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Baku, Azerbaijan — Israel was named as a factor in the dispute last year when Azerbaijani officials revealed plans by local extremists, aided by Iran, to blow up the Israeli and American embassies in Baku.
Also last year, Iran accused Azerbaijan of helping Israel assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists and gather intelligence. The situation was inflamed further by a Reuters report that Israel planned to use Azerbaijani airfields in the event of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli and Azerbaijani officials denied the report.
“These reports sound like James Bond stories, and that’s exactly what they are,” said Raphael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, at his office at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
That said, “Azerbaijan has taken a courageous stand against efforts to destabilize the region,” Harpaz added – an obvious reference to Iran.
Harpaz said anti-Semitic sentiment, prevalent in much of the Muslim world, is virtually nonexistent in Azerbaijan, a secular country with guaranteed freedom of worship and – unlike its abstemious southern neighbor – teeming with bars and nightclubs where scantily dressed women dance to Turkish and Russian pop hits.
“Azerbaijan’s economic success and relatively liberal attitudes form a contrast with Iran’s restrictive policies and a viable alternative, which is probably making the Mullah regime uncomfortable,” Idan said.
Despite Baku’s attempts to keep the peace, American diplomats believe Azerbaijan considers Iran “a major, even existential security threat,” according to an assessment in a leaked diplomatic cable from 2009. The country’s cooperation with Israel “flows from this shared recognition,” the cable read.
Idan says Azerbaijan’s closeness with Israel is actually aimed at a different regional foe: Armenia, Azerbaijan’s neighbor to the west, against whom Azerbaijan has fought two wars in the last century over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Aliyev considers the conflict unfinished, which has led to American and European reluctance to sell him weapons he can’t obtain elsewhere. Israel has no such qualms.
Israel, too, may have broader reasons for cultivating ties with Azerbaijan. The Jewish state has long sought out non-Arab moderate Muslim nations as allies as a counterweight to the hostile Muslim nations that surround it.
Eldar Mamedov, an Azerbaijan-born political adviser at the European Parliament in Brussels, wrote in January that Israel sees Azerbaijan as a replacement for Turkey, whose once-close partnership with Israel hasn’t recovered from the 2010 storming by Israeli commandos of a Turkish ship bound for Gaza.
But Fuad Akhundov, a historian and government spokesman, told JTA that personal bonds between Jews and Azerbaijanis over the centuries has helped cement the bond.
“Jews here have always been perceived as promoters of progress, part of the elite, as something which holds potential,” Akhundov said. “These positive feelings had a role in the establishment of warm bilateral ties.”