Much has been made of Mark Perry’s recent piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, which claims that Israel has been given access to at least one Azerbaijan airfield for use during a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Azerbaijan borders Iran to the north, which would allow Israeli planes to refuel on the ground instead of in the air.
Israeli-Azeri relations have developed rapidly since Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This is mainly due to both countries recognizing “Iran as a major, even existential security threat”. According to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, his country’s relationship with Israel is “nine-tenths … below the surface.”
In the 90s, Israel started purchasing Azeri oil and “sent medical, technological, and agricultural experts” to Azerbaijan. In addition to unspecified weapons sales and intelligence operations, “Israeli firms built and guard the fence around Baku’s international airport, monitor and help protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, and even provide security for Azerbaijan’s president on his foreign visits.”
Azerbaijan wanted Israel to use its influence to improve US-Azeri relations and counteract Armenia’s strong ties to the United States. This became important for Azerbaijan after it not only lost a war and the Nagorno-Karabakh region to its archenemy Armenia, but also when the US imposed sanctions on them.
An Israeli firm, Bezeq, has been a major player in the Azeri telephone market since 1994 and many Israeli companies operate in Azerbaijan’s energy sector. In 1995, an Israeli journalist noted that Azerbaijan was flooded with “Strauss ice cream, cell phones produced by Motorola’s Israeli division, Maccabee beer, and other Israeli imports”.
In September 2008, Azerbaijan signed an agreement reportedly worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” with “three Israeli companies to buy mortars, ammunition, rocket artillery and radio equipment.”
Specific cases of publicized Israeli-Azeri military co-operation include upgrading Soviet SU-25 Scorpion aircraft in 2001, building the TecSar reconnaissance satellite system and Azeri production of the Namer infantry fighting vehicle in 2009.
After its ties with Turkey started to deteriorate over the Gaza flotilla incident, Israel agreed to jointly manufacture 60 Israeli drones with Azerbaijan in 2011.
In February 2012, Israel signed a $1.6 billion weapons contract that will provide Azerbaijan with sophisticated drones, as well as anti-aircraft and missile defense systems.
According to four anonymous U.S. senior diplomats and military intelligence officers, Israel now has access to Azeri airfields. The Sitalcay airstrip is considered to be suitable for Israeli aircraft due to its distance from Azerbaijan’s capital and its existing facilities. Israel may also have “electronic listening stations” along the border with Iran.
Although Azerbaijan’s defense minister refused to allow any attack to be launched on Iran from Azerbaijan, he “did not explicitly bar Israeli bombers from landing in the country after a strike” or “…rule out the basing of Israeli search-and-rescue units in the country.”