A picture is worth a thousand guidance notes. On October 4, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, assaulted the cameras. Beaming in front of reporters, he stroked, patted and put an affectionate arm around a Harop, an Israel-made kamikaze drone.
Technically classified as a “stray munition”, the Harop behaves, in the latter stages of its mission, like a cruise missile, crashing into its targets and exploding on impact. At first, however, it functions like a drone, circling over the battlefield, waiting for targets to emerge. Harop are well known in Azerbaijan, thanks to their role in last year’s victory against Armenia.
But it was for the benefit of Iran that Mr. Aliyev organized this photo shoot. In recent weeks, Tehran has embarked on a crass intimidation campaign that included military exercises on the Azerbaijani border – a surprise move that drew an angry reaction from Mr. Aliyev. âWhy now, and why at our border? He asked publicly. âThere were no such incidents during the 30 years of Azerbaijan’s independence. “
Iranian officials responded by demanding that Azerbaijan end its alliance with Israel. âWe do not tolerate the presence and activity against our national security of the Zionist regime, or Israel, near our borders,â said Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iranian foreign minister. âAnd we will take all necessary measures in this regard. ”
Iran has good reason to be worried. Its economy is in ruins and unemployment is rampant. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s economy is strong, and its military is even stronger, in part thanks to the help of Israel, which organized a military airlift to resupply Azerbaijan during the 2020 war with Armenia.
Seen from Tehran, Israeli influence in Baku seems particularly worrying given the extraordinary reach Azerbaijan enjoys in Iranian society. Ethnic Azerbaijanis, a Turkish Shia people, form a large part of the Iranian population, between 20% and 30%. They are concentrated in the north-west of the country, on the border with Azerbaijan. Although no major secessionist movement has developed, discontent is widespread and strong feelings of solidarity with Azerbaijan are often displayed.
The Iranian government has long assumed that Israel owed the success of its secret war on Iran’s nuclear program to underground Azerbaijani networks. In 2012, after two men on motorcycles attached a magnetic bomb to the car of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iranian nuclear scientist, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the Azerbaijani ambassador and protested the aid that the Azerbaijan allegedly provided to Israeli intelligence services.
Whether Israel actually receives direct aid for its covert operations is a puzzle. Either way, the Israelis clearly recognize that the rise of Azerbaijan unbalances the Islamic Republic. When members of the Azerbaijani minority in Iran learned that Iran was helping Russia supply the Armenian army during the war, they sabotaged transport vehicles and launched public protests. Moreover, the subsequent victory of the Azerbaijani army practically excluded Tehran from post-war diplomacy in the South Caucasus. On none of Iran’s other borders does Tehran feel so exposed and powerless to shape events.
To say that Azerbaijan, with a population of just 10 million, deterred Iran without US aid is an understatement. Sometimes the United States has actively obstructed. In 2012, as the Obama administration courted Iran, senior US officials briefed the press on Azerbaijan-Israel military cooperation with the clear intention of scuttling it.
Now Washington is courting Tehran again. Although it does nothing to hinder cooperation between Baku and Jerusalem, its prone position in the face of Iranian aggression has created an environment that invites acts of intimidation such as those to which Azerbaijan is subjected.
The Biden administration would be better served by following Israel’s lead. The benefits to the United States of Azerbaijan’s rise extend far beyond the effort to counter Iran. Azerbaijan is the only border country with both Iran and Russia. A strong and confident Baku is also a counterweight to Moscow.
The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates that, if the United States is to remain the leading power in world politics, it must find a way to deter evil international actors while respecting an electorate that is wary of military intervention. The best way to balance these imperatives is to forge productive agreements with countries that have competent armies and are not afraid to use them.
When Mr. Aliyev hugged Harop, he was intentionally sending a message of defiance to Iran. Unintentionally, he was also sending wise advice to Washington: New challenges require new friends.
Mr. Doran is a Principal Investigator at the Hudson Institute.
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