Azerbaijani US Ambassador: Israel Is a Pragmatic Partner and Good Friend, We Want it to Be Normal for Muslims and Jews to Be Allies
Over the past two and a half decades, the Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan — a Shiite Muslim-majority state — has become a close ally of Israel, manifested by deep economic and military bonds.
In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku, where he met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “The world sees so much intolerance, so much darkness, and here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere,” Netanyahu said at the time.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the US Elin Suleymanov sat down for an interview with The Algemeiner at his country’s embassy in Washington, DC and talked about a wide range of topics, including Azerbaijan-Israel ties, the Azerbaijani Jewish community, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and the Trump administration, among other things.
First of all, for readers who are not familiar with Azerbaijan, speak about your country’s place in the world at the current moment in history.
“Azerbaijan is in a way very unique. You have a country on the shores of the Caspian Sea and it’s the only country in the world which borders both Russia and Iran. On a map, if you move from the Arctic Ocean down to the Persian Gulf, there are only three countries — big Russia to the north, big Iran to the south and small Azerbaijan in the middle. The other thing is that Azerbaijan has historically always been at the crossroads of many cultures and empires. So it has a very diverse environment.”
“We were the first-ever democratic republic in the Muslim world. We granted equal rights to vote for everybody, including women and all of our minorities. We had a Jewish member of the cabinet in 1918, two decades before the great tragedy of the Holocaust in Europe. That speaks for itself.”
“We have always positioned ourselves as a country which promotes dialogue and understanding between different cultures. We want to see the world as a cooperative place where it doesn’t matter what your background is, but rather matters what you do.”
“We work a lot with the Americans, and some with the Israelis, on defense and security issues. We work in Afghanistan. We were among the very first ones to help with the situation in Iraq after 9/11.”
“And, of course, energy is important for us. We are building the very ambitious Southern Gas Corridor — a $40 billion project that will deliver Azerbaijani gas to European markets.”
How would you describe Azerbaijan? Western-oriented? Russian-oriented? Some other definition?
“It’s clearly not Russian-oriented. Basically, with all of its influences, Azerbaijan is still a southeastern European nation. In essence, it is Western-oriented, if you think about its institutions and the secular nature of the state. But I believe, most importantly, what people don’t understand is that Azerbaijan is Azerbaijan-oriented, because of our place in the world. Being in the Caucasus region, where so many things come together, it creates a unique sense of independence. So you can say Azerbaijan is Western-oriented, but with the caveat that the most important orientation is building an independent country.”
How did the relationship between Azerbaijan — a Muslim-majority state — and Israel — the world’s only Jewish-majority state — develop?
“It’s kind of sad that the relationship is surprising to some. We don’t want it to be surprising, we want it to be normal. Muslims and Jews are very similar in many ways. I think the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel actually preceded formal statehood for either one. We have a 2,500-year-old Jewish community in Azerbaijan, with both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Jewish people have always been part of Azerbaijan’s society. There is also a very strong Azerbaijani Jewish community in Israel. Haifa is now a sister city of Baku, our capital, and there are direct flights between Tel Aviv and Baku. When Azerbaijan became independent again (with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), Israel was among the very first countries to recognize it. There are very strong economic, technological, medical, educational, agricultural, tourism and security ties. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
“The ties are very multi-faceted. It’s easy, even cliché, to say it’s ‘oil for guns.’ Azerbaijan does provide over 40% of Israel’s oil, its single largest supplier. And Azerbaijan also purchases some equipment from Israel, by the way not limited to security equipment. But that’s not the whole story.”
“I think we gain valuable expertise from Israel. We see Israel as a pragmatic partner and a good friend. They’re very competitive with technology and the relationship is very good for us because we can diversify our supplies.”
“For Israel, I think Azerbaijan is a good customer and a good provider of oil and gas. And as Israel develops its energy expertise, I think they can actually build on what we have, because Israel doesn’t have a longstanding energy tradition.”
“Also, Israel is not just a Jewish state, it’s a quite diverse country. So regarding how to manage diversity issues, we both can learn from each other.”
“I respect the Israeli view that it needs to have more friends among Muslim nations. And Azerbaijan is a very good friend of Israel among the Muslim nations.”
There has been a lot of talk recently about burgeoning behind-the-scenes ties between Israel and Arab nations across the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?
“It’s good. I’m very happy to see better relations between other nations and Israel. I’m hoping this will contribute to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.”
What is Azerbaijan’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“I think it’s an issue that needs to be resolved. It is a serious problem. Maybe a Trump administration approach that is more inclusive and regional in nature, perhaps that will be better.”
“We are supporters of the two-state solution. We want to see two states, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state living next to each other in peace. We fully respect Israel’s right to existence and security. And at the same time, we strongly support the Palestinian right to have a state. We are very proud of both our relationship with Israel and our support for the Palestinian people. The Palestinians have certain rights which need to be protected. We try to contribute as much as we can to the dialogue. I was very happy to have both the Israeli ambassador and the PLO ambassador at our Hanukkah party in Washington, DC [in December].”
“We’re not in the region, so we don’t know how much we can actually get involved. Arab countries should take the lead, but wherever we can help is good.”
How do you balance your relationship with Israel with your relationship with your neighbor Iran?
“In Azerbaijan, we have an emphasis on independence and bilateral relationships. Our relationship with Israel is a relationship between our two countries. It’s not aimed against anybody or meant to undermine anybody. It’s between two friendly nations. Our relationship with Iran, our big neighbor and a very significant regional player, is a relationship between two neighbors, who, by the way, share a lot of culture together and, importantly, populations living across each other’s borders. So our relationship with Iran does not intersect with our relationship with Israel. The most fundamental thing is for there to be mutual respect – especially respect for the sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan will respect everybody else’s sovereignty.”
Do you have any hope that the animosity between Iran and Israel will one day be gone?
“Of course, it would be good if there were better relations between Iran and Israel. It would be beneficial for everybody. But that is for the Iranians and Israelis to decide. We would definitely be happy, but it’s not our decision.”
Israel is known as a technological powerhouse. Are there Israeli technologies that Azerbaijan benefits from?
“Absolutely. For example, one of the cell phone operators in Azerbaijan was established in partnership with Israelis.”
Are you familiar with the media reports from last year that Azerbaijan reached a deal with Israel to purchase the Iron Dome aerial defense system?
“I read the same reports you did. I don’t know. But it’s no secret that we do have bilateral defense cooperation. I don’t know the exact details, but there was a lot of talk about those reports. I’ll tell you something, maybe we should buy it, given the fact that the Armenian president visited the Azerbaijani territories his country is occupying and said he wants to use ballistic missiles against Azerbaijan.”
Have you been to Israel?
“I traveled to Israel with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange in 2015. I was very impressed — with the dynamism and the start-up atmosphere. There are definitely things we in Azerbaijan can learn, and already have learned from the Israelis.”
“One of the most impressive things I saw in Israel was how they turned a desert into very productive agricultural areas.”
“I don’t want to appear naive, but I came back hopeful [about the potential for peace]. From the conversations I had with Palestinians and Israelis, I noticed that both recognized the importance of peace. Of course, details matter. But all in all, there seems to be a desire to live in a normal society.”
How do Jews fit into Azerbaijani society?
“They are very well integrated. They are not distinct from the rest of society.”
“Several visiting rabbis have told me that it’s safer to walk in Baku with a kippah on than in many places in Europe.”
“We have two communities. First is the old Sephardic one (known as ‘Mountain Jews’), and its not really Sephardic because it precedes the Spanish exile. Then there are also the Ashkenazi groups who came to Azerbaijan — mostly specialists who came during the Russian Empire to develop the oil fields and people who escaped pogroms.”
“That’s what people forget. The reason there are so many Jews living in Azerbaijan and central Asia is because at the time there were pogroms in the Christian parts of the Russian Empire, people found refuge in the Muslim lands. And I think it’s important that we don’t forget that tradition, which reminds us how close culturally Muslims and Jews are.”
“One of the first ‘National Heroes of Azerbaijan’ — the highest honor you can get — was given to Albert Agarunov, a Jewish Azerbaijani soldier who died fighting against Armenia [in 1992]. That’s an example of how people feel about each other.”
Describe Azerbaijan’s ties with the US.
“We have a strong relationship with the US. It’s very strategic in some areas, such as counter-terrorism and defense issues. About 40% of military cargo which goes to and from Afghanistan overflies Azerbaijan.”
“Over the past several years, I think the relationship continued to be good, but it got a little bit stale, because we saw some less-than-pragmatic and unrealistic approaches towards the region by the US. So we’re hopeful the new administration will build on the good background and develop it further.”
What’s it like to be a diplomat in DC these days? It seems like there is a lot of uncertainty in the air.
“Let me tell you, it’s very exciting. But it is true that there are not yet enough appointed officials, counterparts, within the new administration. So it doesn’t necessarily create a problem, but it does produce a certain degree of uncertainty. However, I think people must be understanding of the situation. Our American colleagues and friends are going through a significant transition. We should give them time to formulate new policies and put new people in place. It’s not easy. But we are very hopeful. What we’ve heard from general pronouncements and our contacts has been generally positive.”
What are you hoping for from the Trump administration?
“That it will be realistic, pragmatic and value its allies and build relationships with them. It’s also important that Azerbaijan’s independence and role as a Muslim-majority country that’s an ally of the United States is understood and recognized. From there, the rest is details.”