Ilham Aliyev, the pro-Western president of Azerbaijan, has been re-elected to a third straight term in his oil-rich Caucasus state that has become an important supplier of oil and gas to Western Europe as well as a key strategic regional opponent of Iran. He won 83 percent of the vote – but opponents have claimed fraud and ballot-stuffing by the president and his supporters.
Aliyev was so confident of victory that he did not even bother to campaign, the BBC reported, while opposition figures and activists have long criticized the president for immense corruption, fraud, human rights violations and brutally stifling dissent in the nation of 9.3 million along the western shores of the Caspian Sea. Indeed, in 2009, Aliyev pushed through a constitutional referendum that lifted the two-term presidency limit, thereby allowing him to remain in power.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based activist organization, slammed Aliyev for his regime’s intense crackdown on the opposition in the year leading up to the election. Reportedly, the Baku government has banned large public assemblies and doubled the number of political prisoners languishing in its jails.
Aliyev, who “inherited” power from his father, KGB-trained Heydar Aliyev, who died 10 years ago, has nonetheless engineered an economic boom – as the country’s oil and gas wealth has helped GDP to more than treble in only the past decade, creating unprecedented improvements in the people’s living standards. "I voted for the president, because he is the person who secured stability in the republic during the past 10 years of his rule, and we saw clear results of his activity,” an Azeri voter named Iskander Kerimov told the BBC. "I think he will be working hard in the future as well for the sake of the country, for the sake of stability, peace and prosperity."
Indeed, Western nations and oil companies – including BP plc (NYSE: BP) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) -- have largely overlooked the corruption and brutality of Aliyev’s state machinery because of its vast oil and natural gas reserves. For the past eight years, Azerbaijani crude oil has been pumped through Georgia and Turkey for eager markets in Western Europe (completely bypassing Russia and Iran), with the support and financial aid of the U.S.
In addition, Aliyev provides a strong pro-Western geo-strategic bulwark against Iran, Azerbaijan’s troublesome neighbor to the south. In connection with Baku’s strained relations with Iran, Aliyev has fostered very close relations with Israel. Over the past few years, intelligence agencies from both Israel and Azerbaijan have reportedly prevented terror attacks on Jewish targets in Baku by Iranian entities and their affiliates, including the Lebanese Hezbollah. In 2012, for example, Iran allegedly plotted to blow up both the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku. In response, the Iranians have accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists. Further, Iran became alarmed by reports (since denied by both Baku and Israel) that the Jewish state was planning to use an Azerbaijan military base to launch pre-emptive strikes on Iran to destroy its budding nuclear weapons program.
In fact, Azerbaijan (a former Persian territory) and Iran share some strong similarities – both are overwhelmingly Shia Muslim and Iran has a significant Azeri community (indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself of Azeri descent). But that hasn’t prevented Baku from entering into binding military, energy and security agreements with Iran’s bitterest enemy, Israel (which opened an embassy in Baku as long ago as 1992, shortly after Azerbaijan became an independent state). In May of this year, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made a state visit to Israel (the first such journey by such a high-level Azeri minister), triggering more vitriol from Teheran.
Last year, Azeri officials signed a $1.6 billion deal with state-controlled Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. under which Baku will receive unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. drones), anti-aircraft and missile defense systems. UPI reported that this one transaction accounted for 43 percent of the Azeris’ defense expenditures for the whole year. In 2011, an Israeli defense contractor named Aeronautics opened a factory in Azerbaijan to manufacture military UAVs.
In exchange, Israel gains not only a much-needed Muslim friend in a very dangerous neighborhood, but also a huge portion (40 percent) of its annual oil requirements come from Azerbaijan. Bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Israel now totals some $4 billion annually. Since 1997, a number of senior Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, have visited Azerbaijan, solidifying their military and economic relationship. Israel’s links to Baku intensified a few years ago when Jerusalem’s once-strong diplomatic ties to Turkey collapsed after Israel commandos killed Turkish civilians on the Gaza flotilla that sought to send supplies to Palestinians in May 2010.
“The partnership between Israel and Azerbaijan is complicated by political factors, but ultimately it is moving forward because it makes sense from an economical point of view,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and ex-director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Azerbaijan is reliable enough as a supplier of oil for Israel, and Israel is a reliable supplier of high-tech and arms.”
But the Azeris can only go so far without antagonizing Iran too much – for one thing, Azerbaijan has not yet opened up an embassy in Israel; moreover, Baku even signed a “non-aggression” pact with Teheran in 2005. Quipping about the often-secretive nature of the Azeris’ relations with Israel, Ilham Aliyev himself once famously likened it to an iceberg by stating: "Nine-tenths of it is below the surface."
Intriguingly, Raphael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, who has praised the Azeris for their “courageous stand against efforts to destabilize the region” (a direct snipe at Iran), also claimed that anti-Semitism is nonexistent in Azerbaijan. Indeed, some 42,000 Jews call Azerbaijan home.
Moreover, Baku’s relations with Teheran cannot be regarded as stable – a recent crackdown on Iran’s Azeri minority sparked outrage in Azerbaijan, which, in turn, prompted the Iranians to verbally invoke old territorial claims on Azerbaijan. On a cultural front, Azerbaijan is a secular, Western-leaning society with some freedoms for its people, compared to a very repressive and rigid Iran.
“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 [of Iran] uncomfortable,” Avinoam Idan, a senior research fellow at John Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, JTA reported.
However, Idan added that Azerbaijan’s cozy ties with Israel are designed not so much to rankle Iran, but rather another regional (and less prominent) enemy, Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia have waged at least two wars over the much-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region – causing thousands of death and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Aliyev’s continued aggressive designs on the disputed territory have made his Western allies unwilling to sell him weapons (this is where Israel came in handy, as a very eager arms-seller).
Still, Aliyev has to walk a fine line by maintaining good relations with both Israel and Iran – as long as the oil keeps flowing through his pipes, he can likely keep up this fragile state of affairs.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.