Israel's military may have negotiated access to strategically placed air bases in Azerbaijan that could be used in an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, US officials have said.
The unconfirmed report in Foreign Policy magazine suggested deepening co-operation between Israel and the Caucasian republic, which shares a border with Iran. It said that Israel and Azerbaijan secured a $1.6bn arms deal in February, which included the pledged sale of drones and anti-aircraft missile systems to Baku.
"The Israelis have bought an airfield, and the airfield is called Azerbaijan," an unnamed senior US administration official was quoted as saying.
The article did not fully address doubts over whether Azerbaijan would really be prepared to expose itself to possible retaliation from Iran, and Israeli officials yesterday declined to comment. Azerbaijan's defence ministry denied any agreement, AFP news agency reported.
Quoting the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance 2011, the magazine said that the Azeri military has four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields that could be available to Israel as well as four air bases for their own aircraft.
The report also quoted an unnamed US intelligence officer as saying that Washington was "not happy" about the possibility that Israel's ties with Azerbaijan could facilitate a strike on Iran, and it comes after a spate of US media leaks reflecting alarm about the prospects of such a strike.
A recent Congressional research report suggested that Iran could rebuild its centrifuge workshops within a mere six months of an attack. And last week The New York Times reported on a classified war simulation by the US military which demonstrated the US would be drawn into a war in the aftermath of an Israeli strike.
Asked about the leaks, an Israeli official said yesterday that President Barack Obama had publicly warned this month against "loose talk" about war with Iran and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also ordered Israeli officials without knowledge or authorisation to speak on the subject, to remain silent. "We think that these leaks, whether here or there, are regrettable," the official said.
Apparently reflecting this Israeli government discomfort, the veteran military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai speculated in the Yedhiot Ahronot newspaper that the US was leaking information to the media with the specific purpose of averting an Israeli strike on Iran. "The flood of reports in the American media in recent weeks attests not only to the genuine US fear that Israel intends to realise its threats; moreover, it indicates that the Obama administration has decided to take its gloves off," he wrote.
Meanwhile, another report in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz suggested an Israeli attack would not now take place this year. The report cited the combination of the US fears of becoming embroiled in the aftermath of an Israeli strike and the fact that Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, had announced this week that he would be seeking additional funding for Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, used against rockets fired from Gaza this month.