Israel’s Secret Staging Ground

In 2009, the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Baku, Donald Lu, sent a cable to the State Department's headquarters in Foggy Bottom titled "Azerbaijan's discreet symbiosis with Israel." The memo, later released by WikiLeaks, quotes Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev as describing his country's relationship with the Jewish state as an iceberg: "nine-tenths of it is below the surface."

Why does it matter? Because Azerbaijan is strategically located on Iran's northern border and, according to several high-level sources I've spoken with inside the U.S. government, Obama administration officials now believe that the "submerged" aspect of the Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance -- the security cooperation between the two countries -- is heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran.

In particular, four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners, I was told, must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf -- but one that could include the Caucasus. The burgeoning Israel-Azerbaijan relationship has also become a flashpoint in both countries' relationship with Turkey, a regional heavyweight that fears the economic and political fallout of a war with Iran. Turkey's most senior government officials have raised their concerns with their U.S. counterparts, as well as with the Azeris, the sources said.

The Israeli embassy in Washington, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, were all contacted for comment on this story but did not respond.

(…) It's clear why the Israelis prize their ties to Azerbaijan -- and why the Iranians are infuriated by them. The Azeri military has four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields that would potentially be available to the Israelis, as well as four airbases for their own aircraft, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance 2011.

The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told me they believe that Israel has gained access to these airbases through a series of quiet political and military understandings. "I doubt that there's actually anything in writing," added a senior retired American diplomat who spent his career in the region. "But I don't think there's any doubt -- if Israeli jets want to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they'd probably be allowed to do so. Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan, and has been for the last two decades."

Mark Perry is an author and historian. His latest book is Talking to Terrorists.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on March 28th, 2012.

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