Herzog lands in Azerbaijan amid unprecedented security, Iran on top of agenda

Unprecedented security in Baku as the Israeli president lands in country neighboring Iran.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal landed in Baku, Azerbaijan, Tuesday morning for an official two-day visit with Iran at the top of his agenda.

“I am going on an important official state visit to Azerbaijan, hosted by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev,” Herzog said before takeoff.

“A friendly, close, important country, a key country. We have to remember that beyond the trade relations, and beyond the historical ties, including the historical Jewish community, Azerbaijan is a neighbor of Iran. Iran is an unstable factor in the region that constantly pursues actions against the State of Israel and against the developing alliance of peace and security in the region, and I will certainly discuss this.”

Tensions have recently risen between Tehran and Baku, especially over Iran’s support for Armenia, Azerbaijan’s historic foe, regarding the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region that lies between them.  In 2020, Azerbaijan took a large chunk of the area in a brief war that saw it also gain control of a route that links Iran and Armenia, which is reportedly a major conduit for oil and drug smuggling that helps Iran evade crippling economic sanctions.

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In October, Iran held two large military exercises near its border with Azerbaijan. When Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Israel for the first time in March after 22 years of diplomatic relations, Iranian officials blasted the move. Its foreign ministry accused Baku of aiding “the criminal Zionist regime” in “creat[ing] differences and divisions in the Islamic Ummah [nation].”

The excellent economic and military relationship Azerbaijan has with the Jewish state worries Iran, which shares a 428-mile (765-kilometer) border with its majority-Shiite Muslim neighbor.

Israel imports a whopping 40% of its oil from the Azeris, while according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel is Azerbaijan’s main arms supplier, with 69% of its military imports coming from Israel between 2016-2020.

This is the first visit by an Israeli head of state in 14 years to Azerbaijan. It is being undertaken amidst unprecedented security precautions due to concern over a possible Iranian threat. Large sections of the capital have been closed off, thousands of Azeri policemen and soldiers are patrolling the city, and the Israeli delegation is not permitted to use their cellphones or wander away from the group during their stay.

Herzog told the press that another important purpose of his trip is to expand the relations into other spheres. Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, who is accompanying the president, plans to sign a health cooperation agreement with his Azeri counterpart.

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This follows Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s trip to Baku last month, when he signed cooperation agreements in the fields of investments, education and the environment, while also discussing security matters and the development of ties in cyber, technology and agriculture.

Aside from his meetings with President Aliyev and other government officials, Herzog will attend an event in honor of Israel’s 75th birthday and meet with the local Jewish community.

Upon landing in Baku, the Herzogs were greeted by an Azeri honor guard and some 30 young children from the capital’s Chabad-run Jewish school, who waved Israeli flags, sang the welcome song Heyvenu Shalom Aleichem (We have brought peace), and presented flowers to the First Lady.