F-15 - Alon Ron
An Israel Air Force F-15. Photo by Alon Ron
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We will be hearing a lot about Azerbaijan over the coming weeks, not least because Baku is to host the 2012 Eurovision song contest in May and international human-rights groups are planning to focus efforts on the country around the event.

An official at one NGO said to me recently that "we think that the Azeri government will make a show of improving civil rights during the Eurovision," but according to latest reports, the opposite seems to be happening.

Baku, Azerbaijan - AP - 18.1.12

There is though another less musical reason why we are discussing Azerbaijan and that is the increased significance of that country in a possible Israel-Iran war scenario. Foreign Policy has a major piece today on the likelihood of airbases in the Caucasus nation being used by Israeli aircraft in a strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Besides a comprehensive account of Israel's public and secret relationship with the Aliyev regime, the main points in the feature are the quotes of anonymous American diplomats and intelligence officials claiming that Israel has an unwritten agreement with the Azeris to use old Soviet airbases in their territory.

While this is an intriguing possibility, a cursory glance at a map hardly bears it out. A range of American military experts claim that Azeri airfields would be invaluable for Israel as it would solve some of the fuel/range issues of a 2000+km strike, they fail to address the problem of where the Israeli warplanes can fly to once they have refueled in Azerbaijan. There is no friendly route to fly back to Israel, except over Iranian or Turkish territory, hardly appealing alternatives once an attack has already been carried out and both countries will be on highest alert. Another weak point in that theory is that according to a "senior U.S. military intelligence officer" this would enable the Israeli air-force not to rely on its "pretty minimal" aerial refueling capabilities with which U.S. "military planners… are not impressed." I wonder what this is based on, as the IAF has been developing its aerial refueling expertise for nearly fifty years and it routinely enables the combat squadrons to fly thousands of kilometers to joint exercises with NATO allies, often at similar ranges to a potential Iranian attack.

Since landing in Azerbaijan after a strike on Iran would almost certainly mean that returning these valuable aircraft to Israel would be a lengthy and complicated process, especially at a time when the IAF would certainly need them for additional missions, this doesn't seem to make sense. Other uses proposed in the FP feature, using Azeri fields just in the case of emergency landings or using them to base search-and-rescue helicopters or reconnaissance drones, makes more sense.

While reports of Israel using old Soviet bases in Azerbaijan is a relatively new phenomena, we have been hearing similar stories for years about the Eritrean island of Dahlak where an old Soviet submarine base is reportedly in use now by the Israeli navy, perhaps in the ongoing campaign to intercept Iranian arms smuggling ships bound for Gaza and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, it may turn out that the only Israeli attack through Azerbaijan this year will be psychedelic punk-rock band Izabo since according to Haaretz's senior columnist, Amir Oren, Tuesday night's announcement that the U.S. Defense Department would be seeking funding for further development of Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, was a signal that there would be no Israeli strike on Iran this year.

But if there is to be no war for now with Iran, then maybe something with one of its proxies? Pop culture magazine Vice tried to kick off a new war with Hezbollah when it challenged five of the Shia fighters to a paintball battle at a Beirut mall. Mitchell Prothero describes an evening of male bonding, despite the Hezbollah fighters constantly breaking the rules of engagement. Their new friends ruined it a bit when "at the very end of the evening, things take a chilling turn. The Boss walks over and takes Ben’s gun away from him while criticizing his marksmanship. In an exemplary display, the Boss takes careful aim at a rope hanging on the other side of the arena and fires shot after shot, squarely hitting the rope each time while chanting Yahoud (“Jew”) on each pull of the trigger. He seems to think it’s funny, but no one else laughs."