One way America projects its power abroad is through its relationships with allies and strategic partners. Alliances with NATO, Israel, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and others are based on our shared values of democracy and respect for human rights. They are also essential to our national security.
However, strategic partnerships with other nations around the world with shared interests and a willingness to make common cause with the United States are also critical. Strong relationships with friends and strategic partners in the Arab world, Latin and South America, Africa and Asia are critical to protecting and defending the homeland.
A prime candidate for such a relationship is Azerbaijan.
Located in Central Asia, Azerbaijan is the only country in the world bordering both Russia and Iran. Following our catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular the evacuation of Bagram Air Force Base, America has been left deaf and blind in Central Asia. It has no place from which to monitor terrorist activities or conduct military and intelligence operations. That must change.
According to a Council on Foreign Relations article published in April, the intelligence community believes that, since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, “both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Korasan (ISIS-K) are growing in strength and could pose a significant threat beyond Afghanistan.”
The article also quoted a U.N. Security Council assessment stating, “Terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history.”
Most disturbingly, the article reports that U.S. intelligence services believe “the number of Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan has increased since U.S. forces withdrew in August 2021. As one senior U.S. Department of Defense official concluded, ‘The intelligence community [assessed] that both ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations,’ with ISIS-K capable of conducting external attacks in 2022.”
These risk assessments have only gotten more dire over time.
Clearly, a more robust American presence in Central Asia is critical to our national security. Azerbaijan can give us that strategic geopolitical presence. The good news is that a relationship with its president, Ilham Aliyev, is ripe for the picking.
Azerbaijan may be 99% Shiite Muslim, but it is secular and pro-Israel. Because it is secular, it views political Islam—such as that practiced by its neighbor Iran—as an existential threat. That worldview explains in large part why the Jewish State of Israel is Azerbaijan’s natural ally. Baku established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 shortly after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan has since purchased over $1.6 billion worth of sophisticated weapons systems from Jerusalem.
As a further demonstration of Israel’s strategic importance and as a step towards further solidifying the relationship with Israel, President Aliyev signed an order two weeks ago to establish an embassy in Tel Aviv. This will make the Central Asian nation the first Shiite Muslim-majority country to establish a diplomatic mission in the Jewish state.
In contrast to its warm relations with Israel, Azerbaijan poses a significant threat to Iran. Close to 20 million ethnic “Azeris” (the Iranian term for Azerbaijanis) live in Iran, representing over 15% of the population. Many Azeris are more loyal to Baku than to Tehran and are prepared to work clandestinely with the “Motherland” to undermine the ayatollahs. In fact, it is not unreasonable to believe that the Azeri population inside Iran is the source of much of Israel’s incredible intelligence about Iran and its nuclear program.
There may be no better example of the antagonism between Tehran and Baku and the close relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel than Azerbaijan’s recent border war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan was backed by Israel and Turkey against Armenia, which was supported by Russia and Iran. Baku’s decisive victory was a defeat for the Russia-Iran axis and a victory for our Israeli and Turkish allies. Moreover, Baku was not shy about telling the world from whom it obtained much of the military hardware it used in the war: Israel.
The U.S. and Azerbaijan have common interests. We are both enemies of Iran. We are both concerned about radical Islamic terrorism operating out of places like Iran and Afghanistan. We both view Israel as a strong strategic ally. We are both concerned about Russia’s malign behavior in Central Asia.
In exchange for allowing us to use its territory as a base from which to monitor Russia, Iran and terrorist activity in the region, we can supply Azerbaijan with the political support and military hardware it needs to navigate its very dangerous neighborhood.
Indeed, should it become necessary, Azerbaijan could be a launching point for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
It is time to start sending presidential and congressional delegations to Azerbaijan to talk about our common interests and establishing a strategic partnership.
Eric R. Levine is a founding member of the New York City law firm Eiseman, Levine Lehrhaupt & Kakoyiannis P.C. He is an essayist, political commentator and fundraiser for Republican candidates with an emphasis on the United States Senate.