Israel could use Azerbaijan to hit Iran’s nuclear sites
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 US 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 US forces, would fail against such a large and distant enemy.
But it seems Israel might not be completely devoid of allies in the region. 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.
By addressing key weaknesses in any Israeli war plan – notably on refuelling, reconnaissance and rescuing crews – such an alliance might tilt Israeli thinking on the feasibility of acting without US help.
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 favour 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 have all said 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, that’s what’s being planned now,” a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defence headquarters in Baku said. “The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan.”
That Mr Aliyev, an autocratic ally of Western governments and oil firms, has become a rare Muslim friend of the Jewish state is no secret; a $1.6 billion (£1bn) arms deal involving dozens of Israeli drones, and Israel’s thirst for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea crude, are well documented.
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri MP 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 refuelling its attack force: “Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refuelling,” Mr Musabayov said.
“I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.
“We have (bases) fully equipped with modern navigation, anti-aircraft defences and personnel trained by Americans and if necessary they can be used without any preparations,” he added.
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.
Even speaking privately, few Israeli officials will discuss the issue. Those who do are sceptical.
A thousand miles separates Tehran and Tel Aviv, putting much of Iran beyond the normal ranges of Israel’s F-16s and F-15s.
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.
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