Israel and Azerbaijan: unlikely allies?
Claims - disputed by both countries - that Israel has secured Azerbaijani airbases has awakened interest in the Caucasus
The Azerbaijan capital, Baku. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/AP
In the latest in a series of explosive reports on Israel's covert hostilities against Iran, one vigorously denied by both the Israeli government and Baku, Foreign Policy magazine has quoted anonymous US officials saying that Israel has secured access to airbases on Iran's northern border through its well-nurtured defence alliance with Azerbaijan.
"The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior US administration official was quoted telling Foreign Policy's Mark Perry, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."
Israel has refused to validate the report, which goes on to outline US concerns that the claimed move will inflame already raw Israeli-Iran relations and potentially draw the Caucasus into any war. One of Perry's US intelligence sources told him:
We're watching what Iran does closely. But we're now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we're not happy about it
Senior sources in the Israeli government insist they know nothing of this alleged strategic acquisition and question the veracity of the report, pointing out that Perry has based his claims exclusively on unnamed US officials and two independent thinktank reports unaffiliated with any notable institutions.
One senior Israeli official suggests, however, that Iran's outrage at its neighbour's burgeoning relationship with the Jewish state may actually be pushing the unlikely allies closer together.
"The more pressure applied by Iran, the more they unveil plots to carry out terror attacks on Azerbaijani embassies, the more they [Azeris] are co-operating with us," the official explained, pointing out that relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are becoming increasingly fraught."Iran's fear that its considerable Azeri minority may have aspirations for independence is the current bed of its relations with Azerbaijan. As a result, Azerbaijan is very interested in firming up its relationship with Israel."
Last month, Israel confirmed the sale of drones and anti-aircraft missile defence systems to the former Soviet state in a $1.6bn arms deal.
But Dr Brenda Shaffer, Israel's foremost expert on Azerbaijan, suggests it is highly unlikely that this deal belies a bilateral defence pact against Iran. If Azerbaijan is bolstering its defence systems, she says this is more likely to be a display of strength intended for Armenia, which currently occupies 20% of it territory.
Azerbaijan is bordered by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Its economy is dependent on the safe export of oil, which requires regional stability. It's foreign policy is characterised by its attempts to appease each of these powers, as well as the US and Israel.
More than 30% of the Iranian population are ethnic Azeris, including Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, and the opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is currently being held under house arrest.
"[Azerbaijan] tries to maintain friendly relations with Iran as it does Israel. It would be very wary of allowing itself to take a step that might seen as aggressive," Shaffer suggests.
"If there is a conflict with Iran, Azerbaijan will be the first to suffer. Their border with Iran is porous. If Iran wants to strike back, they will do so most easily in the pro-western country on its border, which does not have stringent border control or internal security. We saw this in the attacks in February. It is in their interests to prevent an attack on Iran."http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2012/mar/29/israel-azerbaijan-unlikely-allies