Do Israeli-Azeri Ties Portend Conflict With Iran?
A secret agreement came to light this week between the Israel and the Central Asian nation of Azerbaijan: The Azeri government has granted Israelis access to eight air bases, located just a couple hundred miles north of Israel's foe Iran.
Allowing Israeli fighter jets and bombers to land and refuel so close to Iran raises questions: Could this mean Israel and Iran are one step closer to war? Or are Azerbaijan and Israel just looking to strengthen their relationship?
Mark Perry, journalist and author of Talking with Terrorists, wrote an investigative piece on the air bases for Foreign Policy magazine. Perry told Guy Raz, host of weekend on All Things Considered, this new agreement "allows Israel the ability to attack Iran more easily."
Leverage For Israel
Many in Israel view Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat. The West accuses Iran of covertly working toward nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its program is peaceful.
Any sort of Israeli military action at the moment is speculative. But if anything, Perry notes, this gives Israel leverage when it comes to Iran. The Azeri government has vehemently denied the allegations in Perry's article, saying it has already told Iran that no military assets would be launched from Azeri territory into Iran.
But Perry, who notes he took great care in reading the Azeri government response, says the denial doesn't address the core issues of his article.
"My article says military officials here in the United States and diplomats believe that Azeri air bases could be used for landing rights or for drones and reconnaissance or for search-and-rescue missions," Perry says.
So how did the relationship between Israel, a Jewish nation, and Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country, develop in the first place?
In a word: "Oil," Perry says.
Israel imports a large amount of its oil from Azerbaijan, and it sells Azerbaijan military hardware as well as goods such as ice cream and cell phones.
"It's a very close and strong relationship, and it has been for quite some time," Perry says.
Relations With Turkey
But this new deepening connection could be, Perry says, in reaction to Israel's increasing troubled relationship with Turkey, previously Israel's strongest ally in the region.
Perry cites Israel's interception in 2010 of a flotilla, which sailed from Turkey, headed for the Gaza Strip. Eight Turks died in that raid; since then, Israeli-Turkish relations have "deteriorated markedly," Perry says. Many military contracts Israel had with Turkey have since been given to Azerbaijan.
"In many respects, Israeli geostrategic views have shifted farther east, away from Turkey and toward Baku," Perry says.
U.S. military officials are watching to see how this new strengthened relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan will progress. Right now, Perry says, they are taking this news seriously.
"The real deep concern of the military and intelligence community in the United States about the talk of war and how that sometimes can inadvertently lead to war, and that's a concern here that [Israel has] to acknowledge," he says.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Staying in the Middle East and to a possible secret agreement between Israel and Azerbaijan, a deal that would allow Israeli warplanes access to Azeri air bases. Azerbaijan happens to share a border with Iran, and some U.S. military and diplomatic officials are worried about the deepening ties between Israel and Azerbaijan. Investigative reporter Mark Perry broke the story for Foreign Policy magazine this past week.
MARK PERRY: This is heightened concern that an agreement with Azerbaijan, an Israeli agreement with Azerbaijan, allows Israel the ability to attack Iran much more easily.
RAZ: I should note that the Azeri government has vehemently denied your assertions, your allegations in the article, and they say this is just false.
PERRY: The denial is the restatement of what their foreign minister has told Tehran previously, that no military assets would be launched against Iran from Azeri territory. That's not all my article says. My article says that military officials here in the United States and diplomats believe that Azeri air bases could be used for landing rights or for drones and reconnaissance or for search and rescue missions.
So I took real care in reading their denial. It is the standard denial, predictable denial, and it doesn't mention these other assets they have very purposely, I think.
RAZ: Explain the basis of the relationship, because Azerbaijan is a majority Muslim country. It is probably the most secular Muslim country in the world. But it is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which bills itself as the collective voice of the Muslim world. How did that relationship with Israel, which is a Jewish state, how did that develop?
PERRY: Oil. Israel imports a large amount of its oil from Azerbaijan. And secondly, I don't think we can discount there's 30,000 Azerbaijani Jews in Baku, and there's a very good strong relationship because Israel imports things like ice cream from Azerbaijan and provides military hardware. The Israelis trained the presidential guard. It's a very close and a very strong relationship, and it has been for quite some time.
RAZ: Is it, in some ways, a reaction to Israel's worsening relationship with Turkey, which previously had been its strongest ally in the Islamic world?
PERRY: Absolutely right. In May of 2010, we remember the Israelis intercepted a flotilla headed for Gaza from Turkey. Eight Turks died in that raid and one Turkish-American. And from that point, the Turkish-Israeli relationship, which had been very strong, deteriorated markedly. There's been canceled contracts, military contracts with Turkey, that have now ended up in Azerbaijan. So in many respects, Israeli geostrategic views have shifted further east, away from Turkey and toward Baku.
RAZ: Mark, we have done a lot of coverage on the program about Iran. We've talked to leaders of Israel's military and intelligence establishment - retired, mainly. Many of whom oppose an attack on Iran, as you know. How do you know that you're not being spun? That the information you were given wasn't part of this whole campaign to spook Iran?
PERRY: It's an important question and it's something that I have thought about often. I have very good solid relationships with my sources here in Washington. If I thought for one second they were lying to me, I couldn't write this article, because everything in a reporter's career is based on his personal credibility and his ability to get things right. I'm certain this story is right.
RAZ: There are, as you know, and as you've reported, there is a widespread divergence of views among Israeli intelligence and military figures about the wisdom of attacking Iran. I wonder, though, if the deepening Azeri relationship is really about many other things and the Iran component is just an afterthought.
PERRY: There are a lot of other factors and variables at work here, not least the economic. We've got to believe, living in a rational world, that the Azeri leadership would not want a war with Iran. They've told Iran they don't want a war. I believe them. But this deepening relationship with Israel at this time and so publicly is also being used by Israel as leverage against Iran, and it has to be taken seriously. And it's taken seriously here by our military and diplomatic corps.
RAZ: Do you think there are elements within Israel who like the fact that you've reported this, who like the idea that this spooks Iran?
PERRY: That's an interesting spin. Certainly, it gives them leverage, but it also, I think, signals to them - as if they didn't know it - the real deep concern of the military and intelligence community in the United States about the talk of war and how that can sometimes inadvertently lead to war, and that's a concern here that they to acknowledge.
RAZ: That's Mark Perry. He's the author of the book "Talking with Terrorists." His article about the Israeli-Azeri relationship is in Foreign Policy magazine. You can find it online. Mark Perry, thanks so much.
PERRY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.