REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The latest in a series of reports that have contributed to the speculation, hints and mostly confusion about a possible Israeli strike against Iran's controversial nuclear program came Thursday in Foreign Policy.
A feature titled "Israel's Secret Staging Ground" reported Israel has gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran. The information, and concerned conclusion that Israel is eyeing Azerbaijan as an access point to Iran, came from U.S. officials.
Though such reports commonly draw widespread attention and discussion in Israel, the Foreign Policy story was met with relative quiet. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was the only official to comment on the report, sort of -- by way of a "no comment" and a joke that he hoped the treasury wouldn't have to start paying for airbases around the world.
Israel and Azerbaijan, as Foreign Policy notes, have increasingly tightened strategic and economic relations in recent years. But the subject is sensitive for both, given Azerbaijan's proximity to Iran.
Israel buys oil from Azerbaijan, while its exports to the Central Asian nation topped $110 million in 2010, more than half of that high-tech equipment. But a key component of the relationship is security, as the recently signed deal for around $1.6 billion worth of Israeli defense systems and drones suggests.
The relationship worries Iran, which demanded an explanation for the massive procurement of military equipment from Israel. Azerbaijani officials recently said they would not allow their country to be used to strike Iran. However, the American officials noted that without explicitly denying Israel landing rights, Azerbaijan could make an Israeli attack on Iran easier.
The U.S. and Israel agree on the need to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons but differ on how immediate the need for a military strike might be. "We're watching what Iran does closely," one U.S. intelligence source told the magazine, adding that they're also watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan "and we're not happy about it."
Israeli officials declined comment for the report. The subject is also sensitive for Azerbaijan, which recently prevented an attack on Israeli targets in Baku and arrested 22 citizens suspected of working for Iran in a plot against Jewish and American targets. Earlier this year, hackers broke into government and other websites in Azerbaijan, defacing them with "you serve the Jews" messages.
Last month, the London Times reported that Baku was being used by Israel's Mossad as "ground zero" for intelligence activity against Iran.
Israel is not in the habit of commenting on such reports and its silence is not surprising. Conversely, the recent talkativeness of American officials is also understandable, according to Israeli defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. "The United States is leaking information to the media in order to avert an Israeli strike in Iran," Ben-Yishai wrote on a leading Israeli news site.
According to Ben-Yishai, in recent weeks the U.S. has "shifted into high gear" these efforts, by way of leaking classified intelligence and assessments to the American and British media. Without elaborating which, if any, Israeli options the U.S. seeks to eliminate by exposure, writes the commentator, "it is blatantly clear that reports in the past week alone have caused Israel substantive diplomatic damage, and possibly even military and operational damage."
The flood of reports, said Ben-Yishai, shows not only that the U.S. genuinely fears Israel may strike at Iran but that "the Obama administration has decided to take its gloves off."
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem in February. Credit: Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency