Mark Perry has published another powerful expose of covert Israeli intelligence activities against Iran. This segment in his series deals with Azerbaijan, a subject I’ve written about here after the recent announcement of a $1.6 billion arms deal between Israel and that nation. Perry expands and amplifies the story, revealing that Israel may use Azerbaijan as a “forward aircraft carrier” in its offensive against Iran. Perry’s sources are high level U.S. military and intelligence officials.
One of the logistical nightmares of an attack on Iran is getting Israeli planes to and from their target, a flight of 2,000 miles. The IAF simply doesn’t have the refueling capability that’s required. Thanks to Perry, we’ve just learned one of the ways Israel plans to eliminate the problem:
…Four 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.”
Though the country’s foreign minister recently dismissed the notion that his country would serve as a base for an attack on any other country, Perry writes:
…Even if his government makes good on that promise, it could still provide Israel with essential support. A U.S. military intelligence officer noted that Azeri defense minister did not explicitly bar Israeli bombers from landing in the country after a strike. Nor did he rule out the basing of Israeli search-and-rescue units in the country. Proffering such landing rights — and mounting search and rescue operations closer to Iran — would make an Israeli attack on Iran easier.
…The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told me they believe that Israel has gained access to these [Azeri] airbases through a series of quiet political and military understandings. “I doubt that there’s actually anything in writing,” added a senior retired American diplomat who spent his career in the region. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt — if Israeli jets want to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they’d probably be allowed to do so. Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan, and has been for the last two decades.”
Perry notes that Azerbaijan’s rampant corruption has allowed Israel to exploit the situation to its advantage. In return for military hardware and joint production deals, Israel gets these landing rights, the right to place sophisticated listening posts targeting Iran on Azeri soil, and maybe even the right for its assassins to use Azeri territory on their way to and from Iran to assassinate nuclear scientists. If this reminds you of a Graham Greene or John Le Carre novel, it should. The only difference is that the characters’ features are more Middle Eastern and the languages spoken are different.
Perry raised an interesting historical note about a mysterious joint Israeli-Romanian military exercise about two years ago. There were rumors that it was meant as a preparation for an Iran operation though it was hard to see how a war game exercise in central Europe would connect to attacking Iran. But here’s the answer:
This officer pointed to a July 2010 joint Israeli-Romanian exercise that tested Israeli air capabilities in mountainous areas — like those the Israeli Air Force would face during a bombing mission against Iranian nuclear facilities that the Iranians have buried deep into mountainsides. U.S. military officers watched the exercises closely, not least because they objected to the large number of Israeli fighters operating from airbases of a NATO-member country, but also because 100 Israeli fighters overflew Greece as a part of a simulation of an attack on Iran. The Israelis eventually curtailed their Romanian military activities when the United States expressed discomfort with practicing the bombing of Iran from a NATO country, according to this senior military intelligence officer.
This same senior U.S. military intelligence officer speculated that the search and rescue component of those operations will be transferred to Azerbaijan — “if they haven’t been already.”
The issue of drones has become a hot one as well with the Iranian downing of a U.S. drone a few months ago. Israel has apparently been quite busy exploiting its drone capabilities to spy on not just Iran, but likely Turkey as well:
The centerpiece of the recent arms deal is Azerbaijan’s acquisition of Israeli drones, which has only heightened Turkish anxieties further. In November 2011, the Turkish government retrieved the wreckage of an Israeli “Heron” drone in the Mediterranean, south of the city of Adana — well inside its maritime borders. Erdogan’s government believed the drone’s flight had originated in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and demanded that Israel provide an explanation, but got none. “They lied; they told us the drone didn’t belong to them,” a former Turkish official told me last month. “But it had their markings.”
All of this equals a major projection of Israeli power right into the heart of two of the region’s major Muslim powers, Turkey and Iran. Frankly, it reminds me of the history of U.S. interventionism around the world–in Central America (1950 and 70s), Latin America (1960s and 70s), Asia (1960s and 70s), and now the Middle East (1990s and 2000s). All of this aggressive projection of American power for objectives and values almost impossible to quantify, has led us to much grief. It can only lead Israel to a similar fate. What the Middle East does NOT need is Israeli air bases on Cyprus and Azerbaijan. It does not need Israel doing its level best to rile up regional powers like Turkey and Iran.
It is precisely belligerent acts like this which convince the nations of the area that they need nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Israel doesn’t mess around. If it wants something, it gets it. If it doesn’t want you to do or have something, it’ll do its damndest to stop you, or barring that to make you pay for your defiance. Israel makes the neighborhood even tougher than it is or has to be. Under such conditions, it’s no wonder Iran might feel the need to explore a nuclear option.
A modified version of the old saying–be careful what you wish for because you might get it–holds true in this situation. The more threatening Israel’s policy becomes, the more likely there will be a major and possibly/likely uncontrollable escalation that would lead to a shooting war. Wars in the region tend not to be short or containable (viz. Iraq and Afghanistan), especially when there are so many proxies and allies on one side or the other. In other words, there’s enough kindling in the Middle East to burn the whole place down three times over. In this environment, do we really want Israeli F-16s careening across the skies enforcing a Pax Israeliana?
The irony here is that even if Israel lays perfect groundwork logistically, it still may not succeed. The Congressional Research Service reported today that Iran has done such a thorough job of dispersing its centrifuge workshops that Israel can’t possibly locate them all and that doing substantial damage to this part of their nuclear program is difficult. The document estimates Israel may only set back Iran by a relatively short period of time after such an operation:
A former official said the same day that Iran probably could rebuild or replicate most centrifuge workshops within six months, the researchers said.
Such a failure would leave the region in the same situation it is now (or worse): with Iran conducting nuclear research (possibly openly and for weapons production), Israel seeking to ever expand its sway in the region. All that awaits is for the next chance to perform “root canal” or “mow the grass”–for these enemies to have a go at each other. Next time, presumably with even more lethal weapons and more dangerous allies/proxies fighting alongside them. To paraphrase an old TV commercial: Is this any way to run a region? You bet it’s not.
Israel deserves to be a small country that offers much to the world. But does it deserve to be an aircraft carrier in the Middle East? Sparta on the Jordan? I say No. And the only party, if any, which can reign in this megalomania is the U.S. Barack Obama has shown little willingness to do so in his characteristically vacillating way. But there may come a point at which the guns have fired, the missiles have launched, and all we’ll be able to do is count the bodies on either side. Then it will be too late. Obama will’ve had his chance to turn things around and missed it. All because he didn’t have the toughness to face down Bibi and Barak.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.