Azerbaijan’s first-ever ambassador to Israel, Mukhtar Mammadov, has only been in his new role for several weeks, yet he talks and acts as if he’s been an envoy to the Jewish state for years.
From his brand-new offices, overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea in central Tel Aviv, Mammadov, 40, describes with a passion both his country’s ancient Jewish community — believed to have arrived following the destruction of Jerusalem’s First Temple in 586 BC and which remains 30,000-strong today — and Azerbaijan’s decades-old alliance with Israel, which, due to a range of strategic geopolitical factors, appears to be deepening.
“We do not consider opening an embassy now as an end goal, but the turning of a new page in our relations with Israel,” Mammadov, who previously served as the deputy minister of science and education, told Jewish Insider in one of his first interviews since arriving.
“Having an embassy here will further enhance our cooperation with Israel and together we will work towards more official visits, more tourism, more trade and more new projects,” he stated.
Israel and Azerbaijan have had diplomatic ties – both overt and covert – for more than 30 years, establishing relations just months after the Shi’ite Muslim-majority country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Israel has maintained an embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, for decades, yet this is the first time Azerbaijan has decided to dispatch its own envoy to the Jewish state, marking an upgrade in its relations.
The warming of ties between the two states is multifold and for both countries is as much strategic as it is economic. For Azerbaijan, embroiled in a decades-long conflict with neighboring Armenia, which was occupying its territory known widely as Nagorno Karabakh, Israel has been a source of support on the world stage, as well as providing billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry, according to reports. For Israel, Azerbaijan, which also borders Iran to the east, offers invaluable close access to its greatest enemy. Reports indicate that Azerbaijan might have allowed Israel in the past to use its territory as a staging ground for undercover attacks on its Iranian foe.
In addition, Azerbaijan crucially supplies Israel with what Mammadov refers to as the country’s “black gold,” or in other words, oil.
“Azerbaijan has been providing the State of Israel with up to 40% of its oil demand, and we now want to go beyond that,” Mammadov said in the interview. “I truly believe that there are much more opportunities between Azerbaijan and Israel in the field of trade, economics, agriculture, technology and other fields.”
Eldad Ben Aharon, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and an expert on Israel-Azerbaijan relations, explained that over the past 30 years, “both countries have shown great commitment to this alliance.”
“Azerbaijan has clear interests in Israel’s knowledge in agriculture solutions, nanotechnology and arms production,” he told JI, highlighting that while initially the ties had focused on oil and arms trading, more recently there was an increase in Israeli private sector companies working to rehabilitate the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Azerbaijan recaptured in a 2020 war.
“These days, 144 Israeli companies are working on projects in Azerbaijan, which is an unprecedented number,” Ben Aharon said. “From the Israeli perspective, there has been a bipartisan commitment to keep this alliance with Azerbaijan in all coalitions from Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett; it is strategically important to Israel’s security.”
On Tuesday, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen will head to the Eurasian nation with a large delegation of Israeli officials and business leaders, as part of the Israel-Azerbaijan Joint Intergovernmental Commission.
Mammadov said it was an opportunity for the two countries “to take stock of the state of affairs and future perspectives and cooperation in various sectors from economic trade, energy, transportation, high tech, agriculture and education… such visits are important for both Azerbaijan and Israel.”
During his time in Baku, Cohen is slated to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, who visited Israel last month. Alongside the discussions on furthering economic cooperation, Cohen is expected to raise more urgent matters such as those pertaining to Iran, its race to obtain nuclear capabilities and its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Also likely to be discussed is the military cooperation between the two countries, as tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to simmer following the 2020 war.
“The joint commission covers the bilateral cooperation in various sectors between the countries and not international matters globally or regionally, so relations or issues with regard to other countries is not on the agenda,” said Mammadov, maintaining that Azerbaijan strives for “good, friendly and constructive” relations with all its neighbors, particularly with Iran due to the fact that roughly 30 million ethnic Azeris live there.
Despite this, the ambassador described recent tensions with Iran following a deadly shooting attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran earlier this year.
“We had to evacuate all our embassy staff from Tehran because we are not confident about their safety,” he said of the Jan. 27 attack, which left one person dead and two injured. Azerbaijani demands for Iran to fully investigate the incident and punish those responsible, have seen no “tangible results,” Mammadov said.
“Lately, there have been accusations by the Iranian side towards Azerbaijan,” said Mammodov – Iran has accused Azerbaijan in the past of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory and views the country’s ties with Israel with suspicion. “But it is our policy not to interfere in the internal matters of other countries, and we expect the same treatment from other countries not to intervene in our internal matters.”
In light of the diplomatic deadlock with Iran, Mammadov, who was previously stationed in Belgium, indicated that the upgrading of ties with Israel was also related to Baku’s efforts to improve its standing with other states, particularly Washington.
Currently, Azerbaijan chairs the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), a forum of 120 countries not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc and the second largest grouping of states outside of the United Nations. This, Mammadov explained, allows it to work with many other countries. In addition, he said, “Developing good relations with the United States is something that has been on our agenda since our independence and we’re keen on enhancing those relations further.”
“We have been in a difficult geopolitical situation for the last 30-plus years due to the conflict with neighboring Armenia,” Mammadov explained. “Many people lost their lives, there was damage to the economy, to the country, to our future generations, so we don’t want any new wars, new conflicts, or new deaths in the region…. We believe it’s time for us to move to a more positive page and to invest more in education, in development, in high-tech, because the future is there.”
That is why, he added, “we want to see less escalation in the region, and we want to build proper normal neighborly relations with Armenia, despite all the memories and the history, all the atrocities committed by the Armenian side and all the destruction of our cultural heritage or lands.”
Referring to the 2020 war, Mammadov said his country deeply appreciated the support offered by Israel – some reports suggested Israel supplied Azerbaijan with kamikaze drones that are believed to have given it a decisive victory – and that both Israel and Turkey were celebrated in Baku and beyond immediately after that round of fighting.
“The Azerbaijani nation acknowledges Israel, appreciates it and is thankful for all the support we’ve been getting from the Israeli side for many years,” he said.
Moving forward, Mammadov, who also spoke at length about his country’s warm ties with the American Jewish community, said his country was focused on deepening cooperation with Israel. Two key projects in the areas of agriculture and high-tech are already underway and there is also a keen interest in benefitting from Israel’s military and cyber prowess.
“We’re definitely interested in learning about different technologies because they are developing every day,” Mammadov said. “We have to keep up with global trends and our cooperation with Israel, as mentioned, will focus on the area of cybersecurity, startups and high-tech.”
“We want to focus on developing our own capabilities,” he concluded. “Cooperation with Israel in these fields can be instrumental to develop our capacity in Azerbaijan.”
Ruth Marks Eglash