by Stephen Brown
The terrorist attack in Bulgaria on Wednesday that saw five Israeli tourists killed caused the war drums in the Persian Gulf to beat louder as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed Iran for the massacre and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a powerful response. American naval forces have been enlarging their presence in the Gulf, while the Israeli air force has been practicing long-distance flights for the long-expected attack to take out Iran’s facilities for producing nuclear weapons.
Holding the key to making any eventual Israeli aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear program a success may lie with Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasus Mountains on Iran’s northern border. Unknown to many, Israel has developed strong commercial and defense relationships with this mostly Shiite Muslim country, and is described as being “deeply embedded” there for the past 20 years.
The importance Azerbaijan holds for Israel in any war with Iran lies in its airfields. An article in Foreign Policy magazine last March claims that US officials believe the Israelis have negotiated a deal to use Azeri airbases if Israel ever launches its air force against the mullah regime.
“In particular, four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel and has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran’s northern border,” the article states.
Considering the route Israeli warplanes must fly to Iran and back is 2,200 miles long, airfields placed at Israel’s disposal in Azerbaijan would, the article maintains, cancel out the need to refuel in mid-air as the Israeli planes would just continue flying northwards and land in Azeri territory. The Azeri airfield deemed most suitable for Israeli use is an old, unused Soviet-era airbase about 40 miles from Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. Absence of an Azeri refuge would see the attacking Israeli planes “stretched to the limit,” especially the fighter planes escorting the bombers.
“The problem is the F-15s, who would go in as fighters to protect F-16 bombers and stay over the target,” said retired Air Force Col. Mark Gardiner in the article concerning the Israelis engaging Iranian interceptors. “Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target and need to land.”
Having access to an Azeri airfield, the article claims, could also benefit Israel in other ways. Intelligence-seeking drones could be launched from there, if they haven’t been already, and the airbase could also serve as an air rescue center for downed Israeli pilots.
For its part, Azerbaijan’s defense minister has denied his country leased airfields to Israel and stated it would “never permit” an attack to be launched against Iran from its soil. But with such a powerful neighbour like Iran next door, possessing anti-Azerbaijan designs, this statement may simply serve to camouflage the largely hidden Azeri-Israeli military co-operation (Azerbaijan’s president said nine-tenths of his country’s relations with Israel, like an iceberg, are “below the surface.”)
Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation with a population of nine million, used to be part of Iran where most Azeris still live. It is estimated between 16 to 25 percent of Iran’s population are Iranian Azeris. An expanding Russia acquired what constitutes present-day Azerbaijan from Persia (Iran) after a war it won in the early 1800s. The former Persian possession became a Soviet republic shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution and gained its independence with that country’s demise in 1991. Iran, however, would like to reclaim its lost possession, not least of all because it serves as an independence model for its own Azeri population.Iran has other reasons for disliking Azerbaijan. Its neighbor is secular and, being 85 percent Shiite, its existence “gives the lie to the millenarian pretensions of the Tehran regime.” Azerbaijan is also disputing with Iran oil exploration areas in the Caspian Sea which they both border. And to top it off, the mullahs can’t stand its neighbor’s good relations with Western countries, above all with Israel, whose military relationship with the Azeri government on its northern border must be a source of great concern for Iran. All this has led the mullahs to adopt a hostile stance towards it fellow Shiite neighbor.
“…Iran has for years been seeking not only by words but by deeds to destabilize the legitimate government of Azerbaijan,” states Asia Times.
Assassinations, a conspiracy to overthrow the Azeri government and thwarted attacks against Israeli targets, including a plan to attack Israeli employees of a Jewish school, are among the black deeds the Asia Times article lists Iran as having committed against Azerbaijan. This year, internet sites in Azerbaijan were also attacked by hackers, calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. They posted “images of the devil over pictures of the Azeri and Israeli presidents and messages saying ‘Servants of the Jews’ and Enemies of Islam’.”
Israel strengthened its relationship with Azerbaijan, and undoubtedly further infuriated the mullahs, when it sold the Azeris $1.6 billion in arms last January. Anti-ship missiles, UAVs, Barak air defense missiles and an anti-missile radar system were among the items purchased. Israel and Azerbaijan have also launched a joint venture to manufacture Israeli-designed UAVs in Azerbaijan which may help Israel with sales to Islamic countries, since the UAVs are being built in a Muslim state. Israel has also established extensive commercial relations with Azerbaijan and had become its fifth-largest trading partner by 2005.
The anti-missile radar system may be particularly useful in any coming conflict with Iran. As part of its war strategy, Iran may use its missiles to destroy the oil facilities, upon which the West depends, in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Azerbaijan. Both countries are within range of such an attack. Israel also would be negatively affected by such a development; it imports one sixth of its oil from Azerbaijan, while Europe and the United States are also big customers.Azerbaijan also serves as an important transit country for oil coming from Central Asia across the Caspian Sea.
Not everyone is happy with Israel’s arms sales to Azerbaijan, since it may turn around and use those weapons against neighboring Armenia, with whom it fought, and lost, a war in the early 1990s over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the past, the Azeri president has uttered anti-Armenian threats such as “Armenians will live in fear” and “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world.” Others are against Israel having access to Azeri airbases at all since this may invite attack from Iran and extend any war to the Caucasus and thus to Azerbaijan’s all-important oil fields.
But Iran with its nuclear weapons program, terrorism and radical Islamic fundamentalism is a vital concern not just to Israel but also to Azerbaijan and other countries of the region. So if Israel having access to Azeri airbases will help end this destabilizing, large-scale threat, then who could be against it? Definitely not the five innocent Israelis and their bus driver so tragically killed in Bulgaria.Stephen Brown
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