By Shahin Abbasov
Azerbaijani military and political analysts are disputing a March 28 report on an American website that alleges Israel has gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan for possible use in an attack against Iran.
While one member of Azerbaijan’s parliament tells EurasiaNet.org that he believes Israel is seeking such access, he, along with other local analysts, believe that the risks of Baku’s granting such a request far outweigh the potential benefits.
“There is infrastructure, and I believe the Israelis are probing the possibility of its use. But, of course, there is no consent by Baku,” said Rasim Musabekov, an independent MP who sits on parliament’s International Relations and Inter-Parliamentary Affairs Committee.
It is “a great exaggeration to say that a decision has already been made and Azerbaijan has turned into one Israeli airbase,” he added.
Ali Hasanov, a top presidential aide, and representatives of the Ministry of Defense have vigorously denied the claims made in the March 28 report, which was posted on the web version of Foreign Policy magazine. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani military analysts are seizing on questionable aspects of the report.
The article, for example, cited Sitalcay airstrip, located 70 kilometers north of Baku, as one likely candidate for use by the Israelis for re-fueling fighter planes after strikes against Iran. But military expert Uzeir Jafarov, a colonel-in-reserve in the Azerbaijani army, notes that the airfield, which opened in 1981 and once housed Soviet jet fighters, has not been in operation since the mid-1990s. “From 1992 for a few years, the airfield was used by Azerbaijan’s air force, but then was closed down,” Jafarov said.
Sitalcay’s location is another important detail, continued Jafarov. “It is not a good place to keep a low-profile,” he said. “The airstrip is located very close to the busy Baku-Russian border highway and any take-off or landing is easily visible.”
While Sitalcay’s Soviet-era infrastructure is still usable, he added, preparing the airfield for operations again would take at least six months.
A resident of Khizi, a town close to the Sitalcay airstrip, told EurasiaNet.org that there has been no sign of recent activity at the airfield, which, he added, is long closed. “The area is fenced in and guarded by soldiers, but there are no jets there,” he said.
Military expert Jasur Sumarinly also confirmed that Sitalcay has been closed for years. The Azerbaijani air force today uses three bases – in Gala and Taghiyev, outside of Baku, and in the Kurdamir region, in central Azerbaijan, Sumarinly said. All of the bases are up to North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards, but NATO itself relies on Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport for its cargo transit to Afghanistan.
No strong incentive exists for such an agreement – despite Azerbaijan’s $1.6 billion purchase of Israeli military equipment and oil sales to Israel, commented Arastun Orujlu, head of Baku’s East-West research center. “The links with Israel are important for Azerbaijan, but not so much as to turn them into a real threat from Iran, and to risk Baku’s ties with Turkey,” he said.
Citing unnamed sources in Turkish diplomatic circles, Elhan Shahinoglu, the head of Baku’s Atlas research center, said that Azerbaijan’s military cooperation with Israel already appears to have created problems for Baku with Turkey, its closest ally.
Both Orujlu and Shahinoglu believe that Israel is exaggerating the scale of its military cooperation with Azerbaijan in order to fuel tensions between Baku and Tehran, and advance its own desire for strong action against Iran’s nuclear research activities.
Shahinoglu cites Israeli media reports last month about Azerbaijan’s purchase of military equipment from Israel, a fact Baku had previously concealed. The result, he alleged, was that Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, who traveled to Iran earlier this month, “had to give unpleasant explanations to Tehran.”
Orujlu agreed. “It is Israel, which, from time to time, leaks information about a larger scale of cooperation than exists in reality to stir up Iran’s anger,” he said. “Unfortunately, Baku cannot, or does not want to prevent it.”
Azerbaijan also has been notably circumspect in public about its investigation of a supposed Iranian assassination attempt against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan and its arrest of 22 individuals who were allegedly plotting attacks against the US and Israeli embassies in Baku on behalf of Iran.
That public silence most likely reflects the longtime Caucasus art of foreign policy juggling; in Azerbaijan’s case, trying to maintain its equilibrium between regional players – the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran – countries with opposing interests. Analysts like Orujlu see no reason for Baku to upset that balance now. “It is the wrong policy to be in the center of a conflict between Israel and Iran,” he said.
[Editor’s Note: Rasim Musabekov formerly served on the board of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the network].
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.