of the Caucasus had been considered only in a general context of the political development of the USSR)
and for many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Israel\'s foreign policy were based on such «pillars» as a strategic alliance with the United States and Turkey (which included first and foremost defense and security issues) and economic partnership with the united Europe (which was much more critical with respect to the hard power policy of the Jewish state, surviving in the Arab environment). Israel had previously managed to overcome the blockade of the Arab world and to establish diplomatic relations with Egypt (the Peace treaty between the two countries was signed March 26, 1979). Later, the Israeli- the Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in every way supported by Washington was added to the top priorities of Tel Aviv.

         However, in the past few years the situation has changed, and the South Caucasus as well as Central Asia has become the focus of Israeli foreign policy. In 2008-2009, the Israeli Foreign Ministry created specialized units responsible for the Caucasus and Central Asian region. Speaking about the Caucasus priorities of Israel first and foremost we have to keep Iran in mind especially after the «second Lebanon campaign» of 2006. Until that time the Jewish state had never survived such sensitive military defeats. «The Second Lebanon war» was not only a defeat of Israel in the "proxy war" (which Iran wages due with the movement «Hezbollah», supported by Tehran) but also opened up new opportunities for the claims of the Islamic Republic. Traditionally, Iran positioned itself as the mouthpiece of the will and the political patron of the Shia Muslims. After 2006 events Islamic Republic has consistently offered itself as an alternative center of gravity for all Muslims, regardless of their confessional affiliation. The cooperation between Tehran and the Palestinian «HAMAS» movement (which in contrast to the «Hezbollah» is not Shia but Sunni) has confirmed this trend. In this context Israel views the South Caucasus countries as potential allies in deterring Iran which is considered by the Jewish State as the main strategic security challenge. Some Israeli politicians are also using such metaphor as «Iran’s encircling» through alliances and partnerships with neighboring countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.         

           Hence Tel Aviv pays special attention of to Azerbaijan, which has had extremely complex and contradictory relationship with Iran for many years. Today, the Iranian-Azerbaijani bilateral relations are going through another crisis caused by series of recent «spy scandals».


So far this year, Azerbaijani security services have arrested some groups of
people suspected of spying for Iran and planning terrorist attacks against Western oil companies as well as Israeli diplomats. Just two weeks ago the Azerbaijani authorities disclosed information about a network of twenty-two Iranian agents trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In turn, this February Iran demanded to stop anti-Iranian and rather provocative Israeli intelligence service (Mossad) activity on the Azerbaijani area. As the «Heritage» Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen rightly notes, «Iran is attempting to undermine secular Azerbaijan by paying off preachers in mosques, stirring up religious extremism in the country’s South, beaming in Shiite Islamist propaganda broadcasts and supporting radical organizations». However, Israel recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. In addition, Israel buys Azerbaijani oil annually, representing a fifth of the domestic needs, and the trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 4 billion. This includes, among other things, military supplies as well. During the first visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres in Baku in 2009 a director of the Israeli company «Aeronautics» Avi Leumi was also a distinguished member of the delegation. This corporation is a world leader in the manufacture and sales of military unmanned aircrafts. In February 2012, Israeli officials confirmed the $1,6 billion contract for supplying aircrafts for Azerbaijan. The Maariv newspaper reported that Israeli instructors will train the Azerbaijani militaries on how to operate the weaponry.  This year, Israel will start importing Azerbaijani gas. For the next decade  Israel is going to import 12 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani  natural gas. For the Jewish state it is extremely important after the latest events in Egypt, where the topic of revising the terms of the supply of Egyptian natural gas to Israel has become widely discussed. All these facts cause very tough reaction in Iran, for which the penetration of non-regional players in the Caucasus is considered as a dangerous geopolitical challenge. According to Seyed Javad Miri, Professor of the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, «Iran is absolutely sure the problems of the Caucasus can only be solved by the countries of the region, and the presence of non-regional players such as Britain, China, the U.S. or Israel only worsens the situation».

         

However, the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership, while greatly cherished by both sides, is not worthy of exaggeration. It also has certain domestic and external limitations. First, the leadership of the Caspian Sea country can’t simply ignore the discontent with partnership on Israel, which exists in the Azerbaijani society. Meanwhile for the public rallies in Azerbaijan the topic of «betrayal of the Muslim world» is present. We also need to take take into account the growing Islamization of the country, as a consequence of frustration from the policy of the West as well as Russia. Second, officials in Baku develop contacts and cooperation with the Palestinian Autonomy in parallel with their relationship with Israel. Baku supports the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Reflecting this relationship, during the last year's visit of the Palestinian Autonomy leader Mahmoud Abbas to Baku, the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated: «For all the discussions for the Organization of Islamic Conference and in the UN our country has been close to Palestine, and this cooperation will be continued». Third, Baku can’t ignore the general evolution of the foreign policy of Turkey, crucially important strategic partner of Azerbaijan.

        As Armenian analyst Artak Grigoryan notes, «for a long time Turkey was the best model of cooperation, which could position itself between the Jewish state and the secular Muslim states, as opposed to the radical Islamic countries, particularly Iran. This model of cooperation also suited the West and the international community». But after the incident with the so-called «Freedom Flotilla» on the night of 30 -31 May 2010 near the Gaza Strip, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have been deteriorated dramatically. Since then, situation between Turkey and Israel can be regarded as a «cold peace». This situation meanwhile has intensified the debates within the Israeli society and the political class about the possible recognition of events of 1915 as «the genocide of Armenians». Of course this would not mean Armenophilespolitical victory.  However, the fact that Ze\'ev Elkin, Likud Parliamentary Group Chairman (majority of Israeli Knesset) supports the idea of recognition says a lot.  

            The US-Israeli strategic partnership plays a very important role in positioning of the Jewish State with respect to the Caucasus. Leading up to the war in August 2008  Tel Aviv didn’t keep its political and military cooperation with Georgia a secret, explaining this fact on the basis of not only economic benefits but also as a reaction to the cooperation between Russia on the one hand, Syria and «HAMAS» on the other. On the eve of «five-day war» (spring of 2008) the unmanned aircrafts set to the Georgian army by Israel was the subject of hot discussions. However, after 2008 situation has changed. In the summer, 2010 Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said about the prospects for Israeli-Georgian military cooperation: «Given the sensitivity of the situation in the Middle East and the Caucasus, military cooperation is not on the agenda of bilateral relations». Then, some sort of «reset» in the Russian-Israeli relations started (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his stay in power did several visits to Russia). This process is facilitated by the growing influence of the Russian-speaking segment of Israeli politics and the «Arab spring» fraught with the growth of regional instability and the strengthening of the positions of radical Islamists that brings an objective position in Moscow and Tel Aviv. As Ariel Cohen noted, «Moscow does not want to repeat the Libyan scenario in Syria…It sees the threat of a Sunni, conservative Salafi front in the Middle East, headed by Saudi Arabia. (By the way, in that point its analysis coincides with the Israeli estimates)».  In the approaches to the North Caucasus Israel has traditionally showed «understanding» of the Russian motivation.

         Thus, the new status quo shaping in the South Caucasus and the Middle East contributes to the formation and implementation of non-standard circuits and solutions, in which the influence of Middle Eastern issues for the Caucasus has been much greater. It seems that soon we will see many unexpected moves, which a year or two ago would be considered improbable.

Sergei Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC

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