Do Israeli-Azeri Ties Portend Conflict With Iran?

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A secret agreement came to light this week between the Israel and the Central Asian nation of Azerbaijan: The Azeri government has granted Israelis access to eight air bases, located just a couple hundred miles north of Israel's foe Iran.

Allowing Israeli fighter jets and bombers to land and refuel so close to Iran raises questions: Could this mean Israel and Iran are one step closer to war? Or are Azerbaijan and Israel just looking to strengthen their relationship?

Mark Perry, journalist and author of Talking with Terrorists, wrote an investigative piece on the air bases for Foreign Policy magazine. Perry told Guy Raz, host of weekend on All Things Considered, this new agreement "allows Israel the ability to attack Iran more easily."

Leverage For Israel

Many in Israel view Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat. The West accuses Iran of covertly working toward nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its program is peaceful.

Any sort of Israeli military action at the moment is speculative. But if anything, Perry notes, this gives Israel leverage when it comes to Iran. The Azeri government has vehemently denied the allegations in Perry's article, saying it has already told Iran that no military assets would be launched from Azeri territory into Iran.

But Perry, who notes he took great care in reading the Azeri government response, says the denial doesn't address the core issues of his article.

"My article says military officials here in the United States and diplomats believe that Azeri air bases could be used for landing rights or for drones and reconnaissance or for search-and-rescue missions," Perry says.

So how did the relationship between Israel, a Jewish nation, and Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country, develop in the first place?

In a word: "Oil," Perry says.

Israel imports a large amount of its oil from Azerbaijan, and it sells Azerbaijan military hardware as well as goods such as ice cream and cell phones.

"It's a very close and strong relationship, and it has been for quite some time," Perry says.

Relations With Turkey

But this new deepening connection could be, Perry says, in reaction to Israel's increasing troubled relationship with Turkey, previously Israel's strongest ally in the region.

Perry cites Israel's interception in 2010 of a flotilla, which sailed from Turkey, headed for the Gaza Strip. Eight Turks died in that raid; since then, Israeli-Turkish relations have "deteriorated markedly," Perry says. Many military contracts Israel had with Turkey have since been given to Azerbaijan.

"In many respects, Israeli geostrategic views have shifted farther east, away from Turkey and toward Baku," Perry says.

U.S. military officials are watching to see how this new strengthened relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan will progress. Right now, Perry says, they are taking this news seriously.

"The real deep concern of the military and intelligence community in the United States about the talk of war and how that sometimes can inadvertently lead to war, and that's a concern here that [Israel has] to acknowledge," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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