Azerbaijan courts Jews, Israel

BAKU, Azerbaijan, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Every time an American Jewish delegation visits the Jewish community in Baku, Azerbaijan’s president goes out of his way to meet with the group.

President Heydar Aliyev was in Moscow when a delegation of more than 90 U.S. Jewish federation leaders arrived in Baku last week for their annual Voyage of Discovery mission. But when his trip was cut short, his aides rushed to squeeze in a meeting with the Jews.

Although the meeting did not take place, Aliyev’s eagerness highlights how many developing countries still consider strong ties with American Jews and Israel to be a key component in securing political support from Washington. That belief is enhanced by a combination of common U.S. and Israeli interests in the Caucasus region and particularly in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country strategically wedged between Russia and Iran.

“They still believe we can open doors in Washington,” said a Jewish Agency for Israel official who is active in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity. “After 10 years, they still do not always understand that it is not always so simple.”

Like many former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan is deep in economic crisis. However, enormous oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, just off the coast of Baku, has attracted some of the world’s biggest energy companies to this predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country of 7.8 million people.

The United States is backing a network of pipelines throughout the region, including a $2.5 billion, 1,200-mile pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, a Mediterranean port in Turkey. It is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region, aimed at creating a counterbalance to Iran’s regional influence.

“This is a common interest for the U.S. and Israel,” said Dr. Nimrod Novik, senior vice president of the Merhav Group, an Israeli consortium that has carried out $1.4 billion in regional energy projects, mostly in nearby Turkmenistan.

“The primary interest is to prevent the development of Turkish strategic dependence on Iran, given the unique emerging strategic relationship between Turkey and Israel.”

Forging ties in the region is also part of Israel’s strategy to build a belt of friendly countries on the periphery of the Middle East running east from Turkey along the northern frontier of Iran. This is crucial given the region’s proximity to Iran, and the improbability of Israel’s conflict with the Islamic republic diminishing even if a peace accord is signed with Syria.

In return, Baku tries to leverage Israeli and U.S. Jewish influence as part of a campaign to lift curbs on investment that were imposed by the United States during the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict between 1992 and 1994.

Andy David, a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Baku, downplayed the strategic interests in the region, and says the issue is more symbolic.

“Having good relations with a Shi’ite Muslim country proves that the regional tensions for 100 years are not tensions between religions,” he said.

But last month, strategic issues were unlikely ignored when Efraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defense minister, paid an official visit to Azerbaijan.

In addition, Baku is a perfect base for Israeli intelligence operations. The city is home to an Iranian embassy with 200 employees. And there is a constant flow of people to and from Iran, where 25 million ethnic Azeris are one of the country’s biggest minorities.

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