Jerusalem Post- 11/07/2009
President Shimon Peres’s landmark visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan this week represents a significant advance for Israeli ambitions in Central Asia. In the wake of the recent decision to permit Israel to open an embassy in the Turkmen capital of Ashghabad, the visit reflects the importance Jerusalem attaches to this strategically significant part of what is sometimes known as the “greater Middle East.”
Israel’s stance reflects a series of hopes, interests and concerns. The most important of these are: the desire to contain Iranian influence, and joint opposition to radical Islam. Israeli technological expertise is of particular interest to energy-rich, rapidly developing Central Asian economies, forming the basis for growing economic relations. In turn, Azerbaijan has emerged as a major energy supplier. The country supplies just under 20 percent of Israel’s oil.
Israel’s desire to build strong connections with non-Arab Muslim countries in the region is of long standing and reflects an obvious strategic interest. Yet in the past, Central Asian states have preferred to keep their friendship with the Jewish state far from the spotlight.
Israel has maintained diplomatic relations with both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan since 1992. With regard to containing Teheran, relations with Shi’ite Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran, are of particular significance. Azerbaijan has close ethnic links with Iran. Far more Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is an ethnic Azeri. Yet relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have grown tense over the last decade for a number of reasons. The Islamic republic, for strategic reasons of its own, tacitly supported Armenia in the Azeri-Armenian war over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Teheran dislikes the secular nature of Azerbaijani politics, and has offered support and training to Azeri mullahs and organizations preaching a pro-Iranian Islamist message. Iran and Azerbaijan also have competing interests related to energy issues in the Caspian Sea.
As a result, Baku has drawn close to Jerusalem on the basis of a shared threat. Israeli defense industries have made very significant inroads. Israel played the central role in rebuilding and modernizing the Azeri military after its losses in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan has also become one of the key arenas in the ongoing silent war between Israel and Iran. Both countries are thought to possess major espionage networks on Azeri soil. Israel is reported to maintain listening and surveillance posts on the Azerbaijan-Iran border. The recent foiling of a joint Hizbullah/Iranian plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy by the authorities in Baku shows the depth of activity.
Kazakhstan, which has no border with Iran, has sought to develop strong trade and strategic relations with the Islamic republic. Part of Peres’s mission was to seek a firm Kazakh commitment that it would cease the sale of uranium ore to Iran. Astana’s stance appears to reflect a desire to play a part in diplomatic mediation in the region and beyond it, on the basis of its image as a moderate Muslim state.
The more diffuse threat of radical Islam offers a further natural basis for friendship. In the Shi’ite but secular-governed Azerbaijan, this threat takes the form of Iran-supported local Shi’ite Islamist parties, and the presence of Hizbullah.
In largely-Sunni Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Saudi-supported Islamic extremists and the pan-Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir party constitute a significant irritant to the authorities, making them more inclined to greater friendliness toward Israel. The response to domestic Islamic extremism has been determined and uncompromising.
Kazakhstan’s commitment to purchase satellite and surveillance technology from Israel reflects the growing role of Israeli defense industries in the country – a role which was shaken in April by claims that Israel had sold faulty military hardware to Kazakhstan.
Despite the extensive cooperation and common interest, Jerusalem has been frustrated by the unwillingness of both Kazakhs and Azeris to move toward a more open and overt relationship. There has long been a sense that both countries preferred to benefit from close links with Israel in a variety of areas, while keeping the public profile of the relationship as low as possible. Such a stance reflected the desire of both countries to maintain good relations with the Arab and wider Muslim world.
Israeli officials hoped that Peres’s visit would be of importance in laying the basis for changing this stance. The Iranian response to the visit suggests that Teheran shared the sense of this possibility.
The Iranians lobbied hard to have the visit to Azerbaijan called off. Iran’s chief of staff visited Baku two weeks ago in an attempt to persuade the Azeris to cancel the trip. He was unsuccessful. In response to the Peres visit, Iran has recalled its ambassador for consultations. In Kazakhstan, the Iranian decision to walk out of an interfaith conference while Peres was speaking represents an additional indication of Iranian displeasure, and hence a further diplomatic point for Israel. The bottom line: Iranian lobbying failed.
Inducing Muslim countries with which Israel has shared interests and firm connections to overcome the desire to “camouflage” or downplay their relations with Israel represents a perennial challenge for Israeli diplomacy. The latest developments in Central Asia suggest that, in this region at least, real progress has begun to be made.