Joseph: Hello, I would like to welcome you all to today’s Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Webinar. I’m Joseph Epstein, EMET’s legislative fellow. Today’s webinar features Dr. Hayetan Cohen Yagarochak, an internationally recognized expert on the Turkish world. Two weeks ago, the Republic of Azerbaijan launched a military offensive to retake the separatist enclave of Karabakh, populated by Armenians. The conflict over Karabakh is the cause of three decades of ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and has had large regional implications. Unlikely allies have come out in support of each side. France, Russia, Iran, India and Greece are supporting Armenia while Israel, Turkey, and Pakistan are supporting Azerbaijan. In particular, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel has become increasingly close because of their common adversary, Iran. Today’s speaker is the Turkish expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and the Moshe Dion Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Dr. Hayetan Cohen Yagarochak (Dr. Cohen) received his doctorate from Tel Aviv’s University School of History and he lectures at the same institution. Dr. Cohen Yagarochak also lectures at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the editor of Turkey Scope Insights on Turkish Affairs. In May 2015, he was awarded the Dan David Prize Scholarship in support of his contributions to the study of the past. Dr. Cohen Yagarochak is the author of The Evolution of the Turkish School Textbooks, from Ataturk to Erdogan, from Lexington Books, Roman, and Littlefield.
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Dr. Cohen: Dear Joseph and the audience, thank you very much for inviting me to address this distinguished forum. For me, it’s a pleasure and privilege. I am delivering this lecture from my hotel room in Baku, Azerbaijan. In the first part of tonight’s lecture, I’m going to focus on the Israeli-Turkish relations. In the second part, I will touch on Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. Thereafter I will open the floor for questions. Okay. So let me start with Israeli-Turkish relations.
A year after Israel declared its independence, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel. Turkey’s decision did not stem from an identification with the Zionist project but rather from a desire to gain approval from the West and United States Administration. At that time, the Russians were working to acquire a military base on the Turkish Straits and claimed sovereignty over three provinces in Eastern Turkey. In 1949, hoping to satisfy the requirements of the American administration who would act as a buffer against Russian aggression, the Turkish government recognized the state of Israel. I must admit that this relationship was very superficial and we have witnessed many ups and downs, especially during 1950s and 1960s.
The relationship between Israel and Turkey deteriorated when Turkey pursued an alliance with Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran via the infamous Baghdad Pact of 1955. We can basically compare the relationship between Israel and Turkey to a relationship between lovers, or a man with a mistress. Turkey wanted a relationship but was not very proud of it and did not want to recognize it until the historic Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 when the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began to engage in indirect talks.
In the 1990s, Turkey decided to improve relations with Israel for strategic reasons as they did when they recognized Israel in 1949. Beginning in the last years of 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, the Kurdish separatist militant organization, the PKK, devastated Turkey. Military sanctions against Turkey by European Union countries and the United States at the time prevented the Turks from acquiring ammunition, weaponry and military equipment which Jerusalem was ready to provide. As a result, we began to see a new honeymoon between Turkey and the Israeli government. Israel modernized Turkish jets, sold them missiles and provided them night vision glasses and military support. All of these contributed significantly to Israel’s relations with Turkey. The IDF began to attend military drills in Natalia. This was a huge plus for the Israeli air forces since Israel does not have a large airspace in which to conduct military drills. This so-called honeymoon was limited to the Turkish army and the Israeli defense establishment and did not engage the countries’ peoples. That was the Israeli government’s most important mistake.
Starting in the year 2000, we began to see a decline in the relations between Israel and Turkey. In 1999, the PKK’s chief Abdullah Jalan was captured by the Turkish Intelligence Agency in Nairobi, Kenya. After his capture, there was a very steady decrease in PKK terrorist attacks against Turkey. As a result, Turkey began to rely less on Israeli military equipment. At a similar time, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, a sponsor of PKK Terrorism against Turkey, died. When al-Assad died, the Turkish government enhanced relations with Bashar Assad’s government. Turkey also improved relations with the European Union between 2002 and 2010. In support of Turkey’s desire to become part of the European Union at that time, Erdogan’s government passed demilitarization packages which weakened the Turkish military in favor of the European Union. During this golden age all military sanctions against Turkey began to be lifted. As a result, Turkey had less of a need to engage with Israel.
The first signs I can identify with respect to the decline in relations between Israel and Turkey, were Erdogan’s statements regarding the IDF’s assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004. Erdogan labeled the Israeli assassinations an act of terrorism. In 2006, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party allowed Hamas leader Haled Meshal to pay a visit to Turkey. This later paved the way for Turkey’s recognition of Hamas as a legitimate player and created huge damage in the relations between the two countries. The Turkish administration severely criticized Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip and the Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis in 2010 created a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. A 2016 normalization of relations collapsed when Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2016, the Turks got angry with the Americans, but punished the Israelis and asked Israels ambassador in Ankara Eitan Na’eh to leave for consultations although he was not declared a persona non grata. Israel of course reciprocated in kind.
Since then, a new dialogue between Israel and Turkey has commenced. We have begun to see a gradual improvement in Israeli/Turkish relations which have been upgraded to ambassadorial level. In 2022, Israeli president Isaac Herzog initiated a new normalization process with Turkey. Turkish president, Tayyip Erdoğan, hosted President Herzog in Ankara and the President was very well received with both Israeli and the Turkish flags present at the event. We can now speak about a genuine normalization between the two countries. Recently Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Erdogan in person for the first time ever at the United Nations General Assembly in the United Nations. I believe that Azerbaijan has also contributed to this normalization and I would like to provide some concrete reasons for that.
If you look at the map of the caucuses, you will see that Armenia is a landlocked country surrounded by Georgia in the north, Turkey in the west, Iran in the south and Azerbaijan in the east. Armenia has no proper relations with Turkey, and the Turkish-Armenian border is closed. As such, Armenia cannot access the outside world via Turkey. As discussed, they have a hostile relationship with Azerbaijan in the east and therefore need to access the broader world through Georgia or Iran. Armenia is getting ammunition from Russia and from Iran. Planes fly initially from Russia to the Caspian Sea. From the Caspian Sea they enter Iran, and from Iran, they enter Armenia. Because of hostilities between Russia and Georgia following the Russian invasion of Georgia, planes may not fly through Georgia. As a result, Armenia is very dependent on Iran and Armenia has been turned into an Iranian and Russian satellite state.
On the other hand, according to international law, Armenia occupied Azerbaijani recognized territories. In terms of international law, therefore, Azerbaijan has the upper hand. At the end of the war, Azerbaijan showed it could defeat the Armenians and liberate the occupied portions of Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories as well. Today the Azerbaijani army stands where international law describes the territories of the borders of Azerbaijan. As you can see on our map, an official Google internationally law-based map, the Nagorno-Karabakh region that was recently taken by Azerbaijan is included inside lawful Azerbaijani territory.
Azerbaijan’s location is crucial for the state of Israel. Azerbaijan is located right next to Iran and approximately 40% of Israeli oil is supplied by Azerbaijan via the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline. This pipeline flows from Baku, Azerbaijan to Tbilisi, Georgia and to the Southern Turkey port Ceyhan. Thanks to Azerbaijan, Israel is ultimately able to receive 40% of its oil via tankers from Ceyhan. Israel also considers Azerbaijan a very important customer in its defense sector. After India, Azerbaijan is considered the most important customer in this sector.
In 1992, Israel became among the first Nations that recognized the independence of Azerbaijan right after Turkey. A year after that the Azerbaijanis upgraded relations with Israel to the ambassadorial level. In 2020, both the Turkish and Israeli governments supported and provided arms to Azerbaijan during the second Karabakh war. Thanks to Azerbaijan, both countries observed they are capable of cooperating with each other. Azerbaijan began functioning as a common denominator between Israel and Turkey right after the second Karabakh war and normalization between Israel and Turkey was reached in 2022. During these two years, Azerbaijani diplomats worked very hard to mend fences between Jerusalem and Ankara. Proper relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey illustrate to the whole world that the Jewish state is capable of maintaining healthy relations with Azerbaijani Shiite Muslims and Turkish Sunni Muslims at the same time. These successful relationships send a very clear message to those who are trying to conduct defamation against the state of Israel.
Did Israel act according to international law in supporting Azerbaijan? Yes. Did Israel act according to pure realism? Yes, because weakening Armenia means weakening Iran and weakening Russia. Israel stood next to her ally and I think that was a wise decision. At the end of the day Armenia cannot contribute anything to the national security of the state of Israel but Azerbaijan does. Azerbaijan is an important customer for Israel’s defense sector. They are providing energy to Israel. They are functioning as a bridge between Israel and Turkey and their geographic geopolitical location is crucial for our intelligence activities.
Today we are seeing that the Azerbaijanis also understand the importance of their relations with Israel. At the beginning of this year, they opened their embassy in Tel Aviv. This was a clear message to Iran whose regime consistently threatens the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Historically speaking, the Iranians believe that Azerbaijan should be a part of Iran and they are attempting to export their Islamic regime to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a secular state even though the people are Shiite Muslims. Iran wants to turn Azerbaijan into an Islamic state.
Another important issue to discuss is the Southern Azerbaijani region in the northwest of Iran. The vast majority (approximately 70%) of the people living this area of Iran are ethnic Azerbaijanis. Iran is concerned that Azerbaijan’s current victory over Armenia may create a domino effect causing Southern Azerbaijanis living in northwest Iran to disobey their government. Iran is concerned they may even trigger a new rebellion against the Islamic regime in an attempt to unite their region with the Independent Republic of Azerbaijan. In future, I think that we should invest in Southern Azerbaijan’s case if we want a weaker Iran. To re-iterate, Azerbaijan constitutes a very important strategic asset for the state of Israel, and I believe also for the United States of America.
Before I open the floor to the questions, I want to emphasize that Turkey and Azerbaijan have never declared hostilities towards the state of Israel. We did not sign a peace treaty to have proper relations with Turkey and with Azerbaijan. They recognized us the same way that the United States recognized the state of Israel and we should cherish this recognition. We should understand the meaning of this recognition and this friendship and we should safeguard these relationships despite the fact that hear many accusations nowadays. Please never forget, Israel is also accused of many different things and I assume you know very well that not all of these accusations are accurate or true. As such, when you hear something about Azerbaijan or Turkey, please double-check and understand the reasons behind it. Thank you very much once again for this wonderful opportunity. Dear Joseph, as a friend of yours, thank you in person for giving me this floor. If there are some questions, of course, I would love to answer them.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Dr. Cohen. I will open up to questions from the audience. Karabakh has really captured the attention of the globe, especially in the past two weeks. This attention has led to extreme scrutiny of Azerbaijan, especially in the West, with a hundred congressmen even calling for sanctions on Azerbaijan. As mentioned before, countries like India and France, also traditional allies of Israel, are ardent supporters of Armenia. Are you concerned that Israel’s friendly relations with Azerbaijan could be detrimental to its relations with other allies?
Dr. Cohen: Not at all. Every country or state is a sovereign state whose decisions impact the bilateral relations of these countries only. I would like to give you concrete examples. The French are against Azerbaijan because France has a very large Armenian population. I assume that the French politicians who did not adequately support Armenia during the second Karabakh war and during the most recent operation are now trying to win the hearts of the Armenian constituency. With respect to India, I assume that India’s pro-Armenian policy stems from Turkey’s pro-Pakistani policy. While Turkey is arming Pakistan, India is arming Armenia. Armenia is a also good customer of India. As such, none of these states are adopting a stance to satisfy the other state only because of their close relationships. The exception for this may be the very close relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan because these nations share the same ethnicity. They are calling it “One Nation Two Countries” and Turkey sees it as a national obligation to support Azerbaijan. This is similar to the relationship between Cyprus and Greece.
Going back to your question, I do not think we should be concerned about Israel’s position with other states. It is now high season for discussing Karabakh but soon people will talk more about Ukraine once again, I think everything will change in one or two months and most people will not talk about Karabakh anymore.
Joseph: Thank you. I have had quite a few questions on the Azerbaijanis in Iran. This week, the former head of the Masad Intelligence Division spoke about this very issue. He said Iran is extremely concerned over the Republic of Azerbaijan’s ability to awaken national feeling in Iranian Azerbaijanis who make up around 30% of the population. So, do you believe that Azerbaijan and maybe even Turkey, would pursue such a policy? Do you think the Iranian concern over the consequences of such a policy is justified? Also, how do the Iranian Azerbaijanis see the current Iranian regime?
Dr. Cohen: Let’s start from the Turkish perspective. The Turks and the Iranians, or let me put it this way, the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, have not fought each other for more than 200 years. They decided their borders themselves and these borders were not imposed by colonial powers. The Ottoman and Safavid Empires and their successor states, Turkey and Iran, have maintained these borders.
Kurdish people live in both Turkey and Iran. Should the Iranian state disintegrate, Iranian Kurds may declare their independence. Turkey would not like to see Iranian Kurds become independent because this may trigger Turkey’s Kurds to unify with Iraqi Kurds then seek unification with their brothers in Iran. As such, in a very ironic way, Turks would not like to see the destruction of Iran and would not like to see a unification between Southern Azerbaijan and Northern Azerbaijan. This is a huge irony and a clash of interests between the Republic of Turkey and that of Azerbaijan. At this time however, Azerbaijanis have been prioritizing resolution of their most important headache, Karabakh. I think within the next few years, they may think bigger, and they may try to influence and do more for Southern (or Iranian) Azerbaijanis in Northwest Iran.
And you also ask, how do the Southern Azerbaijanis see the Iranian regime? Needless to say, this regime is oppressive. They hate their own people. They punish their own people without any mercy and we all know that there were some unpleasant incidents that took place in the Iranian Azerbaijan. For example, Iranian newspapers published many xenophobic articles and the Iranian police have brutally oppressed Southern Azerbaijani football fans many times. These people, do not like the Iranian regime but live in northwest Iran because it’s their homeland. They did not choose their government.
I would like to draw your attention to another important aspect in this matter. As already discussed, the Russians and the Iranians sent arms to the Armenians during the second Karabakh war. Iran openly supported Armenia in the hope that the Armenians would weaken the Azerbaijanis. Iran used Armenia to occupy Azerbaijan with Karabakh in order to redirect attention from threats to Iran. The Southern Azerbaijani people saw the arms transfers from Russia and Iran with their own eyes and tried to bar these trucks from passing into Iran. They organized rallies but they were oppressed and some of them were detained.
After the war especially, people began to post very anti-Iranian content on social media. Right after the war, President Erdogan and President Aliev of Azerbaijan saluted the Azerbaijani military personnel at a victory parade in Baku, Azerbaijan. On that occasion, Erdogan, appeared on Persian social media, reciting a very sensitive and historical poem called The Song of the Aras River. Erdogan recited the nationalistic Azerbaijani poem about how Northern Azerbaijan was separated by force from Southern Azerbaijan. Many southern Azerbaijanis began to recite the song of the Aras River and this angered the Iranians very much. Since Azerbaijan has now put an end to the occupation issue in Karabakh, the Azerbaijani army is no longer as occupied with the Armenians it was before. This is because the Armenians were defeated and all of the Nagorno-Karabakh area was evacuated.
I assume that I answered your question. Maybe we can move to your next question.
Joseph: Sure. I have a very quick follow-up question. Some members of our audience are asking what role the Azerbaijani provinces of Iran played in the Masini protest last year? Were the protests there large? Were they small?
Cohen: I prefer not to not to answer this question because I was not following the people who were protesting in Masini protests very much. Please accept my apologies, but I don’t want to mislead the audience.
Joseph: Thank you. As you mentioned, Turkey and Azerbaijan are very close. They even have the motto, “One Nation, Two Countries”, due to the similarity of their peoples. The relationship seems to be a good example of Pan-Turkism, or the ideology that Turk groups from Central Asia to Turkey should stick together and even form a block like the EU. Do you believe this is possible in the future? And if so, how will it affect the region, especially as regards Iran and Israel?
Dr. Cohen: I think it is a huge possibility. I grew up in Turkey. I was born and raised there and my mother tongue is Turkish. As I mentioned, I am delivering this lecture to you from Baku Azerbaijan. When I go out to the streets I speak with the people in Turkish, and they answer me in Azerbaijani. I understand 90% of what they are saying. The 10% that I do not understand is because of the penetration of the Persian and the Russian words into the Azerbaijani language. Besides language, there are a very high number of Turkish flags in Baku. People really embrace Turkey. The Azerbaijanis see Turkey as their big brother providing them with necessary patronage like protection from Russia and from France. As such, this is a very Pan Turkish relationship. I would like to mention once again that this relationship is not related to religion. The Turks are Sunni Muslims and the Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims and so we are not talking about a sectarian religious brotherhood. What we are speaking about is pure ethnicity including language, traditions and even the similarities between the Turkish and Azerbaijani flag.
We should also not forget a very important international organization called the Organization of the Turkic States formed during the 1990s after the Turkic states gained independence. In 2020, this organization was upgraded after the victory of Azerbaijan against Armenia in the second Karabakh war. Nowadays, both Turkey and Azerbaijan are seeking to elevate the activities of the Turkic states to include the former Soviet republics of Central Asia – Turkistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kurdistan. Together they are forming the organization of Turkic states. In answer to your question is, is it a Pan-Turkic thing? Yes, it is very Pan-Turkic thing.
Turkey and Azerbaijan share a common border in the Nakhchivan enclave. The Nakhchivan enclave is an area that has remained a discontiguous part of Azerbaijan since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Nakhchivan enclave has no direct geographical connection with the Republic of Azerbaijan but does share a common tiny border with Turkey. This border is approximately 20 kilometers long. This border connects Turkey and Azerbaijan geographically.
The region through which Azerbaijan can access the Nakhchivan enclave is called the Syunik Province in Armenia and is known as the Zangezur province in Azerbaijan. In the aftermath of the second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement. This agreement included an important article guaranteeing rite of innocent passage from Nakhchivan into proper Azerbaijan via Armenia through the Syunik/Zangezur province. The distance from border to border, from Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan is only 40 kilometers long and Turkey and Azerbaijan want to open a new corridor there. Turkey and Azerbaijan are not claiming any kind of sovereignty over that land. The land will remain under Armenian sovereignty with Turks and Azerbaijanis granted rite of innocent passage from Nakhchivan into Azerbaijan. Why is it important? Because today, in order to get from Nakhchivan into Azerbaijan, the people of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan have to enter Iranian territory in order to bypass Armenia. Alternatively, they may take a much longer route and access Azerbaijan via Georgia. To reach the Nakhchivan enclave, on the other hand, Azerbaijanis enter Georgian territory, then enter Turkey. They can then reach the Nakhchivan enclave via Turkey. Establishment of a direct corridor from the Nakhchivan enclave to Azerbaijan will provide lucrative trade routes benefitting Azerbaijan and Turkey and will also boost the Armenian economy. From the Armenian point of view however, they see this corridor as a national security threat because it allows Azerbaijani and Turkish people to enter Armenian territory.
Iran is also against this Zangezur corridor uniting Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan since they do not want to facilitate Turkish and Azerbaijani shipments via Armenia. Iran does not want to see any statistical change in Southern Caucasian and continues strengthening the hand of Armenia. Also, if Turkey unites with Azerbaijan via the Nakhchivan enclave, they can then unite with Kazakhstan, Turkistan, Uzbekistan, and Kurdistan via the Caspian Sea. This will be a very important achievement for the unification of the whole Turkic world.
Okay, so is it Pan-Turkish? Yes, it is Pan-Turkish. In Israel, in every occasion, we are asking this question, is it good for the Jews? Is it good for Israel? I think it is good for Israel because it’ll eventually weaken Iran. So again, if we should support this project, I think we should definitely do it. Other questions, Joseph?
Joseph: Yes. We’ve gotten quite a few questions from members of our audience asking about Israel’s relations with Armenia. Of course, Israel or better to say Jerusalem has a small but significant Armenian population. Does that affect any of this at all?
Dr. Cohen: Well, I believe the tiny Armenian population inside Israel, and especially in Jerusalem’s old city, does not have any important influence on the Israeli decision-making process. I truly believe that what really matters are the very intimate defense relations with Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the relationship with Armenia is very complicated. This is not only because of our pro-Azerbaijani stance but it is also because of their pro-Iranian stance. In November 2022, Iran inaugurated another consulate in southern Armenia to demonstrate power against Azerbaijan and Israel. It is not like we are still choosing to stand with Azerbaijan even though the Armenian state is free from any kind of external pressure.
We have also another school of thought in Israel. We all know both the Jewish and Armenian nations experienced attempted genocide. Since both nations were severely persecuted in the past, many people in Israel identify with the Armenians. I can understand that point of view to a certain extent. However, you should not design your foreign policy according to your feelings even if this may be considered harsh for some people. Unfortunately, if you would like to survive in this wild neighborhood, you should not take your international relations decisions with your heart, but rather with your brain. Both our brains and reality dictate that we support Azerbaijan. At the end of the day Armenia is landlocked and therefore in the hands of Russia and Iran. Geography is destiny. I do not think that the Armenians are in love with the Iranians. They have no choice but to cooperate with Iran because they are landlocked and are sandwiched between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Although planes can go through Georgia to Europe, they cannot get any ammunition from Russia via Georgia, because Georgia and Russia are enemies. As such, Armenia is 100% dependent on Iran. When hearing Iran, the Israeli defense establishment rings the alarm bells no matter what. As such, if a state is turned into a satellite state dependent on Iran, we should not and cannot change our policy towards them even if we like and identify with them and their history. Unfortunately, if we want to survive in this neighborhood, Machiavelli’s the Prince should be our Bible.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Dr. Cohen. It appears we have run out of time. Again, I’d like to thank our speaker as well as our audience. I would also like to remind our audience that we have our upcoming Rays of Light in the Darkness dinner on December 5th. We are going to be honoring really some amazing individuals at this event. If you are able to, we would love to have you attend. Also, please consider a donation today to support EMET’s ongoing efforts on Capitol Hill and our weekly webinars. Thank you.
 The Aras River is the natural border between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
 The territory of Azerbaijan was divided by two great empires under Gulustan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties: the north of Azerbaijan was annexed to Russia, while the south to Iran which was ruled by Qajar
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