The terrorist attack in Bulgaria on Wednesday that saw five Israeli tourists killed caused the war drums in the Persian Gulf to beat louder as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed Iran for the massacre and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a powerful response. American naval forces have been enlarging their presence in the Gulf, while the Israeli air force has been practicing long-distance flights for the long-expected attack to take out Iran’s facilities for producing nuclear weapons.
Holding the key to making any eventual Israeli aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear program a success may lie with Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasus Mountains on Iran’s northern border. Unknown to many,Israel has developed strong commercial and defense relationships with this mostly shiite Muslim country, and is described as being “deeply embedded” there for the past 20 years.
The importance Azerbaijan holds for Israel in any war with Iran lies in its airfields. An article in Foreign Policy magazine last March claims that US officials believe the Israelis have negotiated a deal to use Azeri airbases if Israel ever launches its air force against the mullah regime.
“In particular, four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel and has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran’s northern border,” the article states.
Considering the route Israeli warplanes must fly to Iran and back is 2,200 miles long, airfields placed at Israel’s disposal in Azerbaijan would, the article maintains, cancel out the need to refuel in mid-air as the Israeli planes would just continue flying northwards and land in Azeri territory. The Azeri airfield deemed most suitable for Israeli use is an old, unused Soviet-era airbase about 40 miles from Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. Absence of an Azeri refuge would see the attacking Israeli planes “stretched to the limit,” especially the fighter planes escorting the bombers.
“The problem is the F-15s, who would go in as fighters to protect F-16 bombers and stay over the target,” said retired Air Force Col. Mark Gardiner in the article concerning the Israelis engaging Iranian interceptors. “Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target and need to land.”
Having access to an Azeri airfield, the article claims, could also benefit Israel in other ways. Intelligence-seeking drones could be launched from there, if they haven’t been already, and the airbase could also serve as an air rescue center for downed Israeli pilots.
For its part, Azerbaijan’s defense minister has denied his country leased airfields to Israel and stated it would “never permit” an attack to be launched against Iran from its soil. But with such a powerful neighbour like Iran next door, possessing anti-Azerbaijan designs, this statement may simply serve to camouflage the largely hidden Azeri-Israeli military co-operation (Azerbaijan’s president said nine-tenths of his country’s relations with Israel, like an iceberg, are “below the surface.”)
Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation with a population of nine million, used to be part of Iran where most Azeris still live. It is estimated between 16 to 25 percent of Iran’s population are Iranian Azeris. An expanding Russia acquired what constitutes present-day Azerbaijan from Persia (Iran) after a war it won in the early 1800s. The former Persian possession became a Soviet republic shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution and gained its independence with that country’s demise in 1991. Iran, however, would like to reclaim its lost possession, not least of all because it serves as an independence model for its own Azeri population.