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Friday, March 30, 2012
Israel's Secret Staging Ground
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
BY MARK PERRY
Israeli President Shimon Perez in Azerbaijan
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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. (Following the
publication of this article, an Azeri spokesman denied that his government had
granted Israel access to Azeri airbases.)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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 Leumi, the CEO of Israel's
Aeronautics Defense Systems and a former Mossad official who paved the way for
the drone agreement.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 28/03/2012
-Mark Perry is an author and historian. His latest book is Talking to