Amidst the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes in Turkey on 6 February, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian made a strong statement warning against the threat posed by the Zionist regime to peace and stability in the region. Specifically, he pointed to Israel’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where Azerbaijan emerged victorious with significant support from Israel in the form of technology and arms. But why did Israel get involved in a conflict thousands of miles away, with no direct interests? In this post, we’ll take a closer look at Israel’s strategic partnerships with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and how they tie into its involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
On 8 March, following devastating earthquakes in Turkey a month earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian visited Turkey to show solidarity. During his visit, he met with his counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. In a key moment of the press conference afterwards he noted:
“We see the presence of the Zionist regime in the region as a major threat to peace and stability. Wherever this regime is involved, there has been insecurity and crisis. The Islamic Republic of Iran warns the parties to pay close attention to the behavior of the Zionist regime. They should not allow its presence in the region.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister was referring to the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) Conflict and specifically to Israel’s role in it. Between 27 September and 10 November 2020, the second NK war saw Azerbaijan emerge victorious over Armenia. However, what was surprising was the extent of Israel’s involvement in the conflict, with the country providing significant support in the form of technology and arms to Azerbaijan. This raises the question: why did Israel become involved in this conflict?
At first glance, Israel’s involvement may seem puzzling. After all, the country is located thousands of miles away from the region and has no direct interests in the conflict. However, a closer look reveals that Israel’s involvement is tied to its strategic partnerships with Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have become important regional allies for Israel. The alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan recently celebrated 30 years of diplomatic ties, that include but are not limited to, energy cooperation, arms trading, diaspora politics, memory politics of the Armenian genocide, and counter-intelligence of the Iranian nuclear project.
The NK Conflict: Historical Context
The NK conflict is a complex issue with significant relevance for many academic disciplines, including ethnic conflict studies and post-Soviet conflict studies. It also affects policy making in terms of great power struggles involving Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, and the European Union.
In 1988, as part of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NK was made an autonomous region. However, tensions quickly escalated when the Armenians residing in NK declared their desire to secede from Azerbaijan and join the Republic of Armenia. This led to the first round of violence and war in NK, which lasted from 1988 to 1994. During this period, Azerbaijan lost control of several sub-regions in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, including Kalbajar, Lachin, Fuzuli, Aghdam, Jabrayil, Gubadli, and Zengilan. This process led to the occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani lands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
The United Nations (UN) Security Council responded to the conflict by adopting several resolutions, including 822, 853, 874, and 884, which condemned the occupation of Azerbaijani territories and called for the cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of all occupying forces. However, the NK conflict remained unresolved, and tensions continued to simmer between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
During the interwar period from 1994 to 2020, Armenia continued its occupation of the above sub-regions. The second NK war, also known as the 44 days war, began on 27 September 2020, with a counter-offensive operation along the entire front as the Azerbaijani army began liberating the territories that had been occupied by Armenia since the first NK war. The second war demonstrated the strength of the Azerbaijani army and ended with the decisive victory of Azerbaijan.
Thus, in practice, how does Israel back Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Between September and November 2020, Israel’s defence industries were very busy as the ‘Second Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) War’ was launched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israel actually played a key role: during this conflict in the South Caucasus, Israel’s technology and arms were put to use extensively by Azerbaijan’s military against Armenia. The evidence documented in various news outlets demonstrates Israel’s support in the conflict: Baku’s alliance with Israel and Turkey enabled its military to assume a winning position on the battlefield against Yerevan. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that Israel supplied 60 per cent of all Azerbaijan’s arms imports between 2015 and 2019.
The NK Conflict and Geopolitical Puzzle
Israel’s involvement in NK is part of a larger geopolitical puzzle; both Israel and Turkey have been using this conflict: not only as a ‘laboratory’ to examine the quality of their arms, but also to counter Iran’s aggressive ambitions in the region and to use NK as a ‘security buffer’. The arms Israel exported to the NK conflict during the 44 days of the war in 2020 left little doubt that Jerusalem seeks to support Azerbaijan in NK as a proxy war zone against Iran’s aggressiveness in the region that combines Holocaust denial, nuclear threats, and statements about the destruction of Israel and Zionism. Therefore, in other words, Israel, Turkey and Azerbaijan could be seen as one side in the conflict.
On the other side, the alliance between Iran, Armenia, and Russia is a significant factor in the NK conflict. These countries share historical and cultural ties and have long-standing diplomatic relations. During the 2020 war, Iran provided logistical support to Armenia, including the transportation of military equipment and personnel, while Russia supplied weapons and ammunition.
The potential implications of Netanyahu’s victory in the 2022 Israeli elections and his anti-Iran sentiment are indeed evident in numerous statements made by him and his government. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Iran and its nuclear program, arguing that it poses an existential threat to Israel’s security. While previous Israeli prime ministers, such as Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, and Ariel Sharon, emphasized their commitment to countering Iran and its nuclear program, Netanyahu took this to an unprecedented level by weaponizing the issue to an art form. In fact, during his famous 2015 address to the American Congress about the nuclear deal that allies were pursuing with Iran, Netanyahu went behind President Obama’s back and criticized the agreement by stating, “This is a bad deal — a very bad deal.”
Netanyahu’s previous actions as prime minister are likely to influence his actions in the region the future. This could lead to an increase in Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus, more pressure on Iran, greater support for Azerbaijan, and can explain the belligerent statements by the Iranian foreign minister above.
In conclusion, as long as the pieces of this firm geopolitical puzzle remain in play – particularly Iran and Israel’s mutual hostility – Jerusalem will maintain its high-profile support, training, and supply of arms to Azerbaijan.
For a longer form analysis of this topic, see Ben Aharon, Eldad (2023): Between Geopolitics and Identity Struggle: Why Israel Took Sides with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, PRIF Report 1/2023, Frankfurt/M.