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Israel’s “airfield” in Azerbaijan

As the Iranian nuclear program proceeds in full swing, despite defiance of the West and Israel, preparations for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities becomes more and more vivid. With much of the debate put aside, there are two main dilemmas of how the hostilities will unravel.

The first dilemma is the nature of the offensive and repercussions the world should expect from the attack. If Israel goes into this alone, it is likely it will lose in the long run. Evidently, the Israeli Army is not going to send any ground troops into Iran. Neither is it planning on sending warships to fight a naval war in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, considering that the hostilities will be limited to an air strike on nuclear facilities and that there will be no ground war in or around Iran, the response from Iran and its proxies would be quite aggressive, as the front may shift from Iran and its waters to Israel itself. Whether the response will be a direct attack of the Iranian military on the state of Israel, be it through air or ground invasion, or through funding insurgency and utilization of Quds special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is irrelevant. What’s important is that Israel may have to get on the defensive as its citizens and infrastructure will be at a great risk. That’s where the involvement of its powerful ally, the United States, comes into play. If the U.S. Fifth Fleet is allowed to step in, it would significantly reduce the possibility of a shift of the frontline to Israel proper, as most of the resources of Iran will be spent in and around Iran’s own borders and waters in the Persian Gulf. However, that possibility too, did not go unanswered. Iran has already threatened to raise hell in the Strait of Hormuz, if the United States and its allies decide to attack, which would effectively stop the outflow of oil shipments from the Gulf, which amounts to about 20% of the worldwide oil trade. That’s why the United States has gotten a little reluctant to attack and none of its allies, whose economies depend on constant flow of hydrocarbons from the area, support the idea.

The second dilemma is the nature of the strike. The Israeli force, considered one of the most sophisticated in the world, still faces the issue of a geographical convenience. Although similar attacks on specific targets within Syria and Iraq have been made by Israeli Air Force in the past with success, the Iranian pill is a bit hard to swallow. In September 2007, Israel secretly planned and  enforced an attack of a facility which was believed to house a nuclear reactor under construction. A quarter century earlier, a similar attack was made on Osirak reactor in the vicinity of Baghdad, Iraq. Both strikes had been quietly planned and had a “blitzkrieg” nature, something we don’t quite see today when the debate on a strike on Iranian facilities populates the international media, with analysis and plans of the strike put to worldwide discussion. Both Iraqi and Syrian targets were within the reachable distance, which the Israeli fighter jets could easily overcome. Iran’s nuclear facilities in Arak, Qom, Isfahan and Natanz lie deep within the Iranian territory, at a distance twice as farther than the one in Iraq which the Israeli planes bombed in June 1981, and are defended by a nearby Parchin military facility. According to the Iranians, the facilities which house the nuclear progam intended for “peaceful purposes”, are well fortified. Add to that the airspace over unstable Iraq where the Israeli planes could face some unexpected problems. The two other alternative routes around Iraq are through territories of a NATO member Turkey and Iran’s political foe, Saudi Arabia. All three flights would require refueling the jets en route so that they do reach the intended destination without a problem. That being said, one should not underestimate the defensive capabilities of Iran. The Iranian government has already stated repeatedly that they would be ready to down any planes entering its airspace. The lengthy flight from Israel to Iran will give the Iranians sufficient timing to take defensive measures. That’s where the issue of ‘Azerbaijan’ comes in.

Azerbaijan, located at Iran’s northern border, has taken a pro-Western course since regaining its independence in 1991. Although the Azeris are Shiites like the Persians to the south, religion is not an issue in Azerbaijan. It is a secular country which has been wary of its southern neighbor for the past two decades. Iranians have repeatedly tried to import Iranian version of the religion, sometimes reportedly, to instigate revolts in Baku and southern regions of Azerbaijan, to no success. One of Iran’s concerns is its own Azeri minority which makes up 24% of the Iranian population, and which it views as a considerable threat to its statehood. Iranian Azeris, as an ethnic group, have not so far explicitly endorsed separatism, but have quite often looked to their brethren in the northern Azerbaijan for support. The opening of an Israeli embassy in Baku in 1994 and establishment of close ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have caused serious concerns in Tehran. With the Iranian nuclear progam under way, Tehran has been carefully eyeing the progress of Tel-Aviv’s investments in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, which is technically at war with the neighboring Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, needs all the support from Israelis it can get. Azerbaijan’s Karabakh province was occupied by Armenia in a 1992-1994 war. Iran, in turn, secretly provided all of the assistance to the Armenians it could. Apart from shipping gasoline to Yerevan, it purportedly supplied the Armenians with weaponry. After the ceasfire in May 1994, Azerbaijan signed a mega oil contract with the Western companies and began exports of Azerbaijani crude to world markets. Within the time given, it not only enriched its budget with billions of dollars, more than $3 billion of which are targeting military needs annually, but also gained itself some reliable allies such as Israel. Within the last 18 years, Israel has supplied Azerbaijan with modern weapons and intelligence. Intelligence sharing is what led to the arrest of Iranian spies just this March, further infuriating Iran. A recent FP report on Israel’s close relationship with Azerbaijan, describes how Israel might use Azerbaijan for its possible strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. It quotes an unnamed senior US administration official saying “The Israelis have bought an airfield and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.” It is claimed that although in case of an attack, Israeli jets might fly the mission from Israel, with the shortage of fuel, they would be compelled to safely land in one of Azerbaijan’s four military airfields. Azerbaijan has refuted the claims, and maintains its territory will not be used for an attack on Iran. Whether the Israeli planes take off from Azerbaijan or land there after the mission, does not stop the Iranians from following them into the Azerbaijani territory. This is where it gets tricky. If the Israeli planes cross the Iranian-Azerbaijani border for a safe langing, the Iranian jets will follow them. It’s doubtful that the Azerbaijani air defense will shoot them down for violating the Azerbaijani airspace, as it may trigger a wider region conflict where Azerbaijan will end up as the defeated side.

In the wake of Israeli threats of an air strike, Iran is obviously concerned because of the nature of the recent $1.6 billion arms purchase deal between Azerbaijan and Israel. The list of weapons and defense systems bought from Israel includes sophisticated air defense and anti-ship missile defense systems. Azerbaijan declared the purchase had nothing to do with Israeli threats against Iran and were bought for use against Armenia which occupies its terrirory. The Gabriel-5 anti-ship missile system, for instance, can be used only in Azerbaijani waters, away from Azerbaijani-Armenian contact line. It is likely to be used to protect Azerbaijani oil fields from possible attacks from Iran, should the Iranian-Israeli hostilities spill over to the Caspian Sea. The Barak-8 and EL/M-2080 Green Pine radar are sophisticated systems for interception of surface-to-surface and air-to-surface attacks which could foil both the Armenian and Iranian strikes, should there erve be a need. Azerbaijan made big arms purchases in the recent years significantly boosting its defense and offense capabilities. Its government continues to maintain the weapons are to be used in its liberation campaign of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Photo: Courtesy of Flickr

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