Report: Azerbaijan grants Israel access to air bases on Iran border

An Israel Air Force F-16I climbs on a training mission. (IAF)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—Azerbaijan has agreed to let Israel Air Force planes use one or more former Soviet air bases located near the country’s border with Iran, according to the latest issue of Foreign Policy.

If the report is accurate, the Azerbaijan bases could serve as refueling points for IAF planes returning from a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, thus increasing the probability and chances of success for such a raid.

It is considered unlikely that the Azerbaijan bases would be used to stage a strike against Iran. Indeed, on a recent visit to Tehran, Azerbaijan’s defense minister publicly ruled this out. “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.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan and Jerusalem have been developing close ties in recent years, particularly military ties. Wikileaks recently published a 2009 memo from the US Embassy in Baku to the State Department titled “Azerbaijan’s discreet symbiosis with Israel.” The memo 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.”

The Foreign Policy article by Mark Perry quotes a senior US official as saying: “The Israelis have bought an airfield, and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

If true, the agreement is the latest in a growing list of military ties between the two countries. Just last month Israel and Azerbaijan concluded a $1.6 billion arms deal, in which Israel sold the country sophisticated drones and missile-defense systems.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s relationship with Baku have grown tense. Also last month, Iran accused Azerbaijan of supporting Israeli assassination teams that were targeting Iranian atomic scientists. Baku called the allegation “a slander” and this month announced the arrest of 22 Iranians on suspicion of planning to commit terrorist attacks against US, Israeli, and other Western embassies.

Azerbaijan has inherited four abandoned  Soviet airfields, in addition to their own four air bases, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2011.

“We’re watching what Iran does closely,” said a US intelligence officer involved in assessing the consequences of a potential Israeli strike on Iran. “But we’re now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we’re not happy about it.”

“I doubt that there’s actually anything in writing,” said a former U.S. 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.”

Foreign Policy notes that comment on the report was declined by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet. Additionally, the Azeri Embassy to the US did not respond when asked about Azerbaijan’s security agreements with Israel.

According to Foreign Policy, the Obama administration believes the Jerusalem-Baku relationship is increasing the risk of an Israeli strike on Iran. Senior US officials have said that Israel’s military expansion into Azerbaijan is complicating US efforts to defuse Israeli-Iranian tensions. “We’re watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we’re not happy about it,” one official said.