Israel’s President Isaac Herzog visited Azerbaijan marking the first state visit by an Israeli head of state to the secular Shiite Muslim country that shares a 670-kilometer border with Iran.
The visit, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, aimed to deepen the strategic partnership between the two countries in various fields, including health care, cyber security and defense. Herzog met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev and praised the level of love and affection that exists between the two nations. He also invited Aliyev to visit Israel in return.
The visit came at a time when Azerbaijan and Iran are at odds over several issues, such as the status of ethnic Azeris in Iran, the opening of an Iranian consulate in Armenia, and the alleged involvement of Iran in attacks against both countries in recent months. Azerbaijan has accused Iran of supporting Armenia in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that was reclaimed by Azerbaijan with the help of Israeli drones and weapons. Iran has denied the accusations and expressed concern over the presence of foreign forces near its borders.
Israel and Azerbaijan have a close defense relationship that dates back to the early 1990s, when Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, Israel has become Azerbaijan’s main supplier of arms and technology, accounting for 69% of its arms imports in 2016-2020. Azerbaijan is also one of Israel’s main sources of oil, providing about 40% of its petroleum imports.
The visit also reflected a new level of openness and cooperation between the two countries, which had been mostly discreet and low-profile in the past for fear of alienating other Muslim-majority states or provoking Iran. However, following the Abraham Accords and Israel’s rapprochement with Turkey, Azerbaijan decided to open its embassy in Israel for the first time in March 2023. The move was seen as a signal to Iran and other regional actors that Azerbaijan values its ties with Israel and is not afraid to show it.
Iran, on its part, has reacted with suspicion and paranoia to the growing Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance. On the eve of Herzog’s visit, Tehran reported that it had arrested 14 members linked to Israel who were seeking to identify and assassinate various individuals. A week earlier, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence said it had dismantled a network connected to a foreign intelligence service that monitored individuals who had access to sensitive material or were in charge of various positions in the nation’s sensitive organizations.
Iran has also accused Israel of using Azerbaijan as a base for gathering intelligence on Iran and preparing for possible future attacks. Iran views Israel as its arch-enemy and has repeatedly threatened to destroy it. Israel has also carried out covert operations and cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities and military assets.