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Thursday, March 29, 2012

'The Israelis have bought an airfield and it's called Azerbaijan'?

Foreign Policy is reporting 'exclusively' that Israel has reached a deal with Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran, allowing Israel to use Azerbaijani airfields as a staging area to attack Iran. Before I discuss the story, I urge you to take it with a grain of salt for reasons that I will explain.
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."


[F]our 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.

The Azeri embassy to the United States also did not respond to requests for information regarding Azerbaijan's security agreements with Israel. During a recent visit to Tehran, however, Azerbaijan's defense minister publicly ruled out the use of Azerbaijan for a strike on Iran. "The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country," he said.

But even if his government makes good on that promise, it could still provide Israel with essential support. A U.S. military intelligence officer noted that Azeri defense minister did not explicitly bar Israeli bombers from landing in the country after a strike. Nor did he rule out the basing of Israeli search-and-rescue units in the country. Proffering such landing rights -- and mounting search and rescue operations closer to Iran -- would make an Israeli attack on Iran easier.

"We're watching what Iran does closely," one of the U.S. sources, an intelligence officer engaged in assessing the ramifications of a prospective Israeli attack confirmed. "But we're now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we're not happy about it."
The article goes on to discuss Israel's huge arms deal with Azerbaijan - announced in February - and increased tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, most of which are not related to Iran's nuclear weapons program and its threats to wipe out Israel.

Why would Israel want access to Azerbaijani airfields? As noted above, Azerbaijan has made a commitment that it will not allow Israeli jets to take off and attack Iran from its territory. But being able to continue north to Azerbaijan rather than returning to Israel would be a huge asset for the IDF. It would obviate the need for Israel to refuel its planes in midair, and would ensure that all of them could return to base safely - assuming of course that they can take out the Iranian air defenses. Not needing all that fuel also means the IAF jets could carry more weapons and would have a better chance of success. The article even names a specific base that might be used.
"The problem is the F-15s," Gardiner said, "who would go in as fighters to protect the F-16 bombers and stay over the target." In the likely event that Iran scrambled its fighters to intercept the Israeli jets, he continued, the F-15s would be used to engage them. "Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target, and would need to land."

Could they land in Azerbaijan? "Well, it would have to be low profile, because of political sensitivities, so that means it would have to be outside of Baku and it would have to be highly developed." Azerbaijan has such a place: the Sitalcay airstrip, which is located just over 40 miles northwest of Baku and 340 miles from the Iranian border. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sitalcay's two tarmacs and the adjacent facilities were used by a squadron of Soviet Sukhoi SU-25 jets -- perfect for Israeli fighters and bombers. "Well then," Gardiner said, after the site was described to him, "that would be the place."
Is this plausible? Sure it is. I've run similar stories involving speculation about Azerbaijan and other countries (Georgia, India and Cyprus) being involved in an Israeli attack on Iran. And I've even reported that Israel stores planes in Azerbaijan (which doesn't quite fit with this story, but is close).

But I'm skeptical. It's probably a fantasy. You see, the author is Mark Perry. Mark Perry is a former aide to Yasser Arafat. Some of you may remember him as the guy who quoted General David Petraeus - the current director of the CIA - as saying that Israel was endangering US troops due to its 'settlement policies.' Petraeus flat out denied saying that. In January, Perry claimed that the Mossad had operatives pose as CIA agents to recruit Iranians to assassinate their country's nuclear scientists. This guy has AGENDA written all over him. Anything written by him about Israel is suspect. Anything.

Here are two examples of misleading (and that's being kind) things in Perry's article. Perry writes that Israel's troubles with Turkey began with the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010.
The deepening Azeri-Israeli relationship has also escalated Israel's dispute with Turkey, which began when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship destined for Gaza in May 2010, killing nine Turkish citizens. When Turkey demanded an apology, Israel not only refused, it abruptly canceled a $150 million contract to develop and manufacture drones with the Turkish military -- then entered negotiations with Azerbaijan to jointly manufacture 60 Israeli drones of varying types. The $1.6 billion arms agreement between Israel and Azerbaijan also left Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "sputtering in rage," according to a retired U.S. diplomat.
But Israel's dispute with Turkey started way before that. It burst into the open at Davos in January 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres, and it started a year before that. Why would Perry mislead about that?

More blatantly, he has this to say about an Israeli helicopter exercise in Romania in 2010:
This officer pointed to a July 2010 joint Israeli-Romanian exercise that tested Israeli air capabilities in mountainous areas -- like those the Israeli Air Force would face during a bombing mission against Iranian nuclear facilities that the Iranians have buried deep into mountainsides. U.S. military officers watched the exercises closely, not least because they objected to the large number of Israeli fighters operating from airbases of a NATO-member country, but also because 100 Israeli fighters overflew Greece as a part of a simulation of an attack on Iran. The Israelis eventually curtailed their Romanian military activities when the United States expressed discomfort with practicing the bombing of Iran from a NATO country, according to this senior military intelligence officer.
The reasons that exercise was curtailed had nothing to do with the US - unless Perry is claiming that the US shot down an Israeli helicopter that crashed during the exercise.

Read the whole thing. Skeptically.

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