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News you might have missed: Iran considers annexing Azerbaijan (again)

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

foreignpolicy.com

Posted By Marya Hannun  Friday, April 12, 2013 – 4:10 PM

Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran’s fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country’s south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.

On Tuesday, Iran’s Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran hadintroduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 — “The most frustrating chapter in the history class!” Fars laments — when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means “the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century.”

For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to “bring it” — diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.

While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here’s the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992edition of one Kentucky daily:


Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era

Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, “MP wants to ‘annex Azeri territory to Iran.’”

On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as “Southern Azerbaijan.” And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country’s name to “Northern Azerbaijan,” implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.

Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, “Baku has grown both considerably richer — thanks to revenues from energy exports — and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy.”

This boldness — which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border — has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don’t be surprised if we see this headline crop up again … and again and again.

 

Iran wants explanation for meeting in Azerbaijan

Monday, April 1st, 2013

RadioZamaneh

Mon, 04/01/2013

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has summoned Azerbaijan’s ambassador to express displeasure with a meeting held in Baku entitled “The Future of Southern Azerbaijan.”

The ministry has expressed serious concern about the meeting, saying such gatherings would pose grave harm to the “positive development of relations between the two countries.”

The meeting was organized by a group referred to as the National Freedom Front of Southern Azerbaijan.

Iran’s Azerbaijan Province is situated south of Azerbaijan, which became a country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijani media reported that the meeting took place in a hotel in the capital city of Baku, attended by a group of political activists discussing the issues of “the future of contemporary southern Azerbaijan.”

According the Azerbaijani media, no current officials participated in the meeting; however, it was attended by a number of former Azerbaijani officials and political experts.

The gathering was also denounced earlier by the Iranian embassy in Baku.

Tiny Azerbaijan unleashes pop-power against Iran’s mullahs

Monday, October 15th, 2012

washingtonpost.com

By Joby Warrick, Published: October 14

BAKU, Azerbaijan — The latest weapon in this country’s ideological war with Iran arrived late last month in an armada of jets from California, accompanied by a private security force, dazzling pyrotechnics and a wardrobe that consisted of sequins and not much else.

A crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered to watch as the leader of this mini-invasion pranced onto a stage built on the edge of the Caspian Sea. With a shout of “Hello, lovers!” Jennifer Lopez wiggled out of her skirt and launched into a throbbing disco anthem, delighting her Azerbaijani fans and — it was hoped — infuriating the turbaned ayatollahs who live just across the water.

“You could almost feel the Iranians seething,” said an Azerbaijani official who attended the U.S. pop star’s first concert in this predominantly Shiite Muslim country of 9 million. “This stuff makes them crazy.”

The effect on Iran’s leaders is real enough, and it is at least partly by design. Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor and longtime rival, is coming to relish its role as the region’s anti-Iran, a secular, Western-leaning country that is working mightily to become everything that Iran is not.

As Iran sinks ever deeper into isolation and economic distress, its northern neighbor is sprinting in the opposite direction, building political and cultural ties to the West along with new pipelines connecting energy-hungry Europe with the country’s rich petroleum fields on the Caspian Sea. Where Iran is repressive and theocratic, Azerbaijan is socially and religiously tolerant, offering itself as a model of a nonsectarian, Muslim-majority society that champions women’s athletics and embraces Western music and entertainers.

It also enthusiastically pursues diplomatic and business ties with Israel, the Jewish state that Iranian officials have threatened to destroy.

Azerbaijan’s leaders insist that such policies have nothing to do with Iran, and they point to a record of mostly cordial relations with the vastly larger, notoriously peevish republic to the south. Yet, with each stride toward modernity — and with every Western diva who arrives to croon and titillate on Baku’s expanding international stage — Azerbaijan chips away at the legitimacy of Iran’s government and fuels discontent among ordinary Iranians, say Western officials who study the region.

“It is one of the most serious threats to the long-term viability of the Iranian regime,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan who now works as a private consultant. “Every day that Azerbaijan grows stronger economically and more connected to the Euro-Atlantic community — that’s another day in which the Iranian regime grows weaker.”

It is hardly a perfect role model. The government in Baku is dominated by a single political party, and it has frequently come under criticism by independent watchdogs for its human rights record and alleged corruption. Azerbaijan also is mired in a nearly two-decade-old conflict with another of its neighbors, Armenia, over control of the disputed enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh.

Read More: Tiny Azerbaijan unleashes pop-power against Iran’s mullahs

 

Reuters sources: Azerbaijan explores aiding Israel against Iran

Monday, October 1st, 2012

By Thomas Grove, Reuters

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Israel’s “go-it-alone” option to attack Iran’s nuclear sites has set the Middle East on edge and unsettled its main ally at the height of a U.S. presidential election campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exudes impatience, saying Tehran is barely a year from a “red line” for atomic capacity. Many fellow Israelis, however, fear a unilateral strike, lacking U.S. forces, would fail against such a large and distant enemy.

But what if, even without Washington, Israel were not alone?

Azerbaijan, the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic on Iran’s far northern border, has, say local sources with knowledge of its military policy, explored with Israel how Azeri air bases and spy drones might help Israeli jets pull off a long-range attack.

‘Like Casablanca in World War II’: As Iran tensions grow, Azerbaijan becomes den of spies

That is a far cry from the massive firepower and diplomatic cover that Netanyahu wants from Washington. But, by addressing key weaknesses in any Israeli war plan — notably on refueling, reconnaissance and rescuing crews — such an alliance might tilt Israeli thinking on the feasibility of acting without U.S. help.

It could also have violent side effects more widely and many doubt Azeri President Ilham Aliyev would risk harming the energy industry on which his wealth depends, or provoking Islamists who dream of toppling his dynasty, in pursuit of favor from Israel.

Yet despite official denials by Azerbaijan and Israel, two Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.

Netanyahu: Draw ‘clear red line’ to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons

“Where planes would fly from — from here, from there, to where? — that’s what’s being planned now,” a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. “The Israelis … would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan.”

‘Iceberg’ relationship
That Aliyev, an autocratic ally of Western governments and oil firms, has become a rare Muslim friend of the Jewish state — and an object of scorn in Tehran — is no secret; a $1.6-billion arms deal involving dozens of Israeli drones, and Israel’s thirst for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea crude, are well documented.

Israelis are prepared — or not — for an Iran attack

Israel’s foreign minister visited Baku in April this year.

But a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 quoted Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, describing relations with Israel as “like an iceberg, nine tenths … below the surface.”

That he would risk the wrath of his powerful neighbor by helping wage war on Iran is, however, something his aides flatly deny; wider consequences would also be hard to calculate from military action in a region where Azerbaijan’s “frozen” conflict with Armenia is just one of many elements of volatility and where major powers from Turkey, Iran and Russia to the United States, western Europe and even China all jockey for influence.

Nonetheless, Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:

“Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling,” Musabayov told Reuters.

“I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.

“We have (bases) fully equipped with modern navigation, anti-aircraft defenses and personnel trained by Americans and if necessary they can be used without any preparations,” he added.

‘Speculation’
The administration of President Barack Obama has made clear it does not welcome Israel’s occasional talk of war and that it prefers diplomacy and economic sanctions to deflect an Iranian nuclear program that Tehran denies has military uses.

Having also invested in Azerbaijan’s defenses and facilities used by U.S. forces in transit to Afghanistan, Washington also seems unlikely to cheer Aliyev joining any action against Iran.

The Azeri president’s team insist that that will not happen.

“No third country can use Azerbaijan to perpetrate an attack on Iran. All this talk is just speculation,” said Reshad Karimov from Aliyev’s staff. He was echoing similar denials issued in Baku and from Israel when the journal Foreign Policy quoted U.S. officials in March voicing alarm that Azeri-Israeli action could thwart U.S. diplomacy toward Iran and across the Caucasus.

Iranian: ‘Our money is becoming more and more worthless every day’

Israeli officials dismiss talk of Azeri collaboration in any attack on Iran but decline public comment on specific details.

Even speaking privately, few Israeli officials will discuss the issue. Those who do are skeptical, saying overt use of Azeri bases by Israel would provoke too many hostile reactions. One political source did, however, say flying unmarked tanker aircraft out of Azerbaijan to extend the range and payloads of an Israeli bombing force might play a part in Israeli planning.

Though denying direct knowledge of current military thinking on Iran, the Israeli said one possibility might be “landing a refueling plane there, made to look like a civilian airliner, so it could later take off to rendezvous mid-air with IAF jets.”

A thousand miles separates Tehran and Tel Aviv, putting much of Iran beyond the normal ranges of Israel’s U.S.-made F-16 bombers and their F-15 escorts. So refueling could be critical.

Sabotage
There is far from unanimity among Israeli leaders about the likelihood of any strike on Iran’s nuclear plants, whether in a wider, U.S.-led operation or not. Netanyahu’s “red line” speech to the United Nations last week was seen by many in Israel as making any strike on Iran unlikely — for at least a few months.

Many, however, also assume Israel has long spied on and even sabotaged what the Western powers say are plans for atomic weapons which Israel says would threaten its very existence.

Iran’s swipe at the Web brings angry reaction … from Iranians

A second Israeli political source called the idea of Azerbaijan being either launch pad or landing ground for Israeli aircraft “ludicrous” — but agreed with the first source that it was fair to assume joint Israeli-Azeri intelligence operations.

The Azeri sources said such cooperation was established.

As part of last year’s arms deal, Azerbaijan is building up to 60 Israeli-designed drones, giving it reconnaissance means far greater than many analysts believe would be needed just to guard oil installations or even to mount any operations against the breakaway, ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh…

Read More: Reuters sources: Azerbaijan explores aiding Israel against Iran

Iran targets an American ally: Azerbaijan

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

thehill.com

By S.R. Sobhani, CEO, Caspian Group - 07/11/12 06:31 PM ET

News that the Iranian regime wanted to kill America’s ambassador to Azerbaijan in 2011 should not have come as a surprise to members of the U.S. Congress who have followed Tehran’s repeated attempts to undermine one of America’s most reliable allies in the broader Middle East. After spending a week in Baku, the vibrant capital of Azerbaijan, it has become very clear that the Iranian regime wants to overthrow this pro-western former Soviet republic on its northern border.

Tehran misses no opportunity to destabilize Azerbaijan. The pretext the week I visited Baku was that Azerbaijan was hosting Eurovision, the annual “American Idol” contest of Europe. That a Muslim nation would host singers, dancers, and tourists from all across Europe with open arms, irrespective of how they were dressed or their sexual orientation, is anathema to the intolerant mullahs of Iran. Beyond this superficial condemnation, there are more fundamental reasons for Iran to target this reliable American partner.

First, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, has refused to bow to Tehran’s demands that he sever his country’s ties with America and Israel. Aliyev’s foreign policy, while oriented towards the West, is grounded in a firm belief in Azerbaijan’s independence. He is also a firm defender of Azerbaijan’s multicultural identity. While Aliyev respects Azerbaijan’s Islamic heritage, he does not agree with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that ideology must trump national interests.

Second, Azerbaijan has cordial and deep relations with Israel and this irks the regime in Iran. Azerbaijan’s ties to the Jewish state are rooted primarily in agro-business, telecommunications and military cooperation. The government of Azerbaijan generously built the Jewish Ashkenazi community’s main synagogue in Baku. Iranian intelligence agents, by contrast, targeted Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan for assassination in 2011.

Third, and perhaps most important, Azerbaijan’s secularism, religious tolerance, economic growth, and Western oriented foreign policy now form a model for the freedom loving people trapped in Iran. A successfully modernized Muslim state north of its border spells danger for Iran’s theocracy.

Whereas Iran has not signed a single production sharing agreement to boost its falling oil production in the past three decades, Azerbaijan has signed over 20 PSA’s at a value of $60 billion. Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan’s oil production is increasing, with current exports in excess of one million barrels of crude oil per day to international markets. Azerbaijan is also a major gas exporter to Europe while Iran, home to the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, is a bit player on the international markets. Today, major energy companies from the U.S. and Europe flock to Baku to sign contracts for Azeri gas. This is a testament to Baku’s successful independent foreign policy that understands economic growth must be tied to healthy relations with the West.

Azerbaijan’s record on economic reform since its independence twenty years ago has been significantly better than Iran’s. According to former American Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, “Economic reformers have followed prudent fiscal and monetary policies, and established a well-managed sovereign wealth fund modeled on Norway’s. And despite the corruption that permeates Azerbaijan’s society, government reformers invested much of the country’s energy revenue in an anti-poverty program that helped reduce the poverty rate from 49 percent to 9.1 percent from 2003 to 2009 (16 percent, according to the World Bank).”

Indeed, Azerbaijan’s oil fund is ranked as one of the world’s most transparent and has more than $32 billion in reserves. This is in sharp contrast to the opaque manner in which Iran’s oil is sold and the involvement of the revolutionary guards and the Supreme Leader who use oil revenues for their own nefarious purposes.

Not surprisingly, over the last three decades Iran’s economy has stagnated under the weight of corruption, mismanagement and an ideology-driven agenda. Azerbaijan, by contrast, has blossomed since its independence. Its GNP has grown 20% on average during past decade. And the debt-to-GDP ratio is a mere 8 percent. Inflation is under control and the Azeri manat has held its value vis a vis the U.S. dollar. This is in sharp contrast to the Iranian rial, which has lost 90% of its value since the fall of its pro-western leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Azerbaijan has been a steadfast ally of American in the war against terror and sent troop to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is in marked contrast to Iran, where Quds forces have murdered American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas Azerbaijan is now a corridor for American supplies to Afghanistan, Iran is busy helping Al-Qaeda, and other Sunni groups like Hamas, undermine U.S. efforts.

Last month, Mrs. Clinton made her second trip to Azerbaijan within the past two years. She expressed strong support for Azerbaijan, and proposed a deeper partnership in all areas of cooperation. But, what she did not express was equally important; namely, to let Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor know that under no circumstance will the U.S. allow its friend to be bullied by dangerous ideologues bent on imposing intolerant values on an open and dynamic country. Congress must ask the administration for a more robust policy statement on how we intent to help our allies.

Iran Questioning Azerbaijani Nationals On Espionage Charges

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

RFE/RL

July 04, 2012

Iran’s state English language Press TV is reporting that officials have interrogated two Azerbaijan nationals on espionage charges.

The station cites accusations that the two were on a mission to recruit a number of dissidents in Iran to promote separatism.

The report said the two were arrested in May.

It identified them as Shahryar Hajizadeh and Farid Husseinov and claimed they are linked to Azerbaijan’s secret services.

Press TV said the two entered Iran under cover of cultural activities.

Tensions have escalated between the two nations over a number of issues including Azerbaijan’s accusations that Iran plotted terrorist attacks in Baku.

Earlier this year, Azerbaijan arrested 22 and accused them of spying for Iran.

Ties have also been strained recently over reported closer ties between Azerbaijan and Iranian rival Israel.

Based on reporting by Press TV, AP, and Reuters

Azerbaijan: terror suspects have al-Qaida links

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

04/19/2012

By AIDA SULTANOVA, Associated Press

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Members of a suspected terrorist group arrested this month in Azerbaijan had links to al-Qaida and some trained in neighboring Iran, officials said Thursday.

Some of the 17 suspects had fought NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and others had undergone a two-month training course in Iran in preparation for waging a jihad, or Islamic holy war, in Azerbaijan, the National Security Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry first announced the bust on April 6, saying the suspects were arrested in the capital, Baku, and several other cities across Azerbaijan, a former Soviet nation on the Caspian Sea. One security officer was shot and killed and three others were wounded in a skirmish during the arrests, and one suspect was also killed, it said.

The suspects were accused of planning a series of terror attacks intended to “disrupt stability and sow panic among the population.”

In the new statement, issued late Wednesday, the ministry said the group was led by Vugar Padarov, a 37-year-old Azerbaijani citizen. Some of its members had received religious training in Syria, and some had learned how to handle weapons with the Jihad Islami group in Pakistan and took part in fighting NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, the ministry said.

It also said that some of the suspects had spent two months in Iran for weapons training, but gave no further details.

National Security Ministry spokesman Arif Babayev said Thursday that this group was unrelated to alleged Iranian agents arrested in February and March. He said the investigation was ongoing and he could give no further details.

The ministry announced the arrests in March of 22 Azerbaijani citizens it said had been hired by Iran to stage terror attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies. It said they had been trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard.

Earlier this year, they announced the arrest of several other suspected terrorists allegedly working for Iran’s secret services.

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet nation of 9 million people wedged between Russia and Iran, has nurtured close relations with the United States and played an active role in Western-led counter-terrorist programs. That policy course has placed a strain on its ties with Iran, which hosts a sizable ethnic Azeri community.

Authorities in Baku have insisted, however, that they will not permit use of the country for any military action against Iran.

Israel’s Secret Staging Ground

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

foreignpolicy.com

U.S. officials believe that the Israelis have gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan. Does this bring them one step closer to a war with Iran?

BY MARK PERRY | MARCH 28, 2012

In 2009, the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Baku, Donald Lu, sent a cable to the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom titled “Azerbaijan’s discreet symbiosis with Israel.” The memo, later released by WikiLeaks, quotes Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev as describing his country’s relationship with the Jewish state as an iceberg: “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”

Why does it matter? Because Azerbaijan is strategically located on Iran’s northern border and, according to several high-level sources I’ve spoken with inside the U.S. government, Obama administration officials now believe that the “submerged” aspect of the Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance — the security cooperation between the two countries — is heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran.

In particular, four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran’s northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior administration official told me in early February, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel’s military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners, I was told, must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf — but one that could include the Caucasus. The burgeoning Israel-Azerbaijan relationship has also become a flashpoint in both countries’ relationship with Turkey, a regional heavyweight that fears the economic and political fallout of a war with Iran. Turkey’s most senior government officials have raised their concerns with their U.S. counterparts, as well as with the Azeris, the sources said.

The Israeli embassy in Washington, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, were all contacted for comment on this story but did not respond.

The Azeri embassy to the United States also did not respond to requests for information regarding Azerbaijan’s security agreements with Israel. During a recent visit to Tehran, however, Azerbaijan’s defense minister publicly ruled out the use of Azerbaijan for a strike on Iran. “The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country,” he said.

But even if his government makes good on that promise, it could still provide Israel with essential support. A U.S. military intelligence officer noted that Azeri defense minister did not explicitly bar Israeli bombers from landing in the country after a strike. Nor did he rule out the basing of Israeli search-and-rescue units in the country. Proffering such landing rights — and mounting search and rescue operations closer to Iran — would make an Israeli attack on Iran easier.

“We’re watching what Iran does closely,” one of the U.S. sources, an intelligence officer engaged in assessing the ramifications of a prospective Israeli attack confirmed. “But we’re now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we’re not happy about it.”

Israel’s deepening relationship with the Baku government was cemented in February by a $1.6 billion arms agreement that provides Azerbaijan with sophisticated drones and missile-defense systems. At the same time, Baku’s ties with Tehran have frayed: Iran presented a note to Azerbaijan’s ambassador last month claiming that Baku has supported Israeli-trained assassination squads targeting Iranian scientists, an accusation the Azeri government called ”a slander.” In February, a member of Yeni Azerbadzhan — the ruling party – called on the government to change the country’s name to “North Azerbaijan,” implicitly suggesting that the 16 million Azeris who live in northern Iran (“South Azerbaijan”) are in need of liberation.

And this month, Baku announced that 22 people had been arrested for spying on behalf of Iran, charging they had been tasked by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to “commit terrorist acts against the U.S., Israeli, and other Western states’ embassies.” The allegations prompted multiple angry denials from the Iranian government.

It’s clear why the Israelis prize their ties to Azerbaijan — and why the Iranians are infuriated by them. The Azeri military has four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields that would potentially be available to the Israelis, as well as four airbases for their own aircraft, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2011.

The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told me they believe that Israel has gained access to these airbases through a series of quiet political and military understandings. “I doubt that there’s actually anything in writing,” added a senior retired American diplomat who spent his career in the region. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt — if Israeli jets want to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they’d probably be allowed to do so. Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan, and has been for the last two decades.”

The prospect of Israel using Azerbaijan’s airfields for an Iranian attack first became public in December 2006, when retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Oded Tira angrily denounced the George W. Bush administration’s lack of action on the Iranian nuclear program. “For our part,” he wrote in a widely cited commentary, “we should also coordinate with Azerbaijan the use of airbases in its territory and also enlist the support of the Azeri minority in Iran.” The “coordination” that Tira spoke of is now a reality, the U.S. sources told me.

Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as “a significant asset” to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel’s warplanes to their limits. “Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they’d be running on fumes,” Isenberg told me, “so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial.”

Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel’s calculations: “They save themselves 800 miles of fuel,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. “That doesn’t guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable.”

Using airbases in Azerbaijan would ensure that Israel would not have to rely on its modest fleet of air refuelers or on its refueling expertise, which a senior U.S. military intelligence officer described as “pretty minimal.” Military planners have monitored Israeli refueling exercises, he added, and are not impressed. “They’re just not very good at it.”

Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who conducted a study for a think tank affiliated with the Swedish Ministry of Defense of likely Israeli attack scenarios in March 2010, said that Israel is capable of using its fleet of F-15I and F-16I warplanes in a strike on Iran without refueling after the initial top-off over Israel. “It’s not weight that’s a problem,” he said, “but the numbers of weapons that are mounted on each aircraft.” Put simply, the more distance a fighter-bomber is required to travel, the more fuel it will need and the fewer weapons it can carry. Shortening the distance adds firepower, and enhances the chances for a successful strike.

“The problem is the F-15s,” Gardiner said, “who would go in as fighters to protect the F-16 bombers and stay over the target.” In the likely event that Iran scrambled its fighters to intercept the Israeli jets, he continued, the F-15s would be used to engage them. “Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target, and would need to land.”

Could they land in Azerbaijan? “Well, it would have to be low profile, because of political sensitivities, so that means it would have to be outside of Baku and it would have to be highly developed.” Azerbaijan has such a place: the Sitalcay airstrip, which is located just over 40 miles northwest of Baku and 340 miles from the Iranian border. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sitalcay’s two tarmacs and the adjacent facilities were used by a squadron of Soviet Sukhoi SU-25 jets — perfect for Israeli fighters and bombers.  “Well then,” Gardiner said, after the site was described to him, “that would be the place.”

Even if Israeli jets did not land in Azerbaijan, access to Azeri airfields holds a number of advantages for the Israel Defense Forces. The airfields not only have facilities to service fighter-bombers, but a senior U.S. military intelligence officer said that Israel would likely base helicopter rescue units there in the days just prior to a strike for possible search and rescue missions.

This officer pointed to a July 2010 joint Israeli-Romanian exercise that tested Israeli air capabilities in mountainous areas — like those the Israeli Air Force would face during a bombing mission against Iranian nuclear facilities that the Iranians have buried deep into mountainsides. U.S. military officers watched the exercises closely, not least because they objected to the large number of Israeli fighters operating from airbases of a NATO-member country, but also because 100 Israeli fighters overflew Greece as a part of a simulation of an attack on Iran. The Israelis eventually curtailed their Romanian military activities when the United States expressed discomfort with practicing the bombing of Iran from a NATO country, according to this senior military intelligence officer.

This same senior U.S. military intelligence officer speculated that the search and rescue component of those operations will be transferred to Azerbaijan — “if they haven’t been already.” He added that Israel could also use Azerbaijan as a base for Israeli drones, either as part of a follow-on attack against Iran, or to mount aerial assessment missions in an attack’s aftermath.

Azerbaijan clearly profits from its deepening relationship with Israel. The Jewish state is the second largest customer for Azeri oil – shipped through the Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline — and its military trade allows Azerbaijan to upgrade its military after the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) slapped it with an arms embargo after its six-year undeclared war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, modernizing the Azeri military sends a clear signal to Iran that interference in Azerbaijan could be costly.

“Azerbaijan has worries of its own,” said Alexander Murinson, an Israeli-American scholar who wrote in an influential monograph on Israeli-Azeri ties for Tel Aviv’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “The Baku government has expelled Iranians preaching in their mosques, broken up pro-Iranian terrorist groups, and countered Iranian propaganda efforts among its population.”

The deepening Azeri-Israeli relationship has also escalated Israel’s dispute with Turkey, which began when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship destined for Gaza in May 2010, killing nine Turkish citizens. When Turkey demanded an apology, Israel not only refused, it abruptly canceled a $150 million contract to develop and manufacture drones with the Turkish military — then entered negotiations with Azerbaijan to jointly manufacture 60 Israeli drones of varying types. The $1.6 billion arms agreement between Israel and Azerbaijan also left Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “sputtering in rage,” according to a retired U.S. diplomat.

The centerpiece of the recent arms deal is Azerbaijan’s acquisition of Israeli drones, which has only heightened Turkish anxieties further. In November 2011, the Turkish government retrieved the wreckage of an Israeli “Heron” drone in the Mediterranean, south of the city of Adana — well inside its maritime borders. Erdogan’s government believed the drone’s flight had originated in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and demanded that Israel provide an explanation, but got none. “They lied; they told us the drone didn’t belong to them,” a former Turkish official told me last month. “But it had their markings.”

Israel began cultivating strong relations with Baku in 1994, when Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq bought a large share of the nationally controlled telephone operating system. By 1995, Azerbaijan’s marketplace was awash with Israeli goods: “Strauss ice cream, cell phones produced by Motorola’s Israeli division, Maccabee beer, and other Israeli imports are ubiquitous,” an Israeli reporter wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

In March 1996, then-Health Minister Ephraim Sneh became the first senior Israeli official to visit Baku — but not the last. Benjamin Netanyahu made the trip in 1997, a high-level Knesset delegation in 1998, Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009, and Lieberman again, as foreign minister, this last February. Accompanying Peres on his visit to Baku was Avi Leumithe CEO of Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems and a former Mossad official who paved the way for the drone agreement.

U.S. intelligence officials began to take Israel’s courtship of Azerbaijan seriously in 2001, one of the senior U.S. military intelligence officers said. In 2001, Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems contracted with Georgia’s Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing to upgrade the Soviet SU-25 Scorpion, a close air-support fighter, and one of its first customers was Azerbaijan. More recently, Israel’s Elta Systems has cooperated with Azerbaijan in building the TecSar reconnaissance satellite system and, in 2009, the two countries began negotiations over Azeri production of the Namer infantry fighting vehicle.

Israeli firms “built and guard the fence around Baku’s international airport, monitor and help protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, and even provide security for Azerbaijan’s president on foreign visits,” according to a study published by Ilya Bourtman in the Middle East Journal. Bourtman noted that Azerbaijan shares intelligence data on Iran with Israel, while Murinson raised the possibility that Israelis have set up electronic listening stations along Azerbaijan’s Iranian border.

Israeli officials downplay their military cooperation with Baku, pointing out that Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim nations that makes Israelis feel welcome. “I think that in the Caucasian region, Azerbaijan is an icon of progress and modernity,” Sneh told an Azeri magazine in July 2010.

Many would beg to differ with that description. Sneh’s claim “is laughable,” the retired American diplomat said. “Azerbaijan is a thuggish family-run kleptocracy and one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.” The U.S. embassy in Baku has also been scathing: A 2009 State Department cable described Aliyev, the son of the country’s longtime ruler and former KGB general Heydar Aliyev, as a “mafia-like” figure, comparable to “Godfather” characters Sonny and Michael Corleone. On domestic issues in particular, the cable warned that Aliyev’s policies had become “increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views.”

But the U.S. military is less concerned with Israel’s business interests in Baku, which are well-known, than it is with how and if Israel will employ its influence in Azerbaijan, should its leaders decide to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The cable goes on to confirm that Israel is focused on Azerbaijan as a military ally — “Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country and as a market for military hardware.”

It is precisely what is not known about the relationship that keeps U.S. military planners up at night. One former CIA analyst doubted that Israel will launch an attack from Azerbaijan, describing it as “just too chancy, politically.” However, he didn’t rule out Israel’s use of Azeri airfields to mount what he calls “follow-on or recovery operations.” He then added: “Of course, if they do that, it widens the conflict, and complicates it. It’s extremely dangerous.”

One of the senior U.S. military officers familiar with U.S. war plans is not as circumspect. “We are studying every option, every variable, and every factor in a possible Israeli strike,” he told me. Does that include Israel’s use of Azerbaijan as a platform from which to launch a strike — or to recover Israeli aircraft following one? There was only a moment’s hesitation. “I think I’ve answered the question,” he said.

 

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