So what is Azerbaijan thinking here?
Israel has gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, possibly so that Israeli aircraft could land there after attacking Iran, a new report in Foreign Policy magazine says:
[F]our 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."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners, I was told, must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf — but one that could include the Caucasus.
A few weeks ago, when Azerbaijan's $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel was announced, this blog discounted the idea that Azerbaijan would get involved in a potential Israeli attack on Iran, arguing that the risks for Azerbaijan are too high and the potential gains unclear. 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:
The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials told me they believe that Israel has gained access to these 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…."
Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as "a significant asset" to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel's warplanes to their limits. "Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they'd be running on fumes," Isenberg told me, "so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial."
Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel's calculations: "They save themselves 800 miles of fuel," he told me in a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable."
I'm not sure that would afford Azerbaijan the deniability they'd need to avoid a retaliatory attack from Iran. Surely Iran would be able to see where the Israeli jets were going after their attack. Azerbaijan's defense minister visited Tehran earlier this month and promised that Azerbaijan would not be used as a launchpad from which to attack Iran. FP reports: "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." That is a pretty legalistic parsing of Azerbaijan's promises, and it seems unlikely Tehran would think much of it.
So what is Azerbaijan thinking here?