Azerbaijan is surrounded on three sides by openly hostile or unpredictable regimes in Armenia, Russia, and Iran. Armenian troops continue to occupy large sections of Azerbaijan in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran’s slow-motion but determined pursuit of nuclear weapons is a continual source of instability in the Caucasus, and Russia continues to be led by men nostalgic for the Soviet era. Only the Caspian Sea to the east offers a relatively tranquil border, while providing Baku mineral riches in oil and gas. Beset by turmoil in almost every direction, Azerbaijan has increasingly looked beyond its immediate neighbors for investment, economic diversification, and – more recently – defense.
Last month, Israeli sources confirmed that Baku agreed to buy $1.6 billion in missile defense, anti-aircraft weaponry, and reconnaissance drones from the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries. The deal, undertaken at the height of tensions and saber rattling over potential Israeli air strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, underscores Azerbaijan’s determination to more closely identify with the West. That a majority Muslim nation located within easy range of Iran’s nuclear facilities in Tehran and at Natanz, Qom, and Arak, would engage with the Islamic Republic’s mortal enemy is nothing short of remarkable.
Officially, Israel downplayed the significance of the arms deal, saying that such international agreements take years to develop. But a former head of the Mossad spy agency acknowledged the deal’s obvious geopolitical implications. Telling the Associated Press that Israel has been and will continue to sell arms to friendly nations, Danny Yatom added, “If it will help us in challenging Iran, it is for the better.”
Then last month, Foreign Policy published a bombshell report sourced to senior U.S. administration and intelligence officials alleging that the nature of the Israeli-Azeri relationship goes much deeper than buyer-dealer in military hardware. Administration officials suggested that Azerbaijan has granted access to airbases – plural – on Iran’s northern border. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” the report quotes one senior administration official, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”
Azeri airfields – either for staging attacks, landing after conducting the raids, or positioning forward units such as search and rescue teams – would greatly enhance Israel’s reach and logistical ability to hit targets deep inside Iran. Although Baku denied that it would allow Israel to attack Iran from its territory, the FP notes that Azeri officials did not specifically deny the other two possibilities, an omission that did not go unnoticed in Washington.
The U.S. government is leaving no doubt about its unhappiness with the alleged agreement. One intelligence official working directly on the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran tells FP, “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.”
In outing the arrangement, U.S. officials have as their goal the dampening of Israel’s intentions to attack Iran — at least this year — thus forestalling a politically tricky event for the Obama administration in a campaign year. But the administration does not appear to be considering the impact of its open speculation on Azerbaijan, which if the speculation is true, would be doing a huge service not just for Tel Aviv but for timid Western capitals while incurring a massive risk to its well being.
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan, never good, have been slipping of late. The Azeris recently arrested what it described as terrorists allegedly in the employ of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and positioned for attacks on the U.S., Israeli, and other Western embassies in the country. For its part, Tehran accuses Azerbaijan of supporting alleged Israeli hit squads that have been targeting Iranian nuclear scientists with alarming efficiency, an allegation Baku labels a “slander.” The relationship is further complicated by the presence of some sixteen million ethnic Azeris living in northern Iran. While Baku harbors no territorial ambitions, the enclave in Iran is a potential future source of strife for Tehran, which may hold the Azeris responsible for keeping the area calm.
As difficult as it is to fathom the U.S. administration’s objection to deepening ties between Israel and an oil-rich, strategically positioned, emerging Muslim democracy, it is even more perplexing to consider why Washington would want to show Azerbaijan the back of its hand for actions that unquestionably advance the administration’s stated goal of preventing a nuclear Iran. Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel is clearly mutually beneficial. It has the potential to be globally beneficial, if only Washington could look past November.
Mark Impomeni is a Scholar at the Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics, a think tank dedicated to promoting democracy and free markets in the former Eastern Bloc.