Azerbaijan denied on Monday that it has plans to facilitate an Israeli airstrike against Iran. “Baku will never let anyone use its territory for an attack on our neighbors,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
A day earlier, The Sunday Times reported that Israel plans to use unmanned drone aircraft off Azerbaijani air bases to fend off an Iranian counterattack in the event the Jewish state decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The drone fleet would disrupt Iran’s missile system because it could fully retaliate.
The Times has previously run reports based on unnamed Israeli intelligence sources. No specifics were given as to whom provided their information this time.
Other publications have similarly speculated that Israel could use Azerbaijani infrastructure to facilitate an attack on Iran. An airstrip at Sitalçay, seventy kilometers north of the capital, was mentioned as a likely candidate for the Israelis for refueling of their fighter planes after an Iran strike. But EurasiaNet reported in March of this year that the site, though guarded, wasn’t being used. The Azerbaijani Air Force shut it down in 1992.
After Azerbaijan announced plans in February to buy $1.6 billion worth of weapons from Israel, including drone aircraft, speculation was rife again of coordination between the two countries in the event of hostilities with Iran. EurasiaNet‘s Joshua Kucera was skeptical at the time, arguing that the arms sale had probably more to do with neighboring Armenia which controls the Azerbaijani breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh
Azerbaijan and Israel both regard Iran’s uranium enrichment program warily as they do its attempts at expanding its regional influence. Indeed, Azerbaijan was once considered a target for Islamist propaganda. It is a 90 percent Muslim Shia nation while sixteen million ethnic Azerbaijanis live across the border in Iran. More than half a century of secular Soviet rule prevented the ayatollahs’ religious fervor from taking root in the Caucasus nation, however.
Despite recent tension and the historic animosities in the area, Kucera advised against imagining Baku conspiring with Israel to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. “As much as Azerbaijan has been building up its military,” he pointed out that “it’s nowhere close to being able to deal with the Iranian military and would be essentially helpless in the face of an Iranian retaliation.”
There is a simpler explanation for Israel selling weapons to Azerbaijan. The latter has nowhere else to go. American and European legal restrictions prohibit the country from buying weapons on the scale that it would like to from Western nations while Russian support for Armenia discourages former Soviet Union suppliers like Belarus and Ukraine from arming the Caspian state. “Israel,” Kucera noted, “has no such concerns.” And if it’s buying an ally in the process, all the better.