Azerbaijan gov't eyes aiding Israel against Iran
By Thomas Grove, Reuters
October 1, 2012, 12:12 am TWN
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.
Israeli 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.
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.
"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."
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 US$1.6 billion arms deal involving dozens of Israeli drones, and Israel's thirst for Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea crude, are well documented.
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.