Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Azerbaijan’s deepening cooperation with Israel moral?

After Israeli defense officials leaked that Azerbaijan had agreed to purchase $1.6 billion-worth in Israeli-made drones and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, two debates have raged among members of intelligentsia.

The first debate was questioning if growing Israeli-Azerbaijani ties is about countering Iran in a predominantly Shiite country awash with oil, gas and obviously, money. Joshua Kucera has written a fascinating and true story of the very nature of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations in the context of the latest, largest purchase of arms by Azerbaijan.

The deal came at a time when Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan reduced from worse to the worst. Their spat is about their domestic security; Azerbaijan mercilessly cracks down on radical Shiite groups aiming at exporting Iran’s ideology to Shiite Azerbaijan and Iran is concerned that Israeli Mossad agents are receiving free tickets to spy on Iran. Neither Iran nor Azerbaijan feels imminent danger to its national security – a major reason why none of them would feel necessary to balance against each other. Kucera explains in some details how Azerbaijan doesn't face security threat from Iran but Armenia.

Building strong army doesn’t necessarily mean that a neighboring country will balance against the supposedly hegemonic state. Perception of threats plays a key role for any state to decide whether or not to balance against the hegemonic state. It is beyond doubt that Azerbaijan’s army buildup is completely about getting stronger vis-a-vis Armenia, currently occupying some 20 percent of South Caucasus’ only Muslim country’s territories.

Walter Russel Mead proposes many reasons why this “odd couple” is enjoying its honeymoon. He is correct in suggesting that “mutual distrust” (and not the mutual security concerns) over Iran is at the core of this unlikely friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan. Israel's increasingly growing close ties with Azerbaijan is not about Iran but the Muslim country's animosity with its arch-foe Armenia. "Mutual distrust" over Iran is what makes Israel comfortable in selling arms to Azerbaijan. 

While Turkey is still silent over growing cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, voices from Turkey have already started questioning Azerbaijan’s motives, some even go to the extent accusing Turkey’s strongest ally of remaining indifferent to Turkey's soured ties with the Jewish state.

The second debate is about Turkish criticisms of Azerbaijani foreign policy with respect to Israel which I think is disingenuous and immature. 20 percent of Azerbaijani territories are occupied by Armenia and it is hard for Azerbaijan to buy arms from Russia, Armenia’s chief patron, or the US due to the strong Armenian lobby. Not counting past six months, Turkey’s ties, including military, with Israel were deep and strong for more than sixty years.

I’m forced to reiterate realist teachings in almost each of my posts here because many keep forgetting that there is no room for morality in international affairs. What matters is national security of states. Stephen M. Walt claims in this Foreign Policy piece that it is not true that American power is “uniquely virtuous.” Why states keep working with the US despite its deeply immoral behavior all across the world is because it is a key guarantor of survival for many countries and maintains fragile balance of power in many regions around the globe. 

It is hence largely flawed to argue that Azerbaijan is behaving irresponsibly by doing business with Israel despite Turkey’s strained ties with its old ally. States forget hostilities when a bigger, more dangerous threat is looming in the offing. Israel’s and Turkey’s cooperation was key and significant in countering communist threat during the Cold War. For Azerbaijan, retaking its lost territories from Armenia is what forces the Muslim state to form a vital alliance with the world’s one of the most human rights abusers. It is naive to expect Azerbaijan to abandon its close military relations with Israel just because Turkey has severed ties with Israel over 2010's deadly flotilla botch.

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