When Foreign Policy magazine reported this spring that Israel was in talks with Azerbaijan over the use of the latter's airfields in order to carry out an attack on Iran, the bombshell report was vociferously denied by officials in Baku and derided by regional analysts. Azerbaijan would seem to not have any interest in such cooperation, and the Foreign Policy report was correctly described as "Washington-centric."
But now Reuters has come out with the same story, but their sources are Azerbaijani and Russian:
[T]wo Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:
"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Musabayov told Reuters.
"I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.
Azerbaijani minister of defense Safar Abiyev meets Iranian defense officials this month in Tehran.
Israel has gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, possibly so that Israeli aircraft could land there after attacking Iran, a new report in Foreign Policy magazine says:
[F]our 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.
A few weeks ago, when Azerbaijan's $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel was announced, this blog discounted the idea that Azerbaijan would get involved in a potential Israeli attack on Iran, arguing that the risks for Azerbaijan are too high and the potential gains unclear. The exception would be if Azerbaijan's influence were so discreet as to allow Baku some plausible deniability; then Iran probably wouldn't stand to gain from attacking Azerbaijan. According to the FP report, the most likely use for the Azerbaijan airfields would be so that Israeli aircraft could land there after an attack, obviating the need for mid-air refueling en route to Iran, which Israel isn't particularly experienced with and which would reduce the amount of weapons the planes could take on each sortie:
Azerbaijan has agreed to buy $1.6 billion in weapons from Israel, a massive deal that is likely Azerbaijan's largest single arms purchase ever. The deal will include drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, Israeli officials have told news agencies. The deal would be almost equal to Azerbaijan's stated 2012 defense budget of $1.7 billion (though will certainly be spread out over many years).
The timing of the deal is misleading: regardless of the ongoing ratcheting up of tension between Israel and Iran, and increasing attention to Israel's intelligence activities in Azerbaijan, these weapons are destined to be used not against Iran, but against Armenia, which controls the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Though it's tempting to think otherwise. The AP reports:
Israeli defense officials Sunday confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries come at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.
Its most pressing concern is Iran's nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Iran from building bombs...
As Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.
Azerbaijan claims it has again caught some Iranian-sponsored terrorists, but is proving tight-lipped about the details.
On February 21, the country’s state-run AzTV reported that a terrorist cell allegedly operated by Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had been busted.
Stashing guns and explosives, the group allegedly planned attacks on “foreign nationals.” The report did not specify the nationality of the foreigners, letting the outside world put two and two together.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security refused either to confirm or to deny the station's report.
Strangely, pro-government and state-run news sites have proven similarly skittish about delving into the AzTV report; no news about the arrests could be found on any of these websites on the morning of February 22.
Obviously feeling the pressure,the Iranian embassy in Baku hinted on January 26 that Tehran may reconsider its commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan (meaning recognizing breakaway Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan) if Azerbaijani officials let outside forces sow discord between the neighbors.
The government of Georgia has agreed to pay the Israeli defense contractor Elbit $35 million to settle a lawsuit. In April, Elbit announced that they were suing Georgia for $100 million for failure to pay for equipment it bought in 2007. Neither side has commented much on the suit, but it would appear to be related to Georgia's purchase of 40 Hermes 450 aerial drones from Elbit. From an Elbit press release:
Elbit Systems Ltd. announced today, further to its announcement dated April 8, 2011 regarding the filing of a lawsuit against the Government of Georgia ("Georgia"), that the Company and Georgia have signed settlement agreements for settling all claims and disputes.
According to the settlement, Georgia will pay the Company an amount of approximately $35 million and will also return to the Company certain equipment and sub-systems, that were supplied to Georgia by the Company in the past, against the full release of the initial claims.
So are they returning some of the drones?
Earlier this month, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also pardoned two Israeli businessmen and settled the case they were jailed for, an episode that had strained relations between the two countries. It's not clear whether the Elbit settlement is related to that, but the timing is suggestive.
Jamie Kirchik, writing in The Tablet, says the resolution of the case of the jailed businessmen opens the door for an improvement of Georgian-Israeli relations, which also have been strained over various arms sales between Russia, Israel, Georgia and Israel's foes (including Syria and Iran). One sign of the improving relationship:
The saga of the mysterious drone shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh keeps getting more and more intriguing. You'll recall that the Armenian de facto authorities of Karabakh released photos of the downed UAV and claimed that the drone was from Azerbaijan. Makes sense: Azerbaijan operates drone similar to the one shown in photos, with which they try to surveil the area of the line of contact between them and the Armenians. Azerbaijan's state news agency countered with another theory: that the drone was actually Israel's. That was last month, and the story has gone cold since then.
But now, an Israeli website, DEBKAfile, has a new scoop/conspiracy theory: it was Russia! Their take:
Western sources believe Moscow had the Azerbaijani drone shot down as a one-off incident for four objectives:
1. A hands-off road sign to Israel to stay out of the Caspian Sea region and its conflicts. Moscow has taken note of Israel's deepening economic and military footholds in four countries: Azerbaijan, which is the largest, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Georgia, and regards its supply of arms to these countries as unwanted interference in Russia's backyard.
2. Revenge for Israel reneging on its 2009 commitment to build a drone factory in Russia. Moscow decided to confront Israeli drone technicians with Russian antiaircraft crews with an unwinnable ambush.
3. Moscow was also telling Tehran that it was serious about cooperating with Iran to safeguard its rights in the Caspian Sea and willing to use diplomatic, military and intelligence means to halt the spread of Azerbaijani and Israeli influence in the region.
After the Armenian government in Nagorno Karabakh said they shot down an unmanned Azerbaijani drone last week, Baku quickly denied that it was theirs, but didn't provide any additional information. But then the state news agency APA came out with an explanation that, to be charitable, we can call "elaborate." Approvingly citing a Turkish tabloid report, APA suggests that the drone may have in fact been Israeli:
The anonymous sources close to Turkish diplomacy claim that the pilotless jet belongs to Israel.
The newspaper says that according to the diplomatic office, the pilotless jet belongs to the Israeli air forces: “The jet ascended from the military base located in Armenia or occupied Karabakh to make the reconnaissance flight related to Iran. Thus, the occupied lands of Azerbaijan are used not for the drug transit and as a terror base but turned into a military base for the secret operations and military reconnaissance”. The source also said that Israel currently holds reconnaissance operations by means of pilotless jets over Middle Eastern countries.
If Armenia really were allowing Israeli UAVs to spy on Iran from its territory, why would they be based in the disputed territory of Karabakh, rather than closer to the Iranian border in Armenia proper? And why would Armenia -- which has good relations with Iran -- allow such a thing in the first place? As this fascinating Wikileaked cable describes, it's in fact Azerbaijan that has a close relationship with Israel -- based in part on their similar perception of the threat from Iran:
Turkey's collapsing relations with Israel over the past week or so have occasioned a new round of hand-wringing about whether the West is losing Turkey. But that drama has overshadowed another, countervailing, development: Turkey's agreement to host a NATO air defense radar. This has recently been one of the most sensitive Turkey-NATO issues; NATO wanted Turkey to host the system, but Turkey didn't want it to explicitly target Iran, even though it is obvious to everyone that that's the threat the system is intended to protect against.
But for whatever reason, the Turkish government has changed its mind, agreeing to host the radar and even (in a somewhat between-the-lines fashion) acknowledging that it has to do with Iran:
“We are of the opinion that the step taken [in deploying the radar system] is important for our region. That’s why we, as the government, have decided [to station the system in Turkey] after broad consultations,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said late Tuesday.
That has bolstered Turkey's relationship with NATO, argues Lale Kemal in Today's Zaman:
Turkey's decision to host on its soil the radar component of a US-sponsored missile shield project should be seen as a political decision reaffirming Ankara's ties with NATO. This decision comes at a time when the alliance has begun to perceive Turkish foreign policy goals as a deviating from those of the Western club. One Western official commented on the Turkish decision to host the missile defense radar saying, “Turkey is back in the club.”
So, the prospect of an emerging Israeli-Abkhaz defense alliance didn't last long. Israel's ambassador to Georgia has said that, contrary to reports last week in Abkhazian media, Israel is not going to sell weapons to the de facto authorities in Sukhumi:
“We do not recognize them as independent states and we are not going to sell them any kind of arms. It is possible that some private businessmen visited Abkhazia, but they cannot speak under the name of the [Israeli] Government. I reiterate, we are not going to sell arms to them,” information agency Interpressnews quoted Ambassador [Itzhak] Gerberg as saying.
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Gerberg over the allegations, and is apparently satisfied with what it heard:
Georgian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Israeli ambassador in Tbilisi and had “a detailed discussion” over visit to breakaway Abkhazia by executives from the Israeli security consulting firm, Global CST, Nino Kalandadze, the Georgian deputy foreign minister, said on Monday.
“Both privately and in his public statement the Ambassador unequivocally confirmed, that Israel has no intention whatsoever to have any military cooperation with de facto [Abkhaz authorities],” Kalandadze said.
It's worth remembering here that Israel did sell $400 million worth of drone aircraft to Russia. The degree to which Abkhazia's defense and security services are under Moscow's control is a big question, and one wonders what the Russian role in this aborted deal might have been.