Friday, March 30, 2012

Azeris Strengthen Israel’s Hand on Iran

by Jonathan S. Tobin

The potential for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be a lot greater than skeptics may have thought. That’s the upshot of a story published yesterday in Foreign Policy that alleges Azerbaijan has granted the Israelis access to airbases in that country. If true, Israel’s ability to launch a strike from bases on Iran’s northern border would make the Jewish state’s military challenge in seeking to knock out Iran’s nuclear plants a lot simpler. The assistance of the Azeris would enable the Israelis to make repeated attacks and would eliminate the need to refuel their planes in midair in order to make the long flight from Israel to Iran.

Yet at the same time, a report in Ha’aretz insists that Tuesday’s announcement by the U.S. Defense Department that it would ask Congress for more money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system ensures there will be no attack on Iran before the presidential election this year. While that assumption may be unfounded, along with similar speculation that followed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama earlier this month, it leaves open the possibility that Israel is heeding U.S. requests to hold off an attack. The question for Iran is, which of these stories do you believe?

On that score, there’s no question that Iran must regard the decision of the Azeris to assist an Israeli strike as being a mortal threat to their ability to defend themselves. Prior to this, all discussion of a possible Israeli strike had been tempered by the knowledge that their ability to attack Iran was severely limited by the vast distance between the two countries. When compared to the ability of the United States to project airpower from carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf as well as other bases in the Middle East, it made an Israeli attack on Iran look like a poor substitute for U.S. action. But bases in Azerbaijan completely transform the military equation between Israel and Iran. They remove the need for the Israeli Air Force to refuel planes in midair in order to secure their safe return. Support staff stationed along Iran’s northern border would also make it easier for IAF to execute repeated sorties on nuclear targets and facilitate the rescue of downed planes and pilots. The bases would vastly increase the likelihood that an Israeli air campaign against Iran would achieve a high degree of success and lower the potential for losses.

From Iran’s point of view, this is a total disaster. While they have always known they stood no chance of mounting an effective defense against a massive U.S. air campaign on their nuclear plants, an Israeli attack from 2,200 miles away did not seem as formidable a challenge. The Azeri factor does not quite put the Israeli military on a par with that of the United States but it does act as a multiplying factor with regard to Israel’s ability to launch repeated strikes.

Though the Haaretz report that spoke of Israel’s plans to attack Iran as being put on hold until next spring may encourage Tehran, the fact that the sources for the Azeri story in Foreign Policy appear to be senior U.S. military and diplomatic figures shows the Obama administration is by no means certain Netanyahu can be counted on to hold his fire until after the president is safely re-elected. The American motive for leaking the story is clear. By making public the fact that the Azeris have more or less been bribed by Israel to give them access to bases that will enable them to easily attack Iran, the United States may be hoping to accomplish two things.

One is to scare the Iranians into finally waving the white flag on its nuclear project. The story ought to make it clear to the ayatollahs there is no way they can protect themselves from either Israel or the United States if push comes to shove. The odds of the Iranians coming to their senses in this manner are slim, but the administration is determined to do whatever it can to keep the window for diplomacy on the nuclear question open for as long as it can.

The second motive is to forestall any Israeli attack. Making public the Azeri role in the military plan might force the Jewish state’s Asian ally to back away from any involvement in the project.

Whether the revelation will actually deter Israel from acting should Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak determine it is in their country’s interest to strike prior to November is still to be determined. The belief that the extra money for Iron Dome guarantees Israel won’t attack Iran this year is based on the assumption that Obama and Netanyahu came to some agreement on the issue when they met in early March. The Iranians must certainly hope this is the case. But the one thing we know today that we didn’t a few weeks ago is that Israel’s hand in this game of nuclear poker is far stronger than most people thought.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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