Mark Perry has a long piece on the FP website contending that Israel is gearing up to use Azerbaijan as a possible staging ground for an attack on Iran, and that at the very least Azerbaijan will provide a safe landing point for Israeli bombers following a strike in addition to serving as a base for search and rescue operations. It is tough for me to know quite what to make of Perry’s reporting. At first glance, this seems like a strange move for the Azeris to make. They stand to create a diplomatic firestorm with Iran and Turkey, both of whom are Azerbaijan’s neighbors and both of whom are significantly larger and militarily more powerful than Azerbaijan. To openly assist Israel in attacking Iran would place Azerbaijan in the path of certain Iranian retaliation, and unlike U.S. backing of Israel, no such protection and military help is guaranteed to come Azerbaijan’s way. From an international relations perspective, given its proximity to Iran, the power imbalance between the two countries, and the absence of great power backing, it seems to make more sense for Azerbaijan to bandwagon with Iran than to help Israel balance against it.
On the other hand, in many ways Azeri assistance to Israel in an effort to poke Iran in the eye has been a long time coming. Iran and Azerbaijan have an extremely tense relationship dating back to the fact that Azerbaijan was once part of Iran and there are 20 million ethnic Azeris living in Iran over whom the Azeri government oftentimes claims sovereignty. The relationship between the Iranian government and its Azeri citizens mirrors that of Turkey and its Kurdish citizens, with the Iranian government discriminating against Azeri language and culture in an effort to make Azeris more Iranian. In addition, Azerbaijan recently arrested 22 people on charges of spying for Iran, and after Israel canceled its $140 million deal to provide Turkey with drones it turned around and announced a $1.5 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan that included drones and missile defense. Azerbaijan provides 30% of Israel’s oil and transports it there via an Azeri pipeline, which is another move that must antagonize the Iranian government. There are also lingering disputes over Iranian trade deals with Armenia and a host of other issues that make the Iran-Azerbaijan relationship one fraught with danger.
The sum total of all this is that it makes perfect sense to me that Israel is trying very hard to secure Azeri assistance for all sorts of contingencies as it makes military plans to deal with Iran. It does not necessarily follow, however, that Azerbaijan will take what would be a massive escalatory step forward in actively helping Israel attack Iran. I buy Perry’s argument on allowing Israel to launch search and rescue missions from Azeri territory more than I buy the notion of Israeli bombers using Azeri airfields as a secret staging ground for bombing runs. The first would come dangerously close to the line of open hostility toward Iran while the second would blow right past it, and I’m not sure that Azerbaijan is in a secure enough position to risk the latter scenario.