Procurement: Azerbaijan, Russia, Israel And Iran


December 17, 2022: Azerbaijan is a small landlocked nation of about 11 million people, but borders on the Caspian Sea, the world's largest lake. The Caspian is huge, at 371,000 square kilometers (about the same size as Poland). It is about a thousand kilometers long and 430 kilometers wide. It's saline but is only about a third as salty as ocean water. The Caspian has a 7,000-kilometer-long coastline, with Azerbaijan owning 713 kilometers of that while the largest chunk (1,900 kilometers) belongs to Kazakhstan. Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan together share the remaining 4,400 kilometers of Caspian coastline. Azerbaijan has land borders with Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey. Azerbaijan exports oil and natural gas via four pipelines. One goes through Russia to the Black Sea, two more via Armenia, Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean and another continues underwater to Italy. There are also exports via Caspian Sea tankers to nations bordering the Caspian.

Russian tankers on the Caspian Sea can export oil via the Volga-Don Canal. The Don River empties into the Caspian while the Volga goes to the Black Sea. The 101-kilometer canal enables ships carrying no more than 5,000 tons to move between the Black Sea and the Caspian. The canal currently moves over 12 million tons of cargo a year. About half of that is oil or oil products. Until 2022 only Russian ships could use the canal but now Russia allows Iranian ships as well.

Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 and flourished economically by making some astute alliances. While the Azeris remained on good terms with Russia, there were some violent territorial disputes with Armenia, which had even closer ties with Russia. Relations with Iran were bad, even though both nations had a largely Shia Moslem population. The Azeris are often Moslem in name only, being a lot more tolerant of other religions than Iran. For Azeris, economics was more important than religion and to guarantee that Azerbaijan formed strong economic and diplomatic ties with Israel beginning a year after independence from Soviet Russia. While Israel has had an embassy in Azerbaijan since 1992, it wasn’t until 2022 that Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Israel. They also opened a representative office with Palestine. Azerbaijan has tried to maintain diplomatic relations with the Palestinians so the Azeris can show some support for the Palestinians, but not at the expense of Israel. The Azeris and Israel both face a situation where their neighbors oppose independence for Azerbaijan or Israel. Meanwhile, Turkey considers Azerbaijan a “Turkish protectorate” while Russia and Iran both want to absorb Azerbaijan, a struggle that has been going on for some time.

Iran shares a land border with Azerbaijan and has a historical claim on Azerbaijan. In the 19th century Azerbaijan (as in the area occupied by the Azeris, a Turkic people) was divided by Russia and Iran. Currently, about a quarter of the Iranian population is Azeri, but the Azeris of Azerbaijan believe all Azeris should be part of an independent Azerbaijan. This was how it was for centuries before Turkey, Russia, and Iran began seeking to conquer Azerbaijan. Some Iranian Azeris like this idea and Iran is always looking for ways to make Azerbaijan back off. Iran has been expanding its Caspian naval forces, which annoyed Russia more than Azerbaijan.

The Iranian buildup included a new corvette, an Iranian built 1,400-ton ship. Azerbaijan responded by buying over $5 billion worth of weapons from Israel, which angered Iran a great deal. Among the items purchased were Gabriel anti-ship missiles. These are very effective weapons with a range of 36 kilometers. Azerbaijan uses these to protect its Caspian Sea coast from the growing number of Iranian warships being introduced in the Caspian. Most of the Iranian Caspian “fleet” consists of small patrol boats. Some are armed with anti-ship missiles but they are basically coast guard type craft. In the last decade Azerbaijan has acquired most of its major weapon systems from Israel and Azerbaijan accounts for about a quarter of Israeli arms exports. Russia tolerates that because most of those weapons are aimed at Iran. Azerbaijan has also given Israel access to its airports and land border with Iran for espionage activities. In 2022, Iran became one of the few nations to supply Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine. Russia retains its links with Israel and Azerbaijan. The Iranians sell missiles to Russia despite that because Russia pays with cash and some modern Su-35 jets that recently arrived in Iran. Azerbaijan already has Israeli air-defense systems that can defeat the Su-35s. Russia is another matter because what really controls the Caspian is aircraft and Russia has the most of those. Russia also has the only water link to the ocean and thus the ability to bring in more warships on short notice. These, plus Russia’s larger air force, gives Russia naval superiority in the Caspian Sea.

This is not enough for the nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union and are still on good terms with Russia. That’s because Iran has threatened all its neighbors on the Caspian and has claims on offshore oil fields that belong to Azerbaijan. There’s believed to be another 40 billion barrels of oil under the Caspian, and Iran wants to grab all it can. This makes all the other Caspian nations nervous.

Since the 19th century a Russian (and later Soviet) flotilla was the largest naval force in the Caspian. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan inherited most of that. Although all Caspian nations have, sort of, pledged not to get involved in a naval arms race, Iran has broken that arrangement and everyone else responded by bringing more warships into the Caspian. Russia and its three allies have an advantage because they can buy from anywhere and bring the ships in via the Volga-Don Canal. Iran must build larger ships in the Caspian Sea yards. Smaller vessels can be brought in via railroad flatcars, which is what Iran does.

Azerbaijan’s good relations with Russia survived the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which Azerbaijan was winning, thanks to all those Israeli weapons and Israeli military advisors. Russia brokered a ceasefire before Iran could get involved. This is another example of how hazardous the Azerbaijan situation is and another example why they maintain strong ties with Israel and, to a lesser extent, Russia.




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