Oil, Intelligence, Suicide Drone — Israel’s Hush-Hush Relations with Azerbaijan (Bordering Iran)

[This post is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence agencies, Spies Against Armageddon.]

The longtime head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who died of cancer on March 17, was known to be a great traveler.  Years ago he went on a journey to central Asia and visited Azerbaijan.  Knowing that he was an avid chess player and “not a bad one” — as he once put it — his hosts  took him to a local chess club.  Dagan had the heady experience of playing simultaneously against a group of teenagers.  He lost to all of them.

His Azeri hosts (apparently counterparts in security agencies, but they have not been identified) felt embarrassed.  They did not want an honored guest from such a friendly country, Israel, to be humiliated.

Israel, the Jewish state, is indeed considered a good friend to the Muslim, former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.  Diplomatic relations were established in 1992, only a few months after Azeri independence was achieved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Relations are excellent, and the improvement has been based on shared strategic interests.  The two countries are getting even closer, against the background of renewed violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, another former Soviet republic.  They are fighting over a district, Nagorno Karabakh, where civilians caught in the middle are again suffering death and destruction.

Azerbaijan’s forces have been noticed using Israel-made weapons.

The two nations are certainly an odd couple.  The Azeris are predominantly Shiite Muslims, and while they vote in elections they do not truly have a Western democracy.  The country has been run since 1991 by a single family, which is accused of corruption and suppressing independent media.  Investigative journalists have been harassed and jailed there.

The CIA's Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

The CIA’s Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

Israel, however, has a long record of not being too picky in choosing its undemocratic friends — certainly not when it comes to weapons sales and other national interests.  A quick look at the map can explain Israel’s priorities.  Azerbaijan has borders with four countries including Iran — Israel’s most dangerous enemy.  The capital, Baku, is on the Caspian Sea — which affords interesting ways to get in and out.  Azerbaijan is a major oil producer and invests 5 percent of its GDP in its military.

IAI Harop drone bomb

Israel’s Harop, Displayed for Sale

According to foreign reports, The Mossad runs a big station in Azerbaijan taking advantage of the geography. Iranian spokespersons have accused their neighbor of allowing Israeli intelligence to carry out — from Azeri territory — espionage missions in Iran which include recruiting and planting agents, communications interception, and aerial reconnaissance. More than a year ago, Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone.  Israeli officials have refused to comment on such reports.

Yet it was President Ilham Aliyev himself who was quoted in a cable — published by WikiLeaks — sent from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, as saying: “Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are like an iceberg. Nine-tenths are below the surface.”

Another WikiLeaks document from 2007 showed more frankness and openness expressed by Arthur Lenk, then the Israeli ambassador in Baku (now serving in South Africa).  He told the U.S. ambassador that the two countries have a security agreement and that one of Aliyev’s assistants — during a visit to Israel — met with Israel’s deputy defense minister and “Mossad officials.”

In 2009 Azeri security services exposed a joint plot designed by an Iranian intelligence agency and Hezbollah to target the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community in Baku.  That would have been part of their attempt to take revenge for the killing, a year earlier, of Imad Mughniyeh — the “defense minister” in charge of Hezbollah operations.  The car bomb that killed Mughniyeh in Damascus was attributed to the Mossad, and recently a CIA role in the assassination was reliably reported.

Tips from the Mossad to their Azeri counterparts in 2009 foiled the conspiracy in Baku and led to the arrest of several suspects, while others managed to escape to Iran.

The joint combat against terrorism is just one glue strengthening the relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.  Another sign of the prosperous allience can be seen in the annual trade. which is currently $5 billion, more than the total trade between Israel and France.

The details are not fully revealed, but it consists most of Azeri oil sold to Israel — and Israelis weapons and intelligence technologies purchased by Azerbaijan.  The best promoters of the military sales and ties have been Israeli defense minister and officials who have visited the Caucasian nation.  Most recently it was the current minister, Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon, who went to Baku in Otober 2014 to meet with his counterpart — and even with President Aliyev.

The security and intelligence ties began modestly. In the 1990s Israel sold light weapons, mortars, and ammunition worth a few millions of dollars.  In addition, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI, now renamed Israel Aerospace Industries) maintained the aircraft fleet of Azerbaijan Airlines.

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

In recent years, according to foreign reports, the volume expanded to billions.  That made Azerbaijan the second biggest market in Asia, after India, for Israeli weapons.

According to the French newsletter “Intelligence on Line,” Israeli sales include drones, ground stations, control and command posts, and advanced intelligence equipment.

It was also reported that IAI was the first bidder to offer Azerbaijan a spy satellite valued at $150 million — plus the ground station and the launching cost.  U.S., French, and Russian compaanies later joined the bidding, but experts assume that the Israeli company has the best chance of winning the contract because of IAI’s long-standing, intimate contacts with Azerbaijan.

The French publication also reported that Haifa-based Israel Shipyards has an advantage over its French and other competitors to build 12 light vessels for the Azeri coast guard.

This month the Washington Post gave the world a narrow peek into the mostly secret relationship by publishing a video and photos of an Israel-made “suicidal drone,” flying over the frontlines of the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh — reportedly exploding itself onto a bus carrying Armenian combatants.  Seven people were killed, and the Armenian government protested to Israel.

The drone, called “Harop.” is just one model in a line of products that are hybrids of drones, missiles and bombs.   They can carry cameras and be recalled back to ground by their operator but also are equipped with up to 20 kilograms of explosive which the operator can lead to collide with the target and detonate it .

This past week, a few days after the incident, Israeli military journalists visited IAI facilities and were briefed on the various products from drones to satellites which the company has to offer.  An IAI spokeswoman was asked if the company was behind the Washington Post publication.  She refused to answer, but she clearly smiled when one reporter commented that such photos and video are good for business.   They promote sales which can be labeled “battle proven.”

April 16, 2016

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