When I first saw EurasiaNet dutifully re-post a story from Foreign Policy, "Israel's 'Secret Staging Ground' alleging that Israel had a deal with Azerbaijan to refuel at Azerbaijan's airbases on the border with Iran, I wasn't surprised. (Baku later denied this, but EurasiaNet didn't note that yet).
That is, I wasn't surprised that Joshua Kucera of EurasiaNet was reprinting Foreign Policy -- there's a close relationship between EurasiaNet authors and Foreign Policy, where they publish. Nor was I surprised that both Foreign Policy and EurasiaNet were running a story to intensify mistrust of Israel -- the EurasiaNet tilt, like Foreign Policy, is toward the "progressive" line that is quite critical about Israel.
The author of the FP story, Mark Perry, said:
"The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."
But -- as Kucera reminds us -- when Israel made a $1.6 billion arms agreement with Azerbaijan, "ikely Azerbaijan's largest single arms purchase ever," he said that it "wasn't because of Iran":
The timing of the deal is misleading: regardless of the ongoing ratcheting up of tension between Israel and Iran, and increasing attention to Israel's intelligence activities in Azerbaijan, these weapons are destined to be used not against Iran, but against Armenia, which controls the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Though it's tempting to think otherwise.
So Kucera denies an Iran-related motivation -- but falls for the temptation to some extent himself:
Is Azerbaijan going to use Israeli weapons against Iran? No chance. Azerbaijan has nothing to gain by attacking Iran, or even by cooperating with an Israeli attack except in the most discreet possible way.
Except in the most discreet possible way, you see. As Kucera adds:
The exception would be if Azerbaijan's influence were so discreet as to allow Baku some plausible deniability; then Iran probably wouldn't stand to gain from attacking Azerbaijan. According to the FP report, the most likely use for the Azerbaijan airfields would be so that Israeli aircraft could land there after an attack, obviating the need for mid-air refueling en route to Iran, which Israel isn't particularly experienced with and which would reduce the amount of weapons the planes could take on each sortie.
I wondered if this was a clever new kind of plausible-deniability deterrence -- if true -- or a clever new way to claim you don't think Israel is going to do something bad -- and then claim in fact it secretly will.
What I was most puzzled about, however, regarding the FP piece and the subsequent piece in The Bug Pit was this: why didn't they mention the sizeable Azeri population within Iran?
There are at least 16 million Azeris in the south of Iran (there are no official numbers on this revealed but they are believed to make up 24 percent of the population); they travel frequently across the border to Azerbaijan, where it's like a vacation for them as Azerbaijan remains a secular state and doesn't have the same strict rules. Foreign Policy mentioned this minority, but only in terms of recently fraying relations (they are always fraying over one thing and another) -- the accusations that Azerbaijan was helping Israeli agents assassinate Iranian scientists. And later, only historically, in reference to the posibility raised by retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Oded Tira of enlisting the support of the Azeri minority as a hypothetical (unlikely, as they are loyal to the regime -- they have to be, to survive).
But they didn't mention the sizeable Azeri population within Iran as a powerful deterrent to Baku not really ever embarking on anything that provocative against Tehran.
Indeed, the Azeris of Iran are hostages to anything that Israel and Azerbaijan might do that Iran might not like. Tehran can and does retaliate against them every time there are escalation of tensions in Caspian Sea conflicts, for example -- we've seen this time and again with various scandals -- Azerbaijan makes a pipeline deal that Iran doesn't like, or moves towards positions that Iran doesn't like on Caspian controversies, and they threaten to retaliate.
Oh, but there *is* a "strong, but mostly quiet, alliance" between Baku and Tel Aviv says EurasiaNet because WikiLeaks tells us.
Millions of dollars of Israeli weapons have already been sold to Azerbaijan -- and remember the drone that crashed? That was said to be Israeli-made.
The FP report cites a "a senior retired American diplomat who spent his career in the region and "four US military intelligence officers". There is a lot of detail but it's mainly citing research on the hypotheticals.
After this report came out, I thought to myself: there's a dog not barking here -- Russia. Russia does a lot of the talking on the whole Iran nuclear issue, as an ally of Iran's, and has backslid on progress it once made ostensibly pressuring Iran -- especially as relations have worsened with the US and NATO over Libya.
Why didn't Moscow have anything to say about this supposed move to help Israel ratchet up its deterrent factor (which could also double as a provocation ratcheting up tensions, of course, like all deterrents in the nuclear game)?
Azerbaijan is Russia's ally and close partner on some things (energy) -- and Russia never really seems able to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by pressuring Azerbaijan, although as a nominally Christian-majority nation it is historically perceived as Armenia's ally as well. Periodically Russia seems to imply it won't help solve that conflict if it doesn't get its way on this or that gas or pipeline project. For that matter, Russia is now better friends than it used to be with Israel. Wouldn't it have something to say? It didn't...
Now I read in Commentary the question as to why the Obama Administration leaked the Azerbaijan-Israel story? It sure does seem strategic. Commentary reports:
Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari has written in the Times of Israel claiming last week’s bombshell from Foreign Policy magazine about Azerbaijan’s willingness to allow Israel to use its air bases to strike Iran was pure fiction...But though Yaari presents some good arguments why it might not be true, unlike magazine author Mark Perry, he offers no sources or reporting to back up his assertion.
Commentary author Jonathan S. Tobin himself reported the story and found it plausible at the time (like FP and EurasiaNet, although Commentary is pro-Israel). He didn't mention the Azeri-hostage factor, either, but he probes in a different direction:
Unless you are willing to believe, as perhaps Yaari and others disputing its authenticity do, that Perry is lying about the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration leaked the story to him, it’s still important to ask why they did so. What possible motive could they have had?
While the story could be true, shining such a spotlight on it, reasons Tobin, reveals:
the willingness of Obama’s minions to circulate the tale speaks volumes about the off-the-record malevolence that lurks beneath the surface of the president’s current charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters.
I don't think you have to scratch too hard on that surface to see the malevolence, judging from the Battle of the Think Tanks recently in Washington, where Center for American Progress and AIPAC and others related on each side of the Israel-Palestine issues battled fiercely on Twitter and the blogosphere, in the end, each side sacrificing staff. You could also look at the 771 plus comments under Perry's article -- the antisemites and conspiracy loons are having a field day.
Tobin cites' Yaari's more practical military concern that FP didn't seem to factor in:
Iran’s friend Turkey is not likely to permit the Israeli Air Force to fly over its territory to get to the Azeri bases.
While he doesn't mention the 16 million Azeris as such, Yaari does mention yet another regional enclave factor -- Nakhchivan, the Azeri enclave borderd by Iran from which Azerbaijan is cut off by Armenian territory. As Yaari points out, it is useful to open up a map and look at this.
It's my belief that among the biggest factors restraining Baku from providing any huge support for Israel in terms of a possible pre-emptive strike are a) the Azeri minority held hostage b) Russia's disapproval. At the end of the day, Russia cares more about Iran than Israel, and so does Azerbaijan. It's next door. They're the ones that have to live with the Day After.
I'm taking for granted that the hostage factor is a huge restraint, but I'm willing to consider other alternatives based on the brutal pragmatism of this region's tyrants, and their sheer disregard for their own people, even in their own countries. But the belief that minorities can be held hostage and used as pawns is at least as old as Stalin's Prisonhouse of the Peoples, and part of the reason he chopped up the map with so many odd enclaves was to play people off against each other.
When Tajikistan arrested two Russian pilots and accused them of carrying contraband, as part of a larger dispute with Russia about payments for a base and the uneasy relationship with Russia's military presence on their soil, Russia instantly retaliated by saying they'd expel 10,000 Tajik labor migrants from Russia. That's how they roll. Of course, they have their own Russian hostage-population in Turkmenistan, and that has sometimes been a factor in their gas deals with Ashgabat, but lately, since the deterioration of relations after failure to get a price deal in 2009 and mutual acrimony over a pipeline explosion, the Kremlin hasn't done anything for the Russians trapped in Turkmenistan as Ashgabat doesn't recognize their dual citizenship and wants to force them to take new Turkmen passports.
Each one of these countries seem to have each others' titular nationality group, as they call it, in the form of a minority in their own country, and they play on it. But my point here is that you may not be able to count on them going to bat for their own when the chips fly.
Even so, I continue to think the deterrent factor is big on both fronts -- Baku is not going to deliberately harm their fellow Azeris lightly, or cause a huge influx of refugees they can't take care of -- they are still taking care of refugees from the past twenty years of crises. Nor will they fly in the face of what Russia wants.