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Israeli access to Azeri airfields makes no sense

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The amount of media speculation over the past few months about whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations has been overwhelming.

With reports and commentary quoting this or that “expert” or “anonymous source,” speculation by definition can make no pretense to knowledge. Unsuspecting consumers of the media might be forgiven for assuming otherwise, and believing that they’re privy to some factual nugget that offers genuine behind-the-scenes insight.

Such was the case late last month when Foreign Policy magazine published Mark Perry’s article, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground.” Perry alleges that four (unnamed) “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” in Azerbaijan. The reason could only be to allow Israel convenient proximity to carry out bombing operations on Iran – something, Perry argues, the Obama administration desperately wants to prevent. And what better way to accomplish this than by leaking such explosive material to Perry, whose allegations were picked up by a limited number of western media outlets.

Within a few days, however, veteran Arab affairs reporter Ehud Ya’ari was all over Perry, writing in a post on the Times of Israel website that the allegation “simply does not make any sense.” Ya’ari also criticized the Israeli media for having reported seriously on a rumour that had no merit, and he accused the editors of Foreign Policy of demonstrating “negligent naiveté” for having published it in the first place. 

Ya’ari’s argument is two-fold. First, he notes that Perry is a prominent “anti-Israel warrior” with a history of planting “cloak-and-dagger patchwork stories aimed at undermining a state he intensely detests.”

Second, even though Israel and Azerbaijan have close relations, a minimal understanding of Azerbaijan’s internal politics and relationship with Iran quickly reveals that it would be unimaginable for the Azeri government to expose its airfields to Iranian retaliation following a potential Israeli strike.

In this respect, Ya’ari asked: “How can Azerbaijan possibly afford to co-operate in an attack on Iran when it depends on Iran entirely for maintaining control over that significant part of this country, the Nakhichevan region, an exclave and autonomous republic of Azerbaijan that is totally separated from the main Azeri territory by its arch-enemy, Armenia?”

Even on such a basic issue of how Israel could hope to get its planes to Azerbaijan in the first place, Ya’ari pointed out, sardonically, that a glance at an atlas reveals another major flaw in Perry’s argument. Ya’ari charges: “Are the Israelis going to get a permit from Mr. Erdogan to fly over Turkey on their way to hit Iran?… Or, alternatively, does Perry want us to believe that the Israelis will choose to bypass Turkey on their secret mission via the longer route over Greece and Bulgaria, thus becoming fully exposed to Russian radar in the Black Sea? Take a look at the map, Mr. Perry — there is no other way for the Israelis to get to Azerbaijan!” 

To his credit, while mentioning the surface plausibility about the tactical advantages that Israel would gain from access to Azerbaijan’s airfields, the Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring (on April 3) also raised skeptical questions about Perry’s piece. He wondered whether the Obama administration, despite a predictable official denial, may have leaked statements, conveyed by Perry, as part of a disinformation campaign to constrain Israel. Koring also cited Ya’ari’s incisive critique from the Times of Israel. 

Which brings us back to Ya’ari’s core point. Serious debate about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, he claims, “requires down-to-earth discussion based on facts and then a grain of common sense.” Where both ingredients are missing, we end up only with speculative nonsense passing for substance. Indeed, when it comes to the issue of Iran, observers would be wise to heed Ya’ari’s sage advice.

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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