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What's the Israel-Azerbaijan connection?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's visit to Azerbaijan underscores growing ties, including a $1.6 billion Israeli deal to supply Iran's neighbor with a wide range of military equipment.

By Sheera FrenkelMcClatchy Newspapers / April 26, 2012



Jerusalem

The burgeoning relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan is raising eyebrows throughout the Middle East, not least of all because Azerbaijan is Iran’s neighbor to the north and shares close cultural and demographic ties with Iran.

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Trade between Israel and Azerbaijan now totals $4 billion annually, the highest figure for Israel’s business with any of the now-independent countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, and there’s a frequent exchange of officials – most recently Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who visited Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this week. “Our relationship is very intense,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Azerbaijan’s position between Iran and Russia has long made it a diplomatic “den of spies,” where various, often hostile, countries – including the United States, Iran, Russia, and Israel – could gather intelligence on one another.

But it’s the nature of Israel’s trade with Azerbaijan that’s drawn the most interest. In February, Azerbaijan agreed to pay state-run Israel Aerospace Industries $1.6 billion for a wide range of military products, including drones and anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. That’s nearly a quarter of the money Azerbaijan’s government takes in each year, $7.8 billion. Azerbaijan also provides about 30 percent of Israel’s energy needs.

“Baku has an important role in Israel’s regional aspirations,” said an Israeli diplomat who has worked on several trade deals that involved Azerbaijan. He couldn’t be named because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject with a reporter.

Speculation on how far the relationship goes is rampant. Israel, after all, has been threatening to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program. A recent report in Foreign Policy magazine alleged that, in addition to the commercial ties, Israel has acquired access to airfields in Azerbaijan’s north that might be used in any attack on Iran.

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