For some Iranians, the recent elections were a hopeful signal; for many outsiders, they were a signal for cautious optimism. But there’s one country that has good reasons to be skeptical of any good news from Tehran: namely, Israel. That skepticism has driven Israel to search far and wide for geopolitical partners in places that have heretofore been hardly worthy of their note. The Caucasus is one of those places, having been transformed into such by the dramatic changes underway following the Arab Spring.
Thanks in part to the Arab political awakening, Israel now finds itself in a more dangerous environment than in years past. With the war in Syria raging, its peace treaty with Egypt under strain, overall anti-Semitism in the region growing, and the bellicose rhetoric from Tehran escalating, Israel needs new allies. In 2008–09, the Foreign Ministry created specialized departments for the Caucasus and Central Asia although for decades the Caucasus has not been a priority region for Israeli foreign policy.
Israel’s overarching target with these moves is clearly to deter Iran, its main strategic security challenge. Tehran has too many allies when it comes to Israel; the Jewish state is the one issue that all too often transcends religious and other divisions. The “second Lebanon campaign” in 2006 is a perfect showcase of this; Israel suffered a sensitive military defeat in a “proxy war” (which Iran waged through Hizballah), and many new opportunities for the Islamic Republic opened up. Since 2006, Iran has consistently attempted to offer itself not only as a center of gravity for Shi‘a but also for all Muslims, regardless of confessional affiliation—witness the attempted cooperation between Tehran and Hamas before the Syrian civil war put them on opposite sides.
The recent elections in the Islamic Republic have changed little in Israel’s calculations. No one in Israel really buys that the President-elect Hassan Rouhani will set aside Iran’s nuclear program, let alone temper its quest for regional power status. After thousands of Iranians welcomed Rouhani’s expressed intent to preserve Iran’s national pride, Israel urged the international community not to lessen the pressure on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Caucasus offers a new venue for what some Israeli politicians call Iran’s encirclement by means of forming alliances and partnerships with neighboring countries of the Caucasus. In this context, Azerbaijan is the centerpiece of Israeli foreign policy in the region. It is, in the words of Shimon Peres, “a key in limiting Iran’s influence in the Greater Middle East.” Baku has its own long-standing record of political grievances with Tehran, which includes four major highly intertwined areas: the disputable status of the Caspian Sea, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue (on which Azerbaijan views Iran’s position as pro-Armenian), the discussion over the northwestern part of Iran (so called Iranian Azerbaijan, where an estimated twenty million Azeris live) and, finally, the religious factor. The latter has been gaining a special significance in recent years. Azerbaijan, a secular state, albeit one with a Shi‘a-majority population, accuses Iran of fueling radical Islamist activities on its territory, undermining the position of the central government in Baku.
On the contrary, Israel recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in its conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and its political relationship is energized by dynamic economic cooperation, which represents a second group of Israeli interests in the South Caucasus.
The two main areas of economic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel are energy and military supplies. Israel buys Azerbaijani oil representing a fifth of its domestic needs, and the trade turnover between the two countries is about $4 billion. Besides this, Israel has also begun to import Azerbaijani gas and for the next decade will import 12 billion cubic meters from the country. This may be a wise solution for the Jewish state, since Egypt, an important partner in supplying natural gas to Israel, only recently considered revising its supply terms.
The military side of the partnership mainly has to do with the sales of Israeli unmanned military aircraft. In February 2012, Israeli officials confirmed a $1.6 billion contract to supply military drones and the training to use them.
Surprisingly as it may be, Israeli foreign policy in the region, thought to be a short-term effort up to now, has already pivoted to some extent. It was Georgia that was Israel’s prime partner in the region in the lead-up to the fall 2008 war with Russia. Jerusalem’s political and military cooperation with Georgia stemmed from both economic benefits (Israel helped reform the Georgian army, trained its soldiers and supplied Tbilisi with its drones) and political benefits (as a reaction to Russian cooperation with Syria and Hamas).
However, after 2008 the situation changed. Frequent visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russia somewhat improved the relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem in the face of the common threat of radical Islam, and a series of scandals involving Israeli businessmen in Georgia took the drone sales off the agenda and deteriorated the overall climate of the Georgian-Israeli relationship. It was then that Israel began to build up contacts with the partially recognized Republic of Abkhazia—a move that was considered by many in Tbilisi as a poke in the Georgians’ eyes. The new Georgian leadership of Bidzina Ivanishvili feels the need to restore the damaged relationship with Israel; he has already made his official visit in June 2013. Ivanishvili considered this visit as the “most successful” of all his foreign trips and said that he believes the two countries should abolish entry visas and re-establish strategic partnership. Thus Israel may soon have more opportunities to wield its influence in the region.
At the same time, being a newcomer to the region, Israel faces many serious challenges. When dealing with Georgia it has to walk a fine line in order not to upset its relations with Russia. When dealing with Azerbaijan, it cannot exclude Turkey from its calculations. When dealing with both, it must be watchful of Iran, which is extremely jealous of any non-regional players penetrating into the Caucasus—all the more so when that player is Israel.
Besides traditional great regional power rivalry, Israel will run into other complications. While greatly cherished by both sides, the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership has its own domestic and external limitations. Baku, for instance, enjoys a good relationship with the Palestinian Authority and supports the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Second, against the background of rising Islamization, there is strong opposition inside Azerbaijan to cooperation with Israel, which some see as “the betrayal of the Muslim world.” Finally, Baku can’t ignore the general evolution of the foreign policy of its crucial strategic partner: Turkey. Relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated dramatically after the “Freedom Flotilla” incident in May 2010; so did public perceptions of the other in both countries. Although relations have slightly improved in recent months, they can be described, at best, as being part of a “cold peace.” Meanwhile, Ankara’s growing influence in the Middle East assumes a more independent role in regional affairs and hence some distancing both from the United States and Israel. The Azeri-Israeli relationship depends on these factors to a great extent.
Israel, too, has the same limited leverage over Turkey as the United States: “the Armenian issue.” Although in its relationship with Yerevan Israel has not gone beyond diplomatic recognition since the early 1990s (the countries have no embassies in their respective capitals), the debates over recognition of events of 1915 as “the genocide of Armenians” sparkle—especially in times of political turmoil between Israel and Turkey. Besides, there are some heavyweight supporters of the issue inside the Jewish state (including the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel from the Likud Party, Ze’ev Elkin), so it too leaves some space for Israeli political maneuvering.
Finally, there’s a less visible but still important factor of Israel’s engagement in the region. Supporting Jewish communities abroad has been a significant dimension of Israeli foreign policy for many years. The 2002 census estimates about 3,540 Jews living in Georgia (some experts think there are as many as 8,000–12,000 people). It is much harder to estimate how many Jews are there in Azerbaijan; the first census after the break-up of the Soviet Union counted 9,000, but other estimates say that number is more like 16,000–20,000. Nevertheless, the diasporas are a resource Israel may draw on as well.
To the United States, whose policy in the region has a long and twisted history, Israel’s engagement gives an additional leverage in several ways. First, the Caucasus is very likely to be a vital logistical route in maintaining American military and civilian personnel after the drawdown in Afghanistan, especially if the Obama Administration decides for the “zero option”, leaving no U.S. troops on the ground.
Second, it’s the region where America has traditionally reinforced its own activities by means of a close cooperation with its regional NATO ally, Turkey. Now that U.S.-Turkish relations are far from ideal and the future of the Erdogan team is somewhat blurred, the challenges and the opportunities for the United States are at least two-fold. On the one hand, there’s a need for America to find a pivotal geopolitical stronghold in the Greater Middle East; the South Caucasus may once more serve in this capacity as it did right after the 9/11 atrocities. On the other hand, finding a new partner in the region among old friends may be a shot in the arm for Washington, especially with its own activities in the region declining in the recent years. Eventually, after the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 American foreign policy in the South Caucasus became less dynamic. To some extent, it stemmed from pragmatic reasons: Washington needed Moscow’s support on key international issues and thus didn’t want to irritate the Kremlin with activities that could be considered provocative. Therefore, visits by high-profile policymakers grew less frequent, and America’s overall visibility in the Caucasus was diminished. But to a large degree the seeming drift was entailed by objective realities. America was wrapping up in Iraq even as it was getting bogged down in Afghanistan; the rise of China was precipitating the “pivot to Asia”; and, to top it all off, the financial crisis and the growing political split inside the country were keeping the Obama team preoccupied with domestic troubles.
Under these circumstances American foreign policy in the South Caucasus fell into a dormant period, but as many regional initiatives and programs continued, the policy itself did not become less substantial; nor did the country’s national interests. On the contrary, issues of politics, economics and energy transit (for example, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Nabucco pipeline) acquired new security dimensions as the United States seeked to balance Iran, secure Afghanistan and project force into Pakistan—let alone master relations with Russia and China.
Israel discerned these opportunities in the Caucasus through the lens of its national interests, and it was well prepared to allocate resources for them. Its engagement and policies in the region in many ways demonstrate the proactive thinking that American policymakers seem to have lost. The formation of a new status quo in the Middle East and the tangled knot of relations in the South Caucasus have triggered non-standard circuits and solutions, where American diplomacy might restore its best practices to secure its role after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.