The Azeri government on Thursday denied claims that it had given Israel permission to use its air bases for a possible attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“This information is absurd and groundless,” said Azeri Defense Ministry spokesman Teymur Abdullayev, referring to a Foreign Policy magazine report on Wednesday in which senior U.S. officials said the U.S. now believes that Israel has been granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran.
“The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior official told Foreign Policy, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”
A senior official at Azerbaijan’s presidential office said such speculation was “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.”
“We have stated on numerous occasions and we reiterate that there will be no actions against Iran ... from the territory of Azerbaijan,” said the official.
According to the Foreign Policy report, Israel’s Embassy in Washington, the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad spy agency were all contacted for comment but did not respond.
The Azeri Embassy in the U.S. also withheld a response, but a U.S. military intelligence officer has noted, according to Foreign Policy, that when posed with the question in the past, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiyev had not explicitly said his country would bar Israeli bombers from landing there after an attack on Iran. Nor did he rule out granting Israel permission to station search-and-rescue units in the country, according to the report.
Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan, a Muslim country that became independent with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, have grown as its once-strong strategic relationship with another Iranian neighbor, Turkey, has deteriorated. For Israeli intelligence, there is also a possible added benefit from Azerbaijan: its significant cross-border contacts and trade with Iran’s large ethnic Azeri community.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, one of the U.S. sources said, “We’re watching what Iran does closely. But we’re now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we’re not happy about it.”
The Azeri military - based on a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2011 and brought forth by Foreign Policy - has four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields that could be made available to the Israelis, as well as four air bases for its own planes.
The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told Foreign Policy that Israel, through a series of quiet political and military understandings, has won access to these air bases. “I doubt that there’s actually anything in writing,” one senior retired American diplomat with rich experience in the region told Foreign Policy, “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.”
In February 2012, Israeli defense officials confirmed the completion of a $1.6 billion deal to sell drones and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to Iran’s doorstep.
Israel Hayom reported at the time that it was not clear whether the arms deal with Azerbaijan was connected to any potential Israeli plans to strike Iran, but that Israeli defense officials spoke to Israel Hayom on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to discuss defense deals.
Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, said the timing of the deal was likely coincidental. “Such a deal ... takes a long period of time to become ripe,” he told The Associated Press.
He said Israel would continue to sell arms to its friends. “If it will help us in challenging Iran, it is for the better,” he said.
Former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joe Hoar explained Israel’s calculations regarding a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities to Foreign Policy by saying, “They save themselves 800 miles of fuel. That doesn’t guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable.”
Israel’s motivation for using Azeri air bases could be about more than simply saving fuel in a possible attack on Iran, it could be because, according to the report, one senior U.S. military intelligence officer described Israel’s mid-air refueling capabilities as “pretty minimal,” adding, “They’re just not very good at it.”
However, according to the Foreign Policy report, it is “precisely what is not known about the relationship [between Israel and Azerbaijan] that keeps U.S. military planners up at night.”
One former CIA analyst told Foreign Policy that the U.S. had its doubts that Israel would launch an attack from Azerbaijan, describing it as “just too chancy, politically.” The source didn’t rule out the option that Israel could use Azeri airfields for “follow-on or recovery operations,” but added, “Of course, if they do that, it widens the conflict, and complicates it. It’s extremely dangerous.”
Two weeks ago security services in Azerbaijan arrested 22 people they say were hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies.
Early last month, Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Mossad to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for “terrorists” to kill Iranian nuclear scientists. Azerbaijan dismissed the Iranian claims as “slanderous lies.”