Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Murky Story of Israel’s ‘Azerbaijan Airfields’


The Iran-Azerbaijan-Israel triangle is one of the foreign affairs subjects du jour, and most of it is fairly basic rehashing of the same points, but Mark Perry at Foreign Policy has come up with something eye-opening:

"The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

According to US officials Perry spoke to, Israel has a quiet and informal agreement to base its aircraft at disused Azerbaijani airfields in the case of an attack on Iran. Although they would take off from Israel, the challenges posed by fuelling such a long mission means that having a handy nearby airbase to return to – such as Azerbaijan – would make things a lot easier.

Josh Kucera rightly points out that “Iran would be able to see where the Israeli jets were going after their attack”, removing the deniability which Azerbaijan would need. US officials claim that Azerbaijani government statements denying the use of its soil for an attack on Iran do not explicitly bar Israeli jets from landing there after such an attack.

As Josh also notes this is pretty legalistic. In both their language and their tone, Azerbaijani officials from President Aliyev downwards have been explicit that Azerbaijani territory will not be used to facilitate an attack in any form - regardless of the direction in which the bombers are heading.

Ali Hasanov, the president’s frontman on such issues, has already responded to the FP piece with exasperation: “I repeat the thesis that we stated many times: Azerbaijan didn’t, doesn’t and will not allow any action against Iran, Turkey, Russia and Georgia from its territory”.

Clear enough. So what’s going on here? It’s important to note Perry’s range of sources. He cites multiple current and former US officials who are trying to understand what the Israelis are getting up to in the Caucasus, but not the Israelis themselves – they refused to talk. Although he tried contacting the Azerbaijani Embassy in D.C for comment, he apparently did not try to speak to anyone in Baku.

Chances are that he would have got no luck there either – but the lack of input from either the Israelis or the Azeris means that this is Washington-centric speculation. And there is nothing concrete from the US officials in Perry’s report. Quite possibly the Israelis have been pushing for the use of an airbase in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijani officials have been encouraging this in order to keep the Israelis happy, but nothing has been agreed, in principle or in writing.

Any such talk could have been the product of individuals and cliques within Baku and Tel Aviv. Neither state is a unitary actor, particularly given the clandestine nature of some of their security co-operation. So Perry’s unnamed officials may be hearing different things from different groups.

Although it is in Israel’s interest to keep both Iran and the US guessing on its military planning, Azerbaijan has no desire to antagonise its neighbour any further. So Baku has been frantically trying to clarify matters and reassure Tehran, whilst the Israelis have been content with “No comment”.

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