Does Israel Have Secret Bases Near Iran’s Northern Border?

In a post at Foreign Policy titled “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground” (to which my response is that it sure isn’t secret any more), Mark Perry reports that American officials believe that Israel may have been granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic on Iran’s northern border:

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.

(…)

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.

One blogger is skeptical merely because of the source:

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.

Perhaps it should be. Nonetheless, one could see the advantages of such bases to the Israelis if they actually did decide to strike Iran. Even if they couldn’t use them to launch strikes, the possibility that they’d be available for refueling, or to launch search and rescue missions makes the prospect of a long-distance strike on Iran’s nuclear program just a little bit easier.

For the moment, I’d keep this filed under the “Rumors” category But it sill might be worth keeping on eye on things to Iran’s north.

Update: Bernard Finel links this story and wonders why we’ve been hearing so much war talk lately:

So what is going on? Three possibilities come to mind:

(1) Israel wants military action against Iran, but doesn’t want to do it either because of lack of capacity or concern over the consequences, and instead wants to pressure the United States to attack Iran instead.

(2) Israel is trying to build leverage. Worried about U.S. pressure regarding the Palestinian issue, the Israelis are looking to transform the debate. And indeed, this has occurred. Instead of the United States pressuring Israel on settlements, much of the interaction over the past year has involved the United States offering reassurances and concessions to Israel on Iran. If the centerpiece of U.S.-Israeli relations is Palestine, then the Israel is in the position of fending off U.S. demands. When the issue is Iran, it is the U.S. on the defensive.

(3) Domestic politics. Either there or here. I don’t know. But look, I don’t think it is any huge secret that Natanyahu would love to see Obama lose this year. At a minimum, I think the Israelis are using the threat of war and disorder as a way to extract concessions when Obama is vulnerable. But, obviously, as we get into the fall campaign, I can almost guarantee that Romney is going to claim Obama was weak on Iran, and the Israelis are essentially building a foundation for that argument whether wittingly or unwittingly.

This is a fair question. Whenever you are dealing with leaked material one of the questions that needs to be asked is who may have leaked it, and for what purpose. This is true whether you’re talking about the rumors of war that seem to becoming more common, many of which seem to be coming from Israel, or the seemingly endless leaks that are coming from the Sanford Police and prosecutors in the Zimmerman/Martin case. In the case of the Iran rumors, I’ll leave it for you to decide what the motivations are.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Quick Takes, World Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Although Azerbaijan is a pretty secular country it is overwhelmingly Shia Muslim which make an agreement with Israel unusual.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    “…I’m skeptical. It’s probably a fantasy. You see, the author is Mark Perry….This guy has AGENDA written all over him. Anything written by him about Israel is suspect. Anything…”

    Maybe. Probably. But so what? There is an entire party of American politicians and pundits for whom the truth is not important. They are called Republicans. Chalibi had an agenda. Everything he said was false. Look how that ended up. Republicans were calling him the George washington of Iraq.
    Azerbaijan denies Perry’s report…so it may be accurate.
    However, this report would seem to discount imminent war.
    http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israel-s-plan-to-attack-iran-put-on-hold-until-next-year-at-the-earliest-1.421348
    But again…Republicans are fools for war. They love to send other peoples kids into them.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    The problem with Finel’s 3 is that should Obama be re-elected he’s going to take any opportunity to stick it to Bibi and since he’s not running for re-election he doesn’t need to worry too much about domestic politics. Is this story within the bounds of possibility? Certainly, it’s purely a matter of Israeli palm greasing but I suspect the Russians aren’t too happy about it if true.

  4. @Brummagem Joe:

    he’s going to take any opportunity to stick it to Bibi

    I can think of several hundred Democratic members of Congress who would have a problem with that

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I can think of several hundred Democratic members of Congress who would have a problem with that

    Doug for a lawyer you are naive at times. The president can stick it to allies leaving few if any fingerprints.