Over the weekend, Iran’s naval commander called out Azerbaijan for buying missiles from Israel. While Iran has previously signaled that it did not approve of Azerbaijan’s cooperation with outside powers in building up its naval forces on the Caspian Sea, this seems to be the first time it has explicitly warned Azerbaijan about doing so. In his comments, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari highlighted the risk that Azerbaijan runs in trying to balance relations between its best weapons supplier, Israel, and its much larger neighbor to the south, Iran.
Last year, Israel announced that it had completed a $1.6 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan, including five Searcherand five Heron drones, Barak-8air defense systems and Green Pine missile defense radar, as well as Gabriel anti-ship missiles. The announcement took place at a time of heightened tension between Iran and Israel and speculation that Israel would use Azerbaijan as a staging ground for an attack on Iran. Nevertheless, the list of weapons purchased by Azerbaijan seemed more oriented toward Nagorno Karabakh, the breakaway portion of Azerbaijan that is now controlled by Armenian forces and whose return is Baku’s number one foreign policy and military priority.
The one exception to that was the Gabriel anti-ship missiles. Azerbaijan has been a relative laggard in the nascent Caspian Sea arms race, instead focusing nearly all its attention on Karabakh. But in recent years it has shown signs of focusing a bit more on Caspian security.
One often-cited Wikileaked United States diplomatic cable from 2009 explained that for Azerbaijan, Israel was an ideal arms supplier, given restrictions on arms deals from the U.S. and Europe, and Russia’s alliance with Armenia: “Through its close relations with Israel, Azerbaijan gets a level of access to the quality weapon systems it needs to develop its army that it can not obtain from the U.S. and Europe due to various legal limitations, nor from its ex-Soviet suppliers, Belarus and Ukraine. Where other Western nations are reluctant to sell ground combat systems to the Azerbaijanis for fear of encouraging Azerbaijan to resort to war to regain [Karabakh] and the occupied territories, Israel is free to make substantial arms sales and benefits greatly from deals with its well-heeled client.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, among the weapons that Azerbaijan had already bought from Israel before last year’s blockbuster deal are Lynx multiple-launch rocket systems (and associated missiles), Aerostar and Hermes-450 drones, Spike LR and MR anti-tank missiles, and self-propelled guns and mortars.
Iran of course objects to any cooperation with Israel, for example having accused Azerbaijan of allowing Israeli drones to surveil the Azerbaijan-Iran border. And after last year’s sale, Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Tehran was summoned to explain the sale. The ambassador, Javanshir Akhundov, explained that the weapons were bought “to liberate occupied Azerbaijani land,” referring to Karabakh, and a foreign ministry spokesman emphasized that “our foreign policy is not directed against anyone else” (with the apparent exception of Armenia).
This time, it’s noteworthy that Sayyari, the Iranian naval commander, focused his comments on the naval missiles – which, of course, couldn’t be used against landlocked Armenia or Karabakh.
“We have announced many times that the Caspian Sea is the Sea of peace and friendship and the littoral states should provide its security through cooperation with each other but certain sides adopt such measures (purchasing Israeli missiles) through coordination with others,” Sayyari said in a press conference in Tehran on Sunday, commenting on Azerbaijan’s recent purchase of Israeli Gabriel-5 missiles, reported the Fars News Agency. “Anyhow, Iran is not heedless of the issue and is monitoring the situation.”
In response to those comments, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry spokesman again emphasized that its naval buildup was not directed at anyone in particular. “Armament, modernization of the navy should not be considered as a step directed against other country. There can be no talk about the damage for peace and stability in the region,” he said.
But in the case of the Caspian, a closed sea with only five littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan), it’s not hard to use the process of elimination to figure out who a particular country sees as a threat. And Iran and Azerbaijan have a long, if largely quiet, history of tension on the sea. Azerbaijan has to tread lightly: while it mistrusts its southern neighbor, it is also militarily far weaker and so strives to not do anything provocative. “If Azerbaijan were to get this wrong, they would be very vulnerable,” Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at the time of last year’s deal. “Israel and Azerbaijan have managed their relationship okay until now, but if it starts to deteriorate, it could be quite destabilizing for both countries.” That seems even more the case today.