A new article by Mark Perry (“Israel’s Secret Staging Ground,” Foreign Policy, March 28, 2012) calls attention to the very real possibility that Israel could use Azerbaijan air bases in an attack on Iran. While it may be unlikely that Azerbaijan would allow such an attack to be launched from its territory, it might allow Israeli aircraft to land there after an attack, or allow rescue helicopters to be based there. It must be tempting to Israel to rely on Azerbaijan, because otherwise mounting a devastating attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be at or beyond Israel’s logistical capabilities.
Israel has been courting Azerbaijan since the 1990s, and has robust business and military connections there, to the displeasure not only of Iran, but also of Turkey. This is interesting for several reasons. First, Azerbaijan, like Iran, is predominantly Shi’a Muslim, which would suggest that it would tend to be friendly to Iran. On the other hand, this post-Soviet family dictatorship, unlike Iran, is secularly oriented. But that secular orientation would tend to make it gravitate toward Turkey. But the current government in Turkey is less secular than many of its predecessors, and has increasingly tense relations with Israel. Israel is a principal buyer of Azeri petroleum and a major supplier of high-tech goods to that country.
It is increasingly clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak (head of the Labor Party and former Prime Minister) are determined to strike Iran and are increasingly impatient with sanctions and diplomacy. In this they are strongly supported by neoconservatives and conservative Zionists in the United States. The Israeli government’s relations with the Obama administration are tense, and Netanyahu has scarcely bothered to conceal that he would prefer to be dealing with a Republican president. Thus it cannot be excluded that Israel would attack Iran prior to the American election in hopes of either embarrassing Obama, or forcing him to back them up.
However, a military attack on Iran by Israel would be calamitous for American interests. Just as we are cautiously and painfully extracting ourselves from ill-considered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such an attack would surely make the Persian Gulf a war zone, and would probably provoke direct Iranian attacks on Israel. The U.S. would inevitably be drawn into hostilities in either case. And if the Israelis were so foolish as to involve Azerbaijan, then Central Asia would become a war zone too. Should Iran then attack Azerbaijan, the Russians could scarcely be indifferent to a war in one of the former Soviet republics. Either they would oppose the Iranians, or perhaps more likely, cooperate with them to jointly occupy that country.
Obama seems to have little leverage with Netanyahu, short of a very public break, which would be more dangerous to Obama than to Netanyahu. But Obama simply cannot allow himself and his country to be held hostage by a reckless ally. He needs to do all in his power to dissuade the Israelis from proceeding with this misbegotten adventure. He needs to let them know that we will not bail them out if they go ahead. Sanctions might still work, and if they don’t, containment worked on the Soviet Union; why couldn’t it work on Iran?