Last Updated: Wed Feb 29, 2012 13:21 pm (KSA) 10:21 am (GMT)

Azerbaijan rejects Iranian protests over arms buy from Israel

Azerbaijan’s ambassador was summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday to explain the weapons and to receive a warning that Israel must not be permitted to use Azerbaijan to stage “terrorist acts” against Iran. (File photo)
Azerbaijan’s ambassador was summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday to explain the weapons and to receive a warning that Israel must not be permitted to use Azerbaijan to stage “terrorist acts” against Iran. (File photo)

Azerbaijan on Wednesday dismissed an Iranian protest over its reported deal to buy arms worth $1.5 billion from Tehran’s foe Israel amid increased tensions between the neighboring states.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador was summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday to explain the weapons and to receive a warning that Israel must not be permitted to use Azerbaijan to stage “terrorist acts” against Iran.

But the Azerbaijani foreign ministry said that the reported weapons purchases -- which it did not confirm -- were not intended to threaten Iran.

“Our foreign policy is not directed against anyone else,” foreign ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev told a news conference.

Iranian news agencies reported Tuesday that Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Tehran, Javanshir Akhundov, had acknowledged the arms deal.

Akhundov explained that the weapons were bought “to liberate occupied Azerbaijani land”, according to the reports -- a reference to the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh which was seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian forces during a war in the 1990s.

The foreign ministry also cited the continuing conflict with neighbor Armenia over Karabakh, where no peace deal has been signed despite years of negotiations since the 1994 ceasefire.

“Azerbaijani lands are under occupation and we have one million refugees and internally displaced people, so we will do everything to restore territorial integrity and return our lands,” Abdullayev said.

Relations between Tehran and Baku have been tense for several months, with Azerbaijan saying in January that it had detained two other people allegedly linked to Iranian intelligence on suspicion of plotting attacks.

The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries came at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.

Its most pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly that they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Tehran from building bombs.

Iran denies Israeli and Western claims it seeks to develop atomic weapons, and says its disputed nuclear program is designed to produce energy and medical isotopes.

It was not clear whether the arms deal with Azerbaijan was connected to any potential Israeli plans to strike Iran. The Israeli defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to discuss defense deals.

Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, said the timing of the deal was likely coincidental. “Such a deal ... takes a long period of time to become ripe,” he told The Associated Press.

He said Israel would continue to sell arms to its friends. “If it will help us in challenging Iran, it is for the better,” he said.

Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan, a Muslim country that became independent with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, have grown as its once-strong strategic relationship with another Iranian neighbor, Turkey, has deteriorated, most sharply over Israel’s killing of nine Turks aboard a ship that sought to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010.

For Israeli intelligence, there is also a possible added benefit from Azerbaijan: Its significant cross-border contacts and trade with Iran’s large ethnic Azeri community.

For that same reason, as Iran’s nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.

Earlier this month, Iran’s foreign ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Israeli spy agency Mossad to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for “terrorists” to kill members of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan dismissed the Iranian claims as “slanderous lies.” Israeli leaders have hinted at covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.

Israel, meanwhile, recently claimed authorities foiled Iranian-sponsored attacks against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan. Such claims have precedents: In 2008, Azeri officials said they thwarted a plot to explode car bombs near the Israeli Embassy; two Lebanese men were later convicted in the bombing attempt. A year earlier, Azerbaijan convicted 15 people in connection with an alleged Iranian-linked spy network accused of passing intelligence on Western and Israeli activities.

Iran has denied Azerbaijan’s latest charges of plotting to kill Israelis, but a diplomatic rupture is unlikely. Azerbaijan is an important pathway for Iranian goods in the Caucasus region and both nations have signed accords among Caspian nations on energy, environmental and shipping policies.

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