Oct 1 2012

Reuters quotes local sources with knowledge of Azerbaijan's military
policy that say Azeri authorities explored with Israel how their air
bases, spy drones could help Israel in Iran strike.

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.

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 $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.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has made clear it
does not welcome Israel's occasional talk of war and that it prefers
diplomacy and economic sanctions to deflect an Iranian nuclear program
that Tehran denies has military uses.

Having also invested in Azerbaijan's defenses and facilities used by
U.S. forces in transit to Afghanistan, Washington also seems unlikely
to cheer Aliyev joining any action against Iran.

The Azeri president's team insist that that will not happen.

"No third country can use Azerbaijan to perpetrate an attack on Iran.

All this talk is just speculation," said Reshad Karimov from Aliyev's
staff. He was echoing similar denials issued in Baku and from Israel
when the journal Foreign Policy quoted U.S. officials in March voicing
alarm that Azeri-Israeli action could thwart U.S. diplomacy toward
Iran and across the Caucasus.

Israeli officials dismiss talk of Azeri collaboration in any attack
on Iran but decline public comment on specific details.

Even speaking privately, few Israeli officials will discuss the issue.

Those who do are skeptical, saying overt use of Azeri bases by Israel
would provoke too many hostile reactions. One political source did,
however, say flying unmarked tanker aircraft out of Azerbaijan to
extend the range and payloads of an Israeli bombing force might play
a part in Israeli planning.

Though denying direct knowledge of current military thinking on Iran,
the Israeli said one possibility might be "landing a refueling plane
there, made to look like a civilian airliner, so it could later take
off to rendezvous mid-air with IAF jets".

A thousand miles separates Tehran and Tel Aviv, putting much of Iran
beyond the normal ranges of Israel's U.S.-made F-16 bombers and their
F-15 escorts. So refueling could be critical.

There is far from unanimity among Israeli leaders about the likelihood
of any strike on Iran's nuclear plants, whether in a wider, U.S.-led
operation or not. Netanyahu's "red line" speech to the United Nations
last week was seen by many in Israel as making any strike on Iran
unlikely - for at least a few months.

Many, however, also assume Israel has long spied on and even sabotaged
what the Western powers say are plans for atomic weapons which Israel
says would threaten its very existence.

A second Israeli political source called the idea of Azerbaijan being
either launch pad or landing ground for Israeli aircraft "ludicrous"
- but agreed with the first source that it was fair to assume joint
Israeli-Azeri intelligence operations.

The Azeri sources said such cooperation was established.

As part of last year's arms deal, Azerbaijan is building up to
60 Israeli-designed drones, giving it reconnaissance means far
greater than many analysts believe would be needed just to guard oil
installations or even to mount any operations against the breakaway,
ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"With these drones, (Israel) can indirectly watch what's happening
in Iran, while we protect our borders," legislator Musabayov said -
a view shared by Azeri former military sources.

Less reserved than Israeli officials, the sources in Azerbaijan
and in Russian intelligence, which keeps a close eye on its former
Soviet backyard, said Baku could offer Israel much more, however -
though none believed any deal was yet settled.

The country, home to nine million people whose language is close to
Turkish and who mostly share the Shi'ite Muslim faith of Iran, has
four ex-Soviet air bases that could be suitable for Israeli jets,
the Azeri sources said. They named central Kyurdamir, Gyanja in the
west and Nasosny and Gala in the east.

The Pentagon says it helped upgrade Nasosny airfield for NATO use. It
also uses Azeri commercial facilities in transit to Afghanistan. But
U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan is limited by Washington's role as
a mediator in its dispute with Armenia.

One of the sources with links to the Azeri military said: "There is
not a single official base of the United States and even less so of
Israel on the territory of Azerbaijan. But that is 'officially'.

Unofficially they exist, and they may be used."

The source said Iran had been a main topic of talks in April with
Israel's Soviet-born foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Azeri tarmac, a shorter flight from key sites in northern Iran
including the Fordow underground uranium enrichment plant and missile
batteries at Tabriz, might feature in Israeli war planning in less
direct ways, the former Azeri officers said.

With Israel wary of its vulnerability to pressure over air crew taken
prisoner, plans for extracting downed pilots may be a key feature
of any attack plan. Search and rescue helicopters might operate from
Azerbaijan, the sources said - or planes that were hit or low on fuel
could land at Azeri bases in extremis.

Such engagement carries risks for Azerbaijan and its oil platforms
and pipelines operated with international companies.

Defending against Iran is part of public debate in Baku. The United
States has provided Azerbaijan with three Coast Guard cutters and
has funded seven coastal radar sites as well as giving Baku other
help in protecting its oil installations.

Relations have long been strained between the former Soviet state
and Iran, which is home to twice as many ethnic Azeris as Azerbaijan
itself. Tehran beams an Azeri-language television channel over the
border which portrays Aliyev as a puppet of Israel and the West,
as well as highlighting corruption in Baku.

Azerbaijan sees Iranian hands behind its Islamist opposition and both
countries have arrested alleged spies and agitators.

Faced with an uneven balance of force, Aliyev's government makes no
bones about Israel being an ally. As one presidential aide, speaking
on condition of anonymity, explained: "We live in a dangerous
neighborhood; that is what is the most powerful driving force for
our relationship with Israel."

However, Israel's confrontation with Iran may turn out, the arms
build-up in Azerbaijan, including recent Israeli upgrades for its
Soviet T-72 tanks, may have consequences for the wider region and for
the stand-off with Armenia - consequences that would trouble all the
powers with stakes in the Caspian region.

"We keep buying arms. On the one hand, it's a good strategy to
frighten Armenia," one of the former Azeri officers said of the shaky,
18-year-old ceasefire over Nagorno-Karabakh. "But you don't collect
weapons to hang on the wall and gather dust.

"One day, all these could be used."

From: Baghdasarian