Azerbaijan and Israel nurture a discreet partnership

Critics worry old Soviet airbases could be used to attack Iran

Vancouver Sun: Reports that Israel is lining up old Soviet-era airbases in Azerbaijan for use in bombing attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites are a useful reminder that the Middle East is seething with disinformation and strategic lies.

Washington is humming with speculation that the administration of President Barack Obama purposefully leaked the suggestion, which appeared in the March 28 edition of Foreign Policy magazine and quoted unnamed officials, in order to dissuade Israel from taking military action against Iran.

This only goes to show, continues the line of thought, the appalling relationship and lack of trust between the Obama White House and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In reality there was no need for Obama officials to leak speculation of a role for Azerbaijan in an Israeli attack on Iran. The possibility has been written and talked about for months if not years.

Israel and Azerbaijan, just over Iran’s northwestern border on the shores of the Caspian Sea, have been developing close military and economic ties for close to 20 years.

This has been of acute concern to Iran for some time.

The major logistical hurdle for an air attack on Iran’s nuclear development sites is that Israel’s F-16 bombers and the F-15 fighters that would protect them cannot carry enough fuel to get to the targets and back.

Israel does not have adequate capacity for mid-air refuelling. So the solution is to find a place where the Israeli warplanes could land and refuel.

With the United States, and therefore its Middle East allies, firmly opposed to military action against Iran until new sanctions are given a chance to pressure the Tehran regime to come clean about the purposes of its nuclear development pro-gram, Azerbaijan is about the only choice for an Israeli staging area.

But the Azerbaijani government of President Ilham Aliyev has already adamantly denied it will allow its territory to be used by Israel.

Early last month, Azerbaijan’s defence minister Safar Abiyev promised while on a visit to Tehran that his country would not be used as a platform for an Israeli attack on Iran.

The defence minister’s visit was intended to try to patch up relations with Tehran, which are always difficult but have become especially tender as the Baku government’s relations with Israel have grown.

In February the Tehran government called in the Azeri ambassador for a verbal dressing-down after it became known that Baku had done a $1.6 billion-arms deal with Israel for the development and manufacture of unmanned drone aircraft, and the purchase of anti-aircraft missile systems.

And that is only the latest in a succession of military deals that dovetail neatly with Azerbaijan’s role as a major supplier of oil to Israel.

A January 2009 “secret” memo from the American embassy in Baku to Washing-ton, published by WikiLeaks, describes another weapons deal in which Azerbaijan bought from Israel mortars, ammunition, rocket artillery and radio equipment.

The message, from then political affairs counsellor Rob Garverick, describes in some detail the military and intelligence relationship that has developed between Israel and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

The message also described why Azerbaijan and Israel have been thrust into partnership.

Israel, of course, always looks for all the friends it can get – overt or covert – in a neighbourhood where it is constantly under threat.

The neighbourhood is no less threatening for Azerbaijan and its eight million people.

Azerbaijan’s particular worry is its western neighbour, Armenia, which occupies the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh that is claimed by the Baku government.

Armenia’s emigrant population in Europe and North America has proved expert at persuading the governments in their new homes to adopt policies favouring Armenian interests.

The result is that the West will not sell Azerbaijan arms for fear it will use them to try to regain Nagorno Karabakh.

Israel has no such qualms.

But Azerbaijan has become a battleground between Iran and Israel. There have been several attempts by Iranian-backed groups to attack Israelis in Azerbaijan in retaliation for what is widely seen as an Israeli campaign to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.

But even though the Baku government dislikes and mistrusts Tehran, it is careful not to provoke Iran’s ruling clerics too far.

Allowing Azerbaijan to be used as a base for an Israeli attack on Iran would be a step well over that red line and Baku will not take it.