Israel and Azerbaijan: unlikely allies?
Claims - disputed by both countries - that Israel has secured
Azerbaijani airbases has awakened interest in the Caucasus

Posted by
Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv
Thursday 29 March 2012 15.37 BST
The Guardian
Article history


The Azerbaijan capital, Baku. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/AP

In the latest in a series of explosive reports on Israel's covert
hostilities against Iran, one vigorously denied by both the Israeli
government and Baku, Foreign Policy magazine has quoted anonymous US
officials saying that Israel has secured access to airbases on Iran's
northern border through its well-nurtured defence alliance with
Azerbaijan.

"The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior US administration
official was quoted telling Foreign Policy's Mark Perry, "and the
airfield is called Azerbaijan."

Israel has refused to validate the report, which goes on to outline US
concerns that the claimed move will inflame already raw Israeli-Iran
relations and potentially draw the Caucasus into any war. One of
Perry's US intelligence sources told him:


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.

Senior sources in the Israeli government insist they know nothing of
this alleged strategic acquisition and question the veracity of the
report, pointing out that Perry has based his claims exclusively on
unnamed US officials and two independent thinktank reports
unaffiliated with any notable institutions.

One senior Israeli official suggests, however, that Iran's outrage at
its neighbour's burgeoning relationship with the Jewish state may
actually be pushing the unlikely allies closer together.

"The more pressure applied by Iran, the more they unveil plots to
carry out terror attacks on Azerbaijani embassies, the more they
[Azeris] are co-operating with us," the official explained, pointing
out that relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are becoming
increasingly fraught.

"Iran's fear that its considerable Azeri minority may have aspirations
for independence is the current bed of its relations with Azerbaijan.
As a result, Azerbaijan is very interested in firming up its
relationship with Israel."

Last month Israel confirmed the sale of drones and anti-aircraft
missile defence systems to the former Soviet state in a $1.6bn arms
deal.

But Dr Brenda Shaffer, Israel's foremost expert on Azerbaijan,
suggests it is highly unlikely that this deal points to a bilateral
defence pact against Iran. If Azerbaijan is bolstering its defence
systems, she says, this is more likely to be a display of strength
intended for Armenia, which currently occupies 20% of it territory.

Azerbaijan is bordered by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Its economy is
dependent on the safe export of oil, which requires regional
stability. Its foreign policy is characterised by its attempts to
appease each of these powers, as well as the US and Israel.

More than 30% of the Iranian population are ethnic Azeris, including
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, and the opposition
leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is currently being held under house
arrest.

"[Azerbaijan] tries to maintain friendly relations with Iran as it
does Israel. It would be very wary of allowing itself to take a step
that might seen as aggressive," Shaffer suggests.

"If there is a conflict with Iran, Azerbaijan will be the first to
suffer. The border with Iran is porous. If Iran wants to strike back,
it will do so most easily in the pro-western country on its border,
which does not have stringent border control or internal security. We
saw this in the attacks in February. It is in their interests to
prevent an attack on Iran."