Despite Baku’s denials, this will clearly further damage the already fraught relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran. Undoubtedly, the Iranian government openly disapproves of Azerbaijan’s friendly relations with Israel, a partnership that includes over a billion dollars worth of trade between the two countries.
Meanwhile, Israel has recently supplied Azerbaijan with a $1.6 billion arms deal to which Iran reacted angrily. Thereafter Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev visited Iran in early March and promised that Azerbaijan will not be a platform for a military strike. Several recent news reports have mentioned that Azerbaijani territory can be used for landing, but for any type of aircraft to enter another state’s sovereign airspace, some kind of formal arrangement is required. But Azerbaijan does not have any such deals with Israel, civilian aviation aside, so no military bases, including airports, can be used at any point of an attack. Besides, why send planes, if you can strike with rockets and coordinate a strike with unmanned drones -- something Israel is fully capable of doing from the comfort of Tel Aviv while keeping all of its military assets ready for counterstrikes. In this sense, it seems that Azerbaijan could participate in a military solution regarding the Iran issue only if there was a legal mandate and it could lend its territory for transit of non-military goods.
Ronald Reagan’s famous advice to “trust, but verify” sheds a useful light here -- we see two possible scenarios behind the recent media leaks.
On the one hand, it seems likely that the US administration orchestrated the leak, aiming to stop Israel’s unilateral strike against Iran -- it is important for the Obama administration to avoiding getting embroiled in a new war on the eve of elections. Invading Iran and a “regime change” was the ideal goal of the Neo-Cons during the Bush presidency and was supported by their analysis. The current strategy has the same aim: to make it more difficult for Israeli decision makers to order Israel to carry out a strike against Iran. In this sense, what happened during the first Gulf War is being repeated: the US insisted that Israel should stay away, and despite Iraqi attacks on Israeli cities, they did not retaliate. The purpose of this containment was to prevent a break in the coalition that included Arab countries. Military expert Reshad Karimov reflects, “Americans are clearly putting pressure on Israel by speculating about an Israeli strike and by bringing Azerbaijani-Israeli relations to the table during the worst time in this relationship, and without casting a shadow on their partner in the region, Georgia -- which has a clear record of going to war without prior strategy.”
The second possibility is that it could be a joint US-Israeli plan, focusing on Israeli military cooperation with Baku in order to confuse Turkey, to suggest that Iran is playing a dangerous game with its ally Azerbaijan. How could this happen? One the one hand, Israel is exaggerating the scale of its military cooperation with Azerbaijan in order to fuel tensions between Baku and Tehran, and in this regard, Iran could become angry and release the first strike against Azerbaijan, which could in turn give casus belli to the US/Israel. In this case it would be easy to get support from the international community on a legal basis. All the signs seem to indicate that this is a possibility. According to military expert Jasur Sumarinly, “If we look at the media, it seems that the US and Israel are dividing on the strike against Iran, but this is a good information strategy, the ultimate goal being to anger Iran and await its sabotage strike against Azerbaijan.” Alexander Murinson, an Israeli-American scholar of Tel Aviv’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, says that “On substance, there is a lot of innuendo and conjecture about Israeli military cooperation with Azerbaijan. All quotes are without attribution and/or from ex-US officials (mostly retired). So, the article certainly raised temperatures in Tehran (which might be a good thing) and upset Turkey, which is playing cutesy with the Mullah’s regime.” In this sense, it looks as if Israel is also calculating Turkey’s possible role, as leaking such information could make Turkey unhappy with Azerbaijan. In a previous military crisis involving Iran, in 2001, Turkey stopped Iran’s military sabotage of Azerbaijan’s Caspian energy. But now if there are tensions between Baku and Ankara, Israel could present itself as Azerbaijan’s “security guarantor.” If we see news headlines about an air base named Azerbaijan, logically the US/Israel could see the key to the Iranian problem as Azerbaijan -- both in Azerbaijan, and amongst the 20 million Azerbaijani Turks living in Iran.
From a rational standpoint, and if the lessons learned from Iraq are of any value, destabilizing Iran would amount to serious chaos in the exact same region. But it seems that this game is not only in the interests of US/Israel and hardliners in Iran; the main difference is that Iran is waiting for attack by Israel, not wanting to attack first. Hardliners could benefit tremendously from an attack and the extremist faction within the Islamic Republic will able to capitalize on the instability in the region and present themselves as the only viable saviors of Iran.
In any case, what we have are a lot of “unknown unknowns,” but one thing is clear: no war is to the benefit of Azerbaijan, and it seems that the US will prefer to conduct its policy on Iran with the Sun Tzu’s consul of “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”